Fifty parting thoughts from Wimbledon 2015
LONDON — Fifty notes from Wimbledon 2015, where No. 1 Serena Williams continued her dominance and claimed her sixth title at the All England Club and 21st Slam title overall and No. 1 Novak Djokovic successfully defended his Wimbledon title with a win over No. 2 Roger Federer. With one more major remaining in the 2015 season, we’re wrapping up Wimbledon 2015:
• Serena Williams is your women’s champion for the sixth time and heads to the U.S. Open attempting to win the Grand Slam, tennis’s ultimate bracket challenge. In Paris, she played subpar tennis and, in part because of a generous draw, still won the title. In London, she played some the best tennis of her life, overcoming a brutal draw that included three consecutive former No. 1 players. The match stats and the analytics don't capture the full dimension of what she’s doing. But here’s her career in miniature: After this event, her record in the last two days of a Slam: 46–7.
• Novak Djokovic is your men’s champion, defending his title with mettle. Were it not for a zoning afternoon by Stan Wawrinka on a Paris Sunday, Djokovic (like Serena) is coming to New York with designs of a Slam. In an era of unprecedented depth, Djokovic's nine major titles move him past Agassi, Connors, Lendl, Rosewell and Perry. Um, yeah.
• Garbine Muguruza may have come a match short of winning the women’s title. But she acquitted herself plenty well in the final, pushing Serena in both the beginning and end of the match—and leaving little doubt she’s in the early stages of a promising career.
• Roger Federer, like Serena Williams, who born a few weeks later, continues to mock age and its reputation for avenging. His level of play through six rounds was vertiginously high. His semifinal match against Andy Murray might be the three best sets he’s ever played consecutively. His level though dropped on Sunday, due in no small part to the singular quality of the opponent. Against a peerless returner, Federer had his worst serving day of the tournament. The "shankasaurus," kept its cage all tournament, finally made an appearance. Federer imposed little impact on Djokovic’s service game. Federer should be fired with optimism for his fantastic form, but this one will also sting. At this stage in his career, he’ll be disappointed that he couldn’t bring his best level on Sunday afternoon.
• Andy Murray should leave this tournament … what? Disappointed? Sure, at least to a point. He didn’t win the title, which is the goal. But he played generally terrific tennis for five rounds, he’s radically improved from a year ago and no one was beating Federer the way he was serving on Friday.
• Maria Sharapova’s 2–18 record against Serena is starting to loom large on her career resume. If she wants to make inroads, she has to serve better (and hope Serena serves worse.) All the talk of playing patterns and tactics were largely irrelevant when so many points were decided within the first two swings of the rally.
• It’s not just Federer and Serena. Almost 14 years after her last major in doubles, Martina Hingis (age 34) partnered with Sania Mirza to win the doubles title. The top seeds beat Elena Makarova and Elena Vesnina in the final, and Hingis was often the best player on the court.
• Don't look now, but Martina Hingis partnered with Leander Paes to win yet another major title at Wimbledon this year in the mixed doubles. The pair defeated Alexander Peya and Timea Babos, 6–1, 6–1.
• Horia Tecau of Romania and Jean-Julien Roger of the Netherlands won the men’s doubles, beating Jamie Murray and John Peers in the final.
• In the girls final, unseeded Russian Sofya Zhuk beat countrygirl and No. 12 seed Anna Blinkova, 7–5, 6–4. The 15-year-old became only the second Russian to win the Wimbledon girls singles title.
• Reilly Opelka, a 6'10" Michigander, won the boys title, beating Sweden’s Mikael Ymer (brother of Elias) in the final. Opelka’s serve, not surprisingly, is monstrous. But his backhand might be just as big a weapon. You hate to saddle these kids with too much pressure. A glance of the former winners list confirms just how hard it can be to make the transition to the pros. But there’s a lot to like here. And among Opelka, Taylor Fritz, Tommy Paul and Michael Mmoh, there’s good reason for (decidedly guarded) optimism regarding the state of American tennis on the men’s side.
