Fifty parting thoughts from Wimbledon 2016
LONDON – Wrapping up Wimbledon 2016, where Serena Williams and Andy Murray won their first Grand Slam titles of 2016.
• When you read that Serena Williams won her 22nd major and seventh Wimbledon, it understated the point. She didn’t merely win it. She grabbed it, seized it and detained it. After losing a set to Christina McHale in round two, Serena played some of the most elevated tennis of her career, culminating with that damn-near-perfect final. And how symbolic was it that she won the final point at the net? Even—maybe especially—when the end is close, keep moving forward…
• Staked with a safe lead, Andy Murray took a mid-match nap in the quarterfinals against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Take that lapse out of the equation, and he played an extraordinary Wimbledon, a two-week clinic in tactical, composed, efficient, offense-defense tennis. Murray garnished it all today, making hash of Milos Raonic 6-4, 7-6(3), 7-6(2)—a match less competitive than the scoreline suggests—to win Wimbledon for the second time. If Murray’s 2013 title was a milestone and a victory over history this was comprehensive and free of drama. Well done. And we’ll contort and point out the irony of that, in this tournament of Brexit, a Brit is the last to leave.
• A tip of the cap to Angelique Kerber, who reached the final for the second time at a 2016 major. While she couldn’t replicate her feat in Australia and leave with the trophy, her play against Serena was thoroughly commendable. She reached No. 2 in the rankings and it’s well deserved.
• To his credit, Milos Raonic will take little consolation from his run to the final. He came here to win the trophy and his inability to serve better today will be a source of stinging regret for a long time. Credit Raonic with getting to this stage of a major for the first time—winning two-five setters in the process, including a takedown of Federer—and asserting his grass court bona fides. He conducts his business like a pro and will win a major soon enough. But that was a disappointing first match in a major final.
• Every now and then tennis gets it right. Since losing that marathon match to John Isner six year ago, Nicolas Mahut has put together an awfully creditable career. Here he and Pierre-Hugues Herbert won the doubles, beating countrymen (or fellow countrymen as we redundantly put it) Julien Benneteau and Edouard Roger-Vasselin in the final. And because they needed more titles, Venus and Serena took the doubles title beating Timea Babos and Yaroslava Shvedova in straight sets, their 14th Slam title (without a defeat in the finals).
• Denis Shapovalov and Anastasia Potapova won the boys' and girls' juniors titles, respectively. For the best dispatches from the juniors, as always, Colette Lewis has you covered.
• Roger Federer is not a man who lives his life with regret. Nor should he. But even leaving aside all the context—the four-year Slam drought, the age 34, the knee injury, the absence of Djokovic—and viewed strictly as a tennis match, he still should have beaten Milos Raonic in the semifinals. You suspect that when Federer is an old man taking inventory of his career, that match is right up there with the 2009 U.S. Open final. All the more so if that injury derails the rest of his season.
• We talk about the absence of a clock in tennis. But “time of match” is an underrated stat. Had Venus Williams not spent more than eight hours on court in her previous five matches, you suspect that—at age 36 and playing in her first Slam semi in six years—she would have more left to give against Angelique Kerber. As it was, how nice to see Venus back to playing this level of tennis. And if there were players more appreciative to be at Wimbledon, we didn’t see them.
• Let’s get the Wimbledon slurpee-dom out of the way early. This is such an exquisite property for all sorts of reasons, so much more than a sporting event, much else a tennis tournament. This year I was struck by the eager and skillful melding of tradition with technology. Wimbledon is all over Snapchat. The touranment’s app was functional. I was emailed video clips each day. Matches were streamed on Twitter. And yet you still had all those 19th century touches.
• As we brace for tennis in an era following the Big Three (and Serena), it’s worth noting the diversity in the junior draw. Those fearing a legion of bland bangers will be in for a pleasant surprise. Interesting prospects to watch: Ulises Blanch, 18-year-old Citizen of the World who was born in Puerto Rico to a Puerto Rican mother and Spanish father and has lived in China, India, Thailand, Seattle and, currently, Argentina. He plays for the U.S. (Puerto Rico as U.S. territory and all.) Denis Shapovalov zings a one-handed backhand and just got a wild card into D.C. Felix Auger-Aliassime, age 15, is a name to remember.
• In a perverse way, Novak Djokovic’s failure here helps to put Novak Djokovic’s success in perspective. Losing in the third round to Sam Querrey, Djokovic showed what can happen when even the best player is only, say, 80% locked in mentally. That is, his third-round lapse illustrates just how expertly and unflinchingly focused Djokovic had to have been in winning his previous 30 matches at majors.
