At Wimbledon, a Djokovic-Murray final reveals the state of tennis
WIMBLEDON, England -- It wasn't until late Friday afternoon that the secret aim of this year's Wimbledon became clear. The fortnight of falls, all those buckling knees and quivering ankles, were but little alerts meant for Novak Djokovic: Tennis' grand dame was coming after him.
No player's body, of course, has proven more elastic, more inhumanly resilient while strapped onto the rack known as today's men's tennis, and Djokovic slid through his first five matches largely unscathed. Now she'd finally had enough. There Djokovic was, late in the third set of an epic semifinal, pinned behind the baseline by Juan Martin Del Potro's lasered cannonade -- racing back-and-forth, back-and-forth, legs like pipe-cleaners splayed ever wider with each exchange. Finally he groaned. He crashed. He stood up slow. Next rally, again: Seven strokes, seven more clicks of the rack that now pushed spectating into the surreal. You actually thought: Stop, please. Del Potro's about to split the man in two.
And yet, after Djokovic literally held it together, after he survived the valiant Argentine and the longest semi in Wimbledon history -- after a match, indeed, that any other Grand Slam would've taken as a perfect finish, the vicious old dame wasn't done. If Djokovic wants to win his second title at the All-England Club, all he need do is withstand a surging, stronger Andy Murray, a Centre Court cauldron brewing with hostility, a nation of 60 million intent on pushing their man over the line at last.
"It's going to be very loud," said Djokovic, who at 26 is just seven days younger than his opponent. "But I'm ready to go all the way. As long as it takes for me to play, to give it all, I'm ready to go out on the court and give everything I have."
Murray, of course, beat Djokovic in a five-set marathon to win his first -- and only -- Grand Slam title last fall at the U.S. Open. All of his breakthroughs -- last year's run to the final here, his resulting tears, his gold-medal win at the London Olympics -- seem sure to ease anxiety over his becoming the first British man in 77 years to lift the trophy. But the last time these two men met on such a stage, at the 2013 Australian Open final, Murray battled Djokovic evenly until the second set tiebreak, when a rogue feather -- of all things -- drifted into view and derailed his concentration. He stopped play to move it, and went on to lose in four. Maybe that's just a coincidence.
"He's improved a lot in his offensive tennis," said Djokovic's coach Marian Vadja of Murray today. "He improved on serve, he improved on his forehand. He's more stable. He's mentally strong, as he never has been before. I have to say he's very ready, too."
And maybe it's not. "I think I'll be probably in a better place mentally," Murray said Friday of his state compared to a year ago. "I would hope I would be a little bit calmer going into Sunday. But you don't know. You don't decide that. I might wake up Sunday and be unbelievably nervous, more nervous that I ever have been before. But I wouldn't expect to be."
That Murray himself can even concede that possibility, though, tells just how heavy the weight must be. He may call the U.S. Open his favorite Slam, but to Brits his win there was somehow minor, the necessary means to a glorious end. No other tennis championship really matters. "With Wimbledon, obviously, you double it," said former Brit No. 1 John Lloyd of the difference in impact. "Because unfortunately in Britain tennis is not that popular a sport until Wimbledon happens. Then a lot of audience is housewives, but after Wimbledon finishes it's, like, 'Let's wait 'til next June.' They don't even look at the rest of the tournaments."
But in truth, they're not too far wrong. Wimbledon may be played on archaic grass and can be aggressively out of touch with modernity, but its Championships -- at least on the men's side -- consistently provides the game with its most discerning winnowing of talent, its truest test of greatness. Djokovic won his first major in Australia in 2008 and has since won three more there. He came off the canvas to stun the great Roger Federer en route to winning in New York in 2011. None of them can compare.
"I visualized holding this trophy when I was only six, seven years old," Djokovic says of his four-set win over Rafael Nadal. "When I won it back in 2011 it was definitely the highlight of my career -- and it still is."
But Wimbledon does more than unveil living history. Today marks the third meeting between Djokovic and Murray in a Grand Slam final in the last year -- but the first as No. 1 and No. 2. There's a reason: Wimbledon reveals the game as much as players; it showcases the state of the art. Just as the 1980 final between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg -- and the 2008 final between Federer and Rafael Nadal -- remains that era's ultimate expression, Sunday's showdown will provide the clearest picture of today's game: The fitness and speed, the near-extinction of serve-volley, the string technology that has revolutionized the transition from defense-to-offense, the vital endurance that leaves previous generations in awe.
"What we're seeing is two guys who have taken movement and physicality to a different level," said commentator Patrick McEnroe, the head of player development for the USTA. "They don't have the dynamic shot-making ability of Federer. They don't have that easy-to-see intensity of Nadal. They bring more predictability, but they do it so well; they're so efficient.
"Djokovic brings almost perfect tennis skills. Murray's not as great a mover, but he's willed himself -- just busted it so hard -- to get to where he is. He's stronger physically, and his tennis skills are more varied. There are subtle differences, and that should be the defining factor on grass. I like Murray in this match, because he has a bit more versatility. Djokovic is a better ball-striker. Overall they're pretty similar."
That fact alone, of course, militates against the kind of rapturous reviews that followed Federer-Nadal matches. The criticism of this new era is that it's more assaultive than artistic, more exhausting than exquisite, with only the current baseliner offense capable of consistent success. Federer and Nadal -- grace and guts, ice and fire -- made it easy for even the casual fan to access their genius, "because they were doing stuff differently than the prior generation," says former U.S. top ten Todd Martin. "These guys are just doing it better."
Indeed, just as the Fed-Rafa rivalry seemed to echo McEnroe-Borg, carries more than a whiff of the mid-80s rise of Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander, players whose matches inspired more respect than rapture. "No, it's not as appealing." Wilander said. "Contrast of styles is always going to be more appealing than the level of play."
That's why, too, this Wimbledon's legacy might prove even more lasting. The excitement caused by 22-year-old Pole Jerzy Janowicz was hardly dampened by his four-set loss to Murray in the semis; his 140 m.p.h. serve, quickness, soft hands and pure feistiness ("I don't care," Janowicz said about Murray's complaints over the roof being closed mid-match. "What I can do? I care about myself. I don't care if he was angry or not.") felt like a one-man challenge to today's dominant pair.
"When he starts to put it all together, to try and actually win matches, as much as points? He's one who can break into those guys," Wilander said of Janowicz. "He's the next No. 1 in the world. But these two are going to be around a while. They're both so dedicated to fitness and strength and flexibility and eating and coaching; they're taking it to the next level in all of what they're doing. And they're going to push each other. They need each to stay ahead of the rest, so they can end up playing in every Grand Slam final -- apart from the French Open -- every year for the next four years."
But why get ahead of ourselves? Asked to sum up his Wimbledon in one word, Janowicz said, "Fun." That's not how British fans will regard today's torment, not until -- maybe -- it's all over. And it's certainly not how Murray and Djokovic would describe what they face in each other today. For tennis fans, though, the prospect of pomp, excellence and national heartache loosed together upon Centre Court is irresistible. Get the rack ready. Fun, indeed.