• The biggest non-factor this tournament? The Centre Court roof. The majors need at least one covered court, as much to sate the television beast than for any other reason (We were told the No. 1 Court will also have a roof by 2019). But that’s an interesting P/L proposition.
• Dustin Brown was, deservedly, one of the stars of the tournament. His upset of Nadal was a clinic in grass court tennis. And, at the risk of exoticizing, yes, there was something cool and striking about watching a guy with his appearance and unlikely background—not just his ethnicity, but his van-down-by-the-river backstory—charm Centre Court. But tennis is a rough sport. A few days after triumphing at tennis’s cathedral, Brown was back to playing Bundesliga matches, sweeping his own lines.
• A lot of doom-and-gloom, End of Days talk surrounding Nadal who, of course, played his fourth straight underwhelming Wimbledon. And this isn’t just social media chatter. Said one top ATP player, “He just doesn't go for his shots the way he used to.” But, in a perverse way, Roger Federer should be a source of inspiration for both Nadal and his army of fans. Just as those retiring Federer look foolish today, those who say Nadal can’t win another major should have their eyes examined. One of the virtues of this sport: It only takes seven matches to flip the script.
• A sense of urgency, Petra Kvitova. The Czech lefty did not exactly mount a courageous defense of her title. She lost three games in her first two rounds, offering a display of her talent and often-unanswerable power. Then she ran into some resistance in Jelena Jankovic and retreated. Jana Novotna reached out to the Kvitova camp and offered to help. We’d like to see Kvitova work with Martina Navratilova, the ultimate Czech lefty, even if it’s on a consulting basis.
• Apart from being a First Team All-Good Guy, Vasek Pospisil is known as a talented, athletic player whose career has been disrupted by injury. So it was nice to see him reach the quarterfinals. But playing (and losing) a five-set doubles match prior to the biggest occasion of your career is, shall we say, suboptimal prep work. Pospisil lost to Murray in straight sets in the round of eight.
• Here’s our take on Kyrgios and we’re doubling down. He is not the first 20-year-old in the history of civilization to bat 1.000 in his decision-making. Give us flair, conviction, authenticity and the inevitable missteps, so long as they remain of the innocuous variety.
• This anti-tanking rule is an absolute joke. If I’m losing a set 5–1, on grass, on a return game, and concede a few points in order to clear my head and start a new set afresh, as Kyrgios did, who are tennis authorities to sanction me for that? That’s just a mental break (Note that this strategy, and that’s what it was, worked fine for Kyrgios). In so many sports, you have moments of concession or failing to give maximum effort. Intentional walks. Football teams running out the clock before halftime. Basketball teams declining to foul intentionally at the end of games. It’s deeply personal and part of a personal strategy. The overriding question should be: “Are you trying to win the match?” Not “Are you trying to win the point?” Getting into the business of assessing effort is a dangerous (and paternalistic) game. What’s next? Fines when players slice instead of hitting through backhands?
• Two more points about Kyrgios: 1) The fines he is accumulating amounts to nickels. Except not really. Brands see him cursing (or getting fined for tanking) and it puts big bucks in endorsements at risk. If I’m his agent, I’m telling him to be himself but clean up the language. 2) Dawn Fraser’s remarks were awful. Intolerant and, therefore, intolerable. But someone needs to do the Aussie equivalent of a 30 for 30 on her backstory. What I was able to piece together: At the 1964 Olympics, she punished for stealing a flag from the Imperial Palace. She was banned and never swam competitively again. She, apparently, took the fall for other (male) swimmers who were involved so they could continue their careers.
• The more you see players capitulate, satisfied with the charmed life that comes with being ranked in that Nos. 8 to 25 range, the more you come to appreciate Victoria Azarenka, naked as she is in her ambition.
• I say this full of self-interest, having ventured to Switzerland last week for a forthcoming Tennis Channel feature on this very topic, but there are few better stories in tennis right now than the delightful Timea Bacsinszky. She was peeling potatoes at a ski resort in 2013, convinced that tennis was not for her. She benefits from psychotherapy, finds the spark to return and is now playing deep into consecutive majors.