• On account of the rain, there was play on middle Sunday for only the fourth time in history. The 22,000 tickets made available to the public were snapped up in a matter of minutes. And when the matches played out, they did so in front of packed and appreciative crowds. We all understand business realities; we all know the role of “corporate hospitality” in contemporary sports. But that middle Sunday ought to be instructive—especially at a time when so many matches, even in other majors, play out before empty stands, the fat cats happy to mingle in sponsor tents rather than take their seats. When the real fans have access to tickets, it improves the energy of the event.
• Though he lost in the quarterfinals, what an exceptional event for Sam Querrey. Pulling off the upset of the year (decade?) was one thing. (Digression: if you had to pick a player to halt a historic streak, who would be the more unlikely candidate: Querrey or Roberta Vinci?) But for Querrey to back that up with a composed fourth round win was impressive as well. For a guy whose passion for the sport can waver, this event was a real sign of evolution.
• Midway through the sensational Federer/Cilic quarterfinal match, you sensed that this was to be a titanic—“epic,” said Federer, who can still use the word in his waning days in the 18-34 demo—match for one player but brutal for the other. As it was, Cilic failed to close a two-set lead and you hope for his sake that his memory is short.
• Remember the comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s “You might be a redneck if…” spiel? You might be a tennis misogynist if….you didn’t consider Dominika Cibulkova d. Aga Radwanska the best match of the tournament, this side of Federer-Cilic.
• Long as we’re here, Serena Williams and Christina McHale combined for what, for our strong U.S. currency, was the point of the tournament:
• Still mystified by Garbine Muguruza’s straight set, under-an-hour defeat to qualifier Jana Cepelova. Don’t back up your French title with a Wimbledon title? Fine. That’s a big ask. But to go out so meekly? No bueno. Muguruza’s last five Slams? F/2r/3r/W/2r. She’ll spend much of her time this summer in L.A., where her coach, Sam Sumyk, is based. Let’s hope she “comes good,” as the Brits say, at the U.S. Open.
• Marcus Willis stole the show, but it was a strong tournament overall for the qualifiers. Lots of them advancing beyond the first round and—in turn—earning serious cash. Special nod to Julia Boserup of California who reached the third round and had a real shot at knocking off Elena Vesnina to make the second Monday.
• Hard to know what to make of Juan Martin del Potro: His beating of Stan Wawrinka was one of the more heart-warming moments of the tournament. But his weakened backhand—a legacy of that wrist surgery—is the most open of secrets. Not only does it give opponents a clear strategy when playing him, but it changes the entire geometry of his game.
• We talk about how one point can change an entire match. (To wit: Bethanie Mattek-Sands holding match point against Lucie Safarova, only to double-fault and lose.) But one point can ripple through an entire draw. In round three, Ana Konjuh of Croatia holds a match point against Aga Radwanska. Konjuh hits the tape and the ball—as if suddenly eager, and then suddenly thinking better of it—decides not go over the net. A few moments later, Konjuh trips on the ball running to the net and rolls her ankle. Immobilized, she loses in the saddest fashion. It’s a lucky escape for Radwanska, but in her next match, she runs out of gas and loses to Cibulkova. In Cibulkova’s next match, she runs of gas and loses to Elena Vesnina. Cowed by the occasion, Vesnina barely musters resistance against Serena. You wonder how this all would have unfolded, had Konjuh’s late-match forehand been aimed a few inches higher.
• Skip to the next agenda item if you are sick of this bleating. But the forest-for-the-trees issue that is Injury-o-rama persists. Both Rafael Nadal and Victoria Azarenka were out of the draw, in injury rehab instead. Where was teenage phenom Naomi Osaka who played so well in Paris? Oh, right, hurt. Once again, Kei Nishikori had to retire with an injury, this one to his rib. On the same day a few hours later, Richard Gasquet did likewise, bailing on his fourth-round assignation on account of back spasms.
Where are the tennis agents on this? Your job is to maximize value? Value is being undercut when something about the sport—string technology is moving up on the highly unscientific suspect list—is militating against full health of the work force. For all the outrage about who plays on what court or the size of sponsor patches, if you had a client whose earning potential (and thus
my your earning potential) is being severely diminished by an inability to stay healthy, wouldn’t you be agitating for change, trying to determine what conditions are causing the problem, spending a little less time on the next pets.com deal and a little more time trying to address the bigger picture?