• After Djokovic knocked off Bernard Tomic, he signed autographs. And not simply programs and caps and those gigantic tennis balls. One man removed a prosthetic leg and presented a Sharpie. Djokovic dutifully complied and, to his tremendous credit, seemed consciously nonchalant, a concerted effort not to make the man feel exceptional.
• Coco Vandeweghe did herself proud, reaching the quarterfinals, showing off the elephant gun of a serve and generally comporting herself like a boss. She should leave with the self-confidence to go to the theater by herself.
• Genie Bouchard keeps arrowing downward and this has gone from the benign-sounding “sophomore slump” to something much uglier and more existential. What’s particularly worrisome: This is a player whose great asset was neither her serve nor her strokes. Rather, it was an abundance of confidence and the ability to fashion ways to win matches. That she looks, and professes to be, so utterly lost and devoid of answers? It makes you especially concerned.
GALLERY: WIMBLEDON 2015 WOMEN'S FINAL
• The good news for Madison Keys: She reached the quarters of a major without playing anywhere near her best tennis, still figuring out when to the pull the trigger and when to pull back. The less good news: She lost a winnable match to Aga Radwanska for the right to play Garbine Muguruza (also winnable) in the semis. All part of the process. Incidentally, at a media dinner the other night, the informal question was asked, “Who is the next American to win a Slam?” Keys was the top choice. Second choice? Taylor Fritz. No pressure, kid.
• We bemoan the absence of nicknames in sports. Where are the Splendid Splinters and Galloping Ghosts and the Quiet Assassins? (As opposed to that legion of voluble assassins). What tennis gives us instead are cut-and-pastes. Plucky Simona Halep. Dangerous lefty Lucie Safarova. Dark horse Kevin Anderson. Temperamental but talented Fabio Fognini. And let’s just make it official. Until next April, all official material should refer to him as 37-year-old Tommy Haas.
• One of the stranger, more unlikely controversies: Toni Nadal lamenting Sabine Lisicki’s lack of fitness. No, really.
• Stan Wawrinka steals one of those games in the fifth set against Richard Gasquet and, for the first time in 20 years, the top four men would have reached the semis.
• Same theme, different stance. Media and fans always want it both ways. We crave color and drama and outspokenness and the kind of controversies that thicken plots. But then criticize stars for their outspokenness and antics. That said, what’s up with Boris Becker? Djokovic wants calm. So much so that on select mornings, he meditated at a Buddhist temple near the courts. He wants no unnecessary disruptions. His coach seems to not grasp this. Why Becker would declare that no love is lost between Federer and Djokovic or that he communicates with Djokovic during matches, thereby putting his player in the position of having to address these controversial remarks, is odd.
• Denis Kudla, the last American man standing at the start of Week Two, made an interesting remark. He cut ties with the USTA and now feels motivated to do well, in part because he has bills to pay (He won roughly $200,000 for reaching round four, so that’s a start). There’s a larger point here. Maybe these federations that fund players are doing them a disservice, dulling their motivation. At least in some cases.
• The Bryan Brothers, Mike and Bob, are, unequivocally, the best doubles team of all-time. But they've hit a bit of a rough patch. The twins have now lost seven of eight majors. This year they fell to hard-serving Rohan Bopanna and Florin Mergea in the quarterfinals. Speaking of doubles….
• Before the tournament, a friend embedded deep inside the sport’s administration, pointed out how closely Malek Jaziri (with Guillermo Garcia Lopez) and Jonathan Erlich (with Phil Petzschner) were placed in the men’s doubles draw. “If they have to face each other, there’s no way that match happens.” What he meant, of course, was that Jaziri, a Tunisian, would once again refuse to play against an Israeli. This prediction was based on an unfortunate history. Jaziri’s refusal to share a court with an Israeli is well established and has already triggered Tunisia’s suspension from the Davis Cup for a year. And this ugliness repeated itself in March when Jaziri withdrew from a French event with an injury, but somehow recovered in time to play a singles match in Memphis the following week.
Erlich and Petzschner reached the semifinals this year. A match away from meeting up, Jaziri and Garcia Lopez abruptly pulled out of the tournament. Curiously, the explanation was that Garcia Lopez, not Jaziri, was the injured party. Others, including the Spanish media, were skeptical. At a bare minimum, the optics were not good.
When this issue arises, multiple tennis officials implore us not to go too hard on Jaziri. By all accounts, he is a pawn. If he doesn’t comply with the Tunisian Federation, he could lose their support and risk having his travel privileges revoked, jeopardizing his career. And, of course, all of this plays out against a much bigger backdrop. Play at Wimbledon was briefly halted on the first Friday to commemorate last month’s terrorist attack in Tunisia, an attack that Jaziri has vocally condemned.
This is a complex issue and obviously goes far beyond tennis and dubious withdrawals. Suspending Jaziri, as some have suggested, is not the answer. But the silence, which has been the general response from the ITF and ATP, is deeply unprincipled. Standing by idly while a federation instructs/demands a player to avoid competing against opponents from a certain country is tantamount to sanctioning bigotry. Your move, tennis administrators.
• At one point, the Williams sisters were a virtual lock to win every doubles event they entered. Those days are long past us. If they want to win gold in Rio, as Venus has stated, they need to play more matches together. That said, their decision to pull out was the right one. Two players in their mid-30s who are both contenders to win the title can’t be expected to spend that much time on court.
• “Coach on the hot seat” is redundant in some sports. The pressure to win is monstrous. In tennis, it really varies. For all the players that part quickly with coaches—Maria Sharapova, for example, jettisoning Jimmy Connors after one match—other relationships last perplexingly long. I even have colleagues that change socks less often than Ana Ivanovic changes coaches. Whether it was a firing or a resignation, thankfully, Grigor Dimitrov and Roger Rasheed finally parted ways. Both are good at their jobs, but this partnership had reached the sell-by date months ago.
• Same topic: Several of you asked whether Rafael Nadal has hit the end of the road with Uncle Toni. I just don’t see them splitting up. Ever. Family above all. What I do see is the camp bringing on an additional consultant to shake up the dynamic.
• Heather Watson did herself proud coming within a game of beating Serena in round three. But, before that, she won me over with this exchange:
Q. You must be overwhelmed, Serena next?
Watson: Well, she hasn't played yet.
Watson: I don't think that's really fair that people do that. I know she's, you know, the favorite to win that, but she hasn't played yet.
What a thoroughly decent and collegial thought. There are a lot of players out there who are not stars but who are good at their job. They deserve to be considered more than cannon fodder.
• Nice to see Lindsay Vonn in the crowd. A tennis fan (and former player before her injury) she was in London as a guest of Caroline Wozniacki and a sponsor. At one point, Vonn was in the players cafeteria talking with an acquaintance when a middle-aged woman shyly sidled up to her and sheepishly interrupted. “I just want to say congratulations on your comeback.” It was Martina Hingis.
• This tournament’s version of every-match-tells-a-story-don’t-it?: In the first round, Alison Riske is serving for the match against Lucie Safarova. Knocking off a top-10 player and the finalist of the previous major? That’s a career win for Riske, a terrific player on grass. Riske, though, failed to meet the moment. Safarova broke, ran out the set and, predictably, ran away with the match. In total, she won 10 of the last 13 games.
• Belinda Bencic reached Week Two and took home $200,000 in cash and prizes. Nice progress for a player who was the junior champ here only two years ago. Who was her opponent in that junior final? Taylor Townsend, whose results are lagging in a big way. In her last match, Townsend lost in the first round of a $25,000 challenger to Alexa Graham, a 17-year-old wild card. Careers are long. They do not move in straight lines. Townsend’s talent is undeniable, but this is a rough patch for her.
• From the thinking out loud file: Tennis needs an equivalent WAR, wins above replacement. I would like to take the average player, average forehand, average serve etc. and have a way of knowing how much better or worse Player X is than the mean/median.