In the case of Nishikori, he travels with a full-time, well-regarded trainer. I put little blame on him personally. We have a structural problem, though, when an athlete in peak condition consistently can’t get through a tournament without a physical breakdown.
• Lots of questions and comments about Nick Kyrgios, as there always are. I realize I am in the minority here, but I can't work up much outrage here. Quite the contrary, in fact. I’ve always found that there’s a despite-it-all likability to him. And now he’s a figure to be viewed with some empathy. Yes, he’s immature. Yes, he’s surrounded by enablers. Yes, he needs a proper coach.
But we want color and when we finally get it, we demand bleach. And if a top 20 ranking from a guy who just turned 21 is “underachieving,” where does everyone else sign up? He’s clearly asking himself some unpleasant questions right now. And that brutal self-assessment after losing to Andy Murray—“I think when things get tough, I’m just a little soft.”—suggests that he, like many of us at age 21, is struggling to figure it all out.
• Much was made of Dominika Cibulkova scheduling her wedding for the Saturday of the Wimbledon final—as if that conflict could ever happen for the 2016 WTA match leader in wins. (Digression: we’re not at liberty to disclose names but we hear that the coach of a prominent player has scheduled his wedding for the final weekend of the U.S. Open.) My read: this has less to do with handicapping chances or flagging confidence, than it does the crazy-jammed tennis calendar. And long as we’re here, Cibulkova—such an easy player to like—got married as planned and will have a happy week. But upon reflection will rue having come out so listlessly for a Grand Slam quarterfinal against a much lower-ranked player Elena Vesnina.
• For the record, Gilles Simon was wrong when—in threatening to sue the tournament referee—complained that officials force players to stay on court during inclement conditions. In his second round match, Tomas Berdych all but refused to get off the court, finishing Ivan Dodig in the rain. Afterward we heard that Berdych was admonished by his team, “You could have gotten hurt!” Berdych responded: “Yeah, but if I didn't finish the match, I’d have to come back the next day and it would ruin my rhythm.” A few rounds later, Berdych and Jiri Vesely split their first two sets on No. 2 Court when darkness descended. Berdych implored officials to move the match to Centre Court so it could finish under the lights. (The request, predictably, was denied.) By the way, note that we referred to Berdych’s “team” and not “coach.” Berdych is essentially captaining solo since parting with Dani Vallverdu this spring.
• Speaking of Vallverdu, you have to think he and Juan Martin del Potro will stay together. Per del Potro, they were working on a trial basis at Wimbledon and reassessing after the tournament. (They're old friends from the juniors apparently.) Meanwhile, del Potro’s old coach, Franco Davin, is a free agent, having split with Grigor Dimitrov.
• The consensus is that Madison Keys’s breakthrough is a question of “when” not “if.” But sadly in sports, it’s a guilty-until-proven-otherwise game. (I put Simona Halep in this camp, too.)
• Tip of the chapeau to Lucas Pouille for reaching the quarterfinals. Put him on your watch list. A lot of game. A lot of speed. And consistent upward mobility in the rankings. Four others players to note: Jiri Veseley (who already beat Djokovic earlier this year), quarterfinalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Daria Kasatkina, and, of course, Sasha Zverev.
• “Had a beef with Fabio Fognini” is all but redundant. But Fognini and Feliciano Lopez had quite a dust-up in their third-round match. First, context: Fognini married Flavia Pennetta last month. Fognini is currently coached by Jose Perlas who once coached Carlos Moya, Pennetta’s ex. Perlas also worked briefly with Lopez. During the match Perlas allegedly questioned Lopez’s courage in graphic terms. When Lopez responded, Fognini got involved. The two traded insults including Fognini inexplicably referencing the Pope. The two also had words with chair umpire, Carlos Bernardes. Afterwards, Lopez and Fognini declared a truce, but Lopez and Perlas remain at odds. Ah, tennis. Incidentally, Lopez won the match.
• Speaking of Lopez, the discerning fan may have noticed longtime official Enric Molina—once the ITF’s head of officiating—sitting in his cheering section. Not to worry. This would be a huge conflict if Molina were still active. But he has switched careers and works as an agent now.
• Lots of comments and opinions from you guys about the Nike dress—which seems to be half the point of tennis apparel. Evincing conversations and opinions, that is. “It's definitely short, but that's how I like my dresses so I'm fine with it,” as couturier (and second-round loser) Genie Bouchard put it. Others were less complimentary. One former player called it the “happy-birthday-mister-president dress.” Another joked that it was inevitable that Nike would come looking for market share in the lingerie category. Me? Inevitably, the dress looked better on some players than others. But as long as it had no zebra stripe, it was an upgrade from the prevailing fashion we saw in Paris.