• In the first round, Shelby Rogers lost 6–0, 6–0 to Andrea Petkovic, hardly unexpected given Rogers’s physical condition. She had to be taken from the court in a wheelchair during a tune-up and took the court in London wearing a large brace that gave her all the mobility of Stonehenge. It gives rise to an interesting philosophical and ethical debate: Does an injured player have an obligation to withdraw when they are obviously in no shape to compete, giving another player a chance and the fans a competitive match? Or do they earn that first loser’s check (roughly $43,000) and with it the right to show up with no intention of winning? The obvious solution: The majors, which make so much money it's pocket change, offer main draw players the right to a full refund. That is, “We’ll give you full first-round prize money if you pull out.” Better than these matches that aren't competitive.
• An excellent idea from deep in the Tennis Channel command center: When matches are shown on television, the score box should place the name of the player in the far court on top and the player in the near court on the bottom. Hence, the viewer will know which player is which. This will be particularly handy at Wimbledon, where the all-white dress code militates against distinguishing players.
• For reasons of conflict, I try to say out of the media criticism game. But three observations: 1) Andy Roddick has a future in this business. He was excellent on the BBC. 2) Is there is a more deliciously mean species than British reviewers? A personal favorite: BBC’s takedown of a BBC show. 3) This is deeply cultural, but for all the complaints about yakking American commentators, give us that over the alternative any day of the week. To watch matches on the BBC is to question whether you walked into the room and inadvertently walked on the remote control’s mute button. The persistent silence, “laying out” in the vernacular, does a disservice to viewers. What is Player X’s record in five-setters? How recently did she change coaches? How did she do at Wimbledon last year? Is he in the doubles draw, too? Did she play Wimbledon as a junior? His wife is home pregnant?.....There is so much information that adds context to the match and helps explain what is unfolding. Why fail to share this?
• Comestibles-for-Thought: There were a lot of complaints, even among Hall of Fame females, about the instability atop the WTA and the perceived mental shakiness of players not named Serena Williams. But the rash of upsets is at least partially attributable to the best-of-three format versus best-of-five. The larger the sample size, the more reversion to the mean. Flip a coin 10 times and you might well get eight heads and two tails; flip a coin 100 times and you're much less likely to get 80 heads and 20 tails. Over best-of-five, the better player has more chance to prevail (He can withstand that 45-minute stretch when an opponent zones). In no way do I advocate for best-of-five among the women. I stand by the suggestion that, at a time when physical demands have never been higher and viewer demands are for shorter programming blocks, all men’s matches should be best-of-three until the second week. But we just accept that it stands to reason there will be more upsets in women’s tennis when the matches are shorter.
• Aka-Awkward Award goes to this bit of badinage after Tomas Berdych was defeated (with perplexing ease) in his fourth round match to Gilles Simon:
Q. How do you feel after that match? Do you feel in good shape going into the quarterfinals?
Berdych: Sorry? Excuse me?
Q. Do you feel your form is good going into the quarterfinals?
The moderator: He lost.
Berdych: Does he know right, or is he trying to make fun of me?
Q. No. Sorry, sorry.
• Tennis Federations are, by their very design, breeding grounds for conflict and politics and second-guessing. The USTA may be dysfunction junction, but it is good company. Kevin Anderson’s relationship with the much-criticized South African federation is such that he hasn’t played Davis Cup in years.
The Spanish Federation fired Davis Cup captain Gala Leon Garcia last week, after players including Rafael Nadal took their complaints public. Bernard Tomic absolutely went ballistic on Tennis Australia (dropping a B-Tomic bomb, as it were) last week. You have institutions with finite budgets making funding decisions based on subjective criteria. You wonder if, almost by definition and design, you can have customer satisfaction.
• Speaking of Kevin Anderson, we’re going to try and do more of these podcasts. Here’s Kelsey Anderson on the life of an ATP spouse. Due to the guest, this is a good listen. Trust me.
• Another plug for Pete Bodo’s book on Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe and their memorable final 40 years ago.
• Keep on keeping on, Tommy Haas.
• Godspeed, Courtney Nguyen.