• As we await the outcome of Maria Sharapova’s anti-doping appeal, I was surprised at how not prominent a theme this was. There are extreme positions on both ends. But the overriding sense I got talking to players and administrators: She made a mistake, she got caught, she will now serve a suspension—be it two years or a reduction to perhaps 15 months. Let’s move on.
We can argue over the length of the suspension. We can quibble with some of the logic contained in the tribunal decision. But, ultimately, the system worked. Taking a substance that wasn’t on the banned list as recently as New Year’s Eve should not result in a four-year suspension. Yet if the anti-doping protocol is to have any teeth, Sharapova had to be punished and challenged on some of the holes in her alibi—most notably, her failure to list on her forms a substance she ingested, not on a rare, and potentially forgettable occasion, but before each match. Again, she’s not a martyr but neither is she a villain. She committed an unforced error, though. I suspect she’ll do the time; and then come back and win many more matches.
• One objection to the anti-doping policy I heard lodged that is worth pondering: the range of punishment—including the maximum ban of four years—seems tailored to an Olympic schedule. While tennis is an Olympic sport, of course, it also a year-round sport. Saying to a biathlete, “You’re suspended for two years” means they can still compete in the Olympics. Saying to a tennis player “You’re suspended for two years” is the equivalent of giving a baseball player a 324-game suspension for a first-time offense.
• You know what didn't get as much attention as I’d thought: Brexit. A few bad puns. Some remarks about the fading value of the local currency. But not much conversation.
• When she tires (and retires) from tennis, Dominika Cibulkova has a second career as a sommelier.
• Rough tournament for Heather Watson, until the final day. The British player returned to the scene of the crime—her narrow loss to Serena Williams at Wimbledon 2015—and after squandering to convert three match points, Watson fell to Annika Beck 12-10 in the third set. If that wasn’t hurt enough, Watson was fined $12,000 (which seems awfully excessive and will, per her agent, be appealed) for smashing her racket in the grass. Watson then announced that she wanted to punish herself for the defeat. How? By looking at her Twitter mentions. As Queen Victoria herself once put it: “Girl, that’s not self-punishment; that’s masochism.” But she did finish on a high note, winning the mixed doubles title with her partner Henri Kontinen.
• During Serena Williams’s second round match against McHale, she came close to being defaulted when she tossed her racket. At least one player thought Serena should have been sanctioned. Then again, Harrison is hardly a neutral observer. McHale will soon be his sister-in-law.
???????????? What happens when you normally hit a cameraman???— Ryan Harrison (@ryanharrison92) July 1, 2016
• In their third round doubles match, Marcel Granollers and Pablo Cuevas were denied a bathroom break. Though it was deep in the fifth set, the chair umpire (lamely) explained that they had already taken their two allotted toilet breaks. Per one observer, on the next changeover, Cuevas took matters into his own hands, as it were, wrapping himself in a towel and relieving himself into a strategically placed can. Or maybe not. I’m told that Cuevas merely faked urinating on the changeover to “mess with” the chair umpire. (Officials told The Guardian, “No urination was involved.”) Shortly thereafter—with tempers still apparently heated and bladders still apparently bloated—at 12-13, 0-40, the pair lodged a sit-down protest for five minutes. Eventually the referee was consulted and the match concluded. After the handshake, Granollers in particular, continued his rant and the umpire had to leave the court accompanied by security. And with that, we move on to non-bodily-function items…..
• I made a blood oath not to reveal names. But I’m told a well-known celebrity came to the Royal Box without adhering to the dress code. When he was gently asked to return wearing appropriate attire, he took the unusual measure of asking a security guard if he might be interested in selling his blazer, tie and slacks.
• When Laura Robson lost in the first round to Kerber, it marked the expiration of her protected ranking. A Wimbledon junior champ and a player once destined for stardom—who beat Kim Clijsters in her last match; who once knocked Li Na out of the U.S. Open—she is still struggling to get her mojo back after a wrist injury and will now be headed to the challenger level. Wish her well.
• Same theme different verse, here’s a storyline to follow: Using his protected ranking, Brian Baker, at this writing, is eligible for the Rio Olympics, assuming the cutoff is about 54. Yet Baker hasn’t won a match this year and, except for his protected ranking, would be deep into triple-digits. It’s an interesting moral quandary. Does he deserve that Olympic spot? (“Rules is rules,” as Kipling wrote.) Or should there be at least a tug of an ethical obligation to let a more in-form American have the spot? Discuss…
• Dear Iceland: This soccer/football thing is all well and good. Congrats. Blue Lagoon rubdowns on the house. But if you are going to steal some of tennis’s thunder in the sportscape, the least you could do is furnish a player. There are currently no Icelandic players ranked on either the WTA or ATP computer. And Iceland’s most recent loss in the Davis Cup came in round robin format to the power trio of Cyprus, Andorra and Montenegro.
• Your Amazon pre-order: Billie Jean King is working on a memoir with Maryanne Vollers, who collaborated in the past with Hillary Clinton and wrote the highly acclaimed Ghosts of Mississippi.
• The ATP held player council elections the weekend before the tournament and it’s interesting to note who was elected. Here’s who ran for the four spots among the top 50 players: Kevin Anderson, Tomas Berdych, Novak Djokovic, Steve Johnson, Philipp Kohlschreiber, Feliciano Lopez, Andy Murray. Sam Querrey. Milos Raonic, Gilles Simon, Joao Sousa, Dominic Thiem. Here’s who was voted in (in alphabetical order): Anderson, Djokovic, Murray, and Simon.
• Speaking of ATP politics, I see this both ways, but I heard multiple (middle-of-the-pack) players complain about the competitive advantages conferred on the top guys. What does this mean? Unseeded players were practicing four-to-a-court, while the stars could reserve solo courts. The stars—Federer in particular—were assigned to Centre Court, knowing they would play rain or shine; the rest of the field had to consult their weather apps and deal with disruptions of rain delays and matches on back-to-back days. The stars play on courts with Hawk-Eye; the lesser lights have to endure bad line calls without a replay option. Good points, all. But at some level does there not have to be an acknowledgement that a) the stars are keeping the boat afloat b) key employees in any business enjoy certain perks? Discuss….
• On the WTA politics front, here’s a story to follow: potentially rolling back the Age Eligibility rules. The restrictions on how many tournaments young teenagers can play has had the effect of curing burn-out and the unfortunate “Behind the Music” narratives of the ‘90s. Some, though, contend that it’s inhibited growth, inhibited marketing possibilities and made the tour too reliant on older storylines.
• Speaking of conflicts, a good many of you took issue with John McEnroe commentating on the matches of Milos Raonic, the player he coaches, and commentating on men’s matches in general, given that those players might eventually face his boss. It's a pity that tennis is so small and incestuous that all this unseemly double-dipping persists. But at least this conflict is fully disclosed. Everyone knows the deal terms, the rules of engagement, and can weigh McEnroe’s opinion and analysis accordingly. Again, it’s like having a political partisan on CNN. I know Donna Brazile is in the bag for the DNC and take that into account when she speaks. It’s the undisclosed conflicts that are more corrosive.
• I wrote this the other day, but I bristle at how this point has been lost: Raonic is a real pragmatist, a bright and mature and analytical guy who carries out his job with not simply professionalism, but real curiosity and methodical innovation. (As one former player asks: “How good would Kyrgios be if he approached his career the way Milos does his?”) The average fan hears that McEnroe is coaching and they get a sense that Raonic is this blob of clay that’s finally been modeled by the master.
• More conflicts: I’m in no position to talk with objectivity about the television coverage. But A) thanks to the many of you who wrote with kind words about the Tennis Channel coverage and programming. It’s a small team and production staff—especially compared to other networks—and I like to think of us as the Kansas City Royals. B) To Jeff P. of Brooklyn: No, Mary Carillo, Jim Courier, Lindsay Davenport and I have no plans for our own show. But thanks for the idea. And we will be part of the U.S. Open pregame show, which is a similar format and great fun. C) Know that the features and Unstrung pieces were the handiwork of Shelby Coleman, Nitin Varma, Angela Evans, Brian Nelson, Tiffany McLoughlin and Troy Barruso. D) Andy Roddick, while you were getting your Raffi on, know that you were missed on the BBC. E) The NBC tennis coverage from the Rio Olympics will be on the Bravo Network. A lot of familiar faces (Paul Annacone, Brett Haber, Steve Weissman, James Blake, Rennae Stubbs), as well as some new voices and personalities. “Check your local listings,” as they say. F) Here’s Mary Carillo’s latest creation.
• Sending good vibes Matt Cronin’s way.
• Thanks, everyone, for playing along. Again, know that all mail is read and considered. Perhaps we’ll do something similar during the Olympics. Meanwhile, we’ll let Andy Roddick take us out: