LONDON - Another major is in the books. This Wimbledon saw Novak Djokovic return to glory after a two-year barren strech, Angelique Kerber secure a Hall of Fame-clinching victory and yet another instance of injuries plaguing tennis on its biggest stage. Here are 50 parting thoughts from Wimbledon 2018.
• The best returner in tennis has returned. Novak Djokovic wins the men’s title for the fourth time, comfortably beating a depleted Kevin Anderson 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3) in the men’s final. Like the Djokovic ground game, you could take this storyline in any number of directions and angles. But what a dramatic uptick from a guy who hadn’t won a title anywhere in more than a year and no majors since the 2016 French Open. The tennis plot has thickened. Dkoker is back. And the Big Three persists, now having won 46 of the last 54 majors.
• Angelique Kerber neutralized Serena Williams to win the women’s title. But she did more. She also beat a battery of players—old, new, powerful, clever—with ease. She ended any debate whether she’s Hall of Fame material. She showed that 2017 was the outlier year. Not 2016.
• Credit Kevin Anderson for winning the 26-24 semifinal over John Isner and reaching his second major final in ten months. A pro’s pro rewarded accordingly. But, alas, after beating Roger Federer and winning a 26-24 semifinal, he —understandably—had little left.
• Mike Bryan—now the oldest world No. 1 men’s doubles player in history at an even 40 years young—won his first major men’s doubles title without his brother, Bob (who is dealing with an injury, not familial strife), teaming with Jack Sock. The pair beat Michael Venus and Raven Klaasen in the final. Perhaps this will be the spark that ignites Sock's moribund career. (And how gratifying yet strange this must be for Mike.)
• While Rafael Nadal was deeply disappointed by his semifinal defeat to Djokovic, he should take a little consolation from the caliber of the match. Sometimes we forget what’s riding on these matches, the considerable slab of tennis history at stake. (Nadal wins this match and then wins an 80/20 final against Anderson and suddenly Federer’s lead in Slam titles is only 20-18.) Nevertheless, after six years of meh results here, his level of play was extraordinary. His durability—after winning 21 out of 22 sets in Paris—was encouraging. His competitive will remains irreproducible. He is innovating, having now weaponized his drop shot. Nadal did not win the title; and yet he proved yet again that he is a champion.
• You had the feeling that Serena Williams was up to her old tricks, playing her way into a tournament and becoming unbeatable by Week Two. You also had the feeling that, after six wins, she finally confronted the moment and the magnitude of what she was doing. Still, what a tournament. And your serve. U.S. Open. If we’re going to play this game, how is Serena not a top-five seed, pending a decent summer?
• Imagine explaining the absurdity of Men’s Semifinal Friday to a friend.
“Wait, I see sixes and sevens on the score. I get that. But WTF with that balloon payment of a score in that last set? 26-24. That’s nuts.”
“Nuts. But you have to win by two.”
“Isn't there like a mini overtime, a shootout—maybe, like, a dozen points—they can play to decide?”
“That’s what they did in the earlier sets. A tiebreaker, it’s aptly called.”
“No one speaks the world aptly. It’s one of those writing-only words. But why not a tiebreaker in the fifth? Why play out the fifth set to 26-24? That’s like four sets in itself”
“Doesn’t it get kind of boring?”
“Yeah, I did notice a lot of the fans on their phones.”
“No, I mean boring for the players. The fans are catatonic. And won’t those guys be exhausted? The winner can’t expect to play the final at anything close to full strength. Why do that?”
“So the next match starts a 8:15 or so—and you say those guys play slowly. We could be here till sun comes up.”
“Not really. There’s a curfew.”
“A what? Like the kind you have in high school?”
“Yeah, they have to finish by 11 p.m., respecting the neighbors and all.”
“You mean the neighbors luxuriating in Mallorca, making fat bank by renting their apartments and homes? Or is it the neighbor shops and restaurants with lines out the door?”
“Yeah those neighbors.”
“And least when they return tomorrow it will be an outdoor match, played in glorious summer sunshine.”
• Seriously, a quick word about Roger Federer’s loss to Anderson: We think of pressure as a force afflicting the naïve and the new. But there’s a different kind of pressure bearing down on veterans who know their windows are finite. Federer lost the match at 6-2, 7-6, 5-4. After holding a match point and having a decent look at a backhand pass, he mis-hits the potential winning shot, dropped the set and the match changed entirely. Silver linings for the RF tribe? Weeks from age 37, he was the best player in Week One. He emerges physically unscathed. And he ain’t changing attire brands if he has imminent (or eminent) plans to retire.
• Andy Murray was missed, suffering—as he still is—from injury. But if he continues commentating, that’s at least some consolation for the rest of us. He is equal parts insightful and witty in the booth.
• To an unprecedented degree, the women’s draw was ravaged by upsets. Nine of the top 10 players lost before the fourth round and there were none—as in zero—top-10ers represented in the quarterfinals. Too many of you see these results and reflexively use them as an argument against Serena Williams’ dominance. (“She has no rivals! The field is soft!”) Try this more charitable approach: we see again and again how tenuous life on top can be, how fragile athletes can be, how the slightest bit of dissonance leads to defeat. When Serena reaches the latter rounds of tournaments so ritually, it speaks to her strength, not the weakness of others.
• If you missed it from last week, Martina Navratilova—who speaks with authority rivaled by few; and hardly holds retrograde views on matters of gender—has a thought-provoking theory on why there are so many upsets in women’s tennis. “Too many things are done for these players today. They don’t do anything for themselves except for hitting the ball. The coaches, the drivers, the physios. They motion, and someone brings them a towel. I saw a player hold out her arm and someone applied sunblock. They don’t have to take responsibility. Then they get out there [in a Slam] and it’s only them. And when the you-know-what hits the fan, and they have to make all these decisions—what shot to hit, how to adjust—they are not prepared.” Food for thought.
• I was struck by the diversity of upsets. Some owed to sub-par preparation. Others to nerves. Some (I’m thinking Ekaterina Makarova’s win over Carolina Wozniacki on grass) weren’t really upsets at all, seeds be damned. But the shockiest shocker was Simona Halep, the top seed, losing to Su-Wei Hsieh. After she exorcised her hitherto major-less history at the French Open, it was jarring to see her squander a match point and then retreat. You want to tell Halep: “You are No. 1 for a reason. You won the French Open, so you have demonstrable proof you are capable of winning seven matches. Go walk like a boss!”
• Echoing the sentiments of several of you….never have we been so happy to see a corporate logo as we were the IBM insignia on the Centre Court scoreboard. For the first time at a Slam in 2018, the technology was up to snuff, the app functioned, the scores updated, player bios contained correct information. You’ve heard the old George Will line condemning New York Yankees fans: “It’s like rooting for IBM.” In tennis, we root for IBM.
• Thanks to those of you who wrote in about Strokes of Genius. (I’m duty bound to point out that, if—unlike L-MM, he writes humblebraggingly—you missed the screening, you can now get it on iTunes.) Writing a book is an intensely solitary experience. A film, by contrast, is so collaborative that if everyone who deserved it joined the victory lap, you’d need crossing guards. Special shout-out to director, Andrew Douglas. Forgive this lapse into sentimentality, but throughout the process, I was struck by this: Just as Federer and Nadal represent what is right and ennobling about tennis, this film also represents tennis’ better angels at work. Often as we talk about tennis’ fault-lines and fractured and balkanized nature. This was the opposite. The All England Club was a terrific partner. John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, Severin Luthi, Carlos Moya and dozens of others… they were all generously giving of both time and candor. In the days before Wimbledon, Tim Henman arranged Centre Court access and broke from his schedule to join Ted Robison and me for a Federer-Nadal discussion. Most of all, consider what it says about Federer and Nadal that they both participated willingly and honestly.
• Okay, one more point about Federer and Nadal: These aren’t two retirees, years removed from their battles, reminiscing about past glory while hanging on the golf course. These are two players, ranked No. 1 and No. 2, still (amazingly) in their fat years, taking time out of their schedules to reflect on this seminal match—which only one of them won—and the contours of their relationship. This says a great deal about their character. But this also says a great deal about the massive download of respect they have not just for each other, but for the rivalry itself.
• The biggest rivalry at this event wasn’t Federer versus Nadal. Or even Uniqlo versus Nike. But rather the groundskeepers versus the grass. We’re told there was a lot of scrambling the week before play. In the end, the surface played well overall. We hear that next year, more courts will be subject to a Dutch process whereby worms aren't poisoned, but, rather, steamed—which helps the grass’ integrity. (I feel like the person at the cocktail party who has exhausted the horticulture discussion—very interesting!— and must now go refill his drink.)
• We often use the catch-all term “pressure” to describe tense situations. But it’s worth unpacking the term and considering that pressure comes in different forms. Venus Williams is playing Kiki Bertens and it’s 6-6 in the third set. For Venus, there’s the pressure of expectation, and defending world ranking points from reach the final 2017, and staying in the draw and continuing on at the major you’ve won five times and, at age 38, represents your best chance to grab another. For Bertens, there’s the pressure of knowing this ranks among the biggest matches of your career, an opportunity that could significantly alter your life, a match that—win or lose—you will likely remember for decades. The idea that players “have nothing to lose” is as lazy as it is untrue. The stars are sometimes deep-fried in the boiling oil of pressure. But so are the rank-and-file. Venus loses that match (as she did) and it’s a blip on a Hall of Fame career. Bertens loses that match and it’s “wasn’t she the one who had Venus on the ropes and couldn’t quite close?” (Ask Heather Watson—who nearly beat Serena on Centre Court in 2015, couldn’t quite close and hasn't been the same player since.)
• A veteran player (who’s okay using the content, but doesn't want his name used) practiced next to Nadal during the tournament and came away shaking his head. “Total beast. The intensity level is like nothing you’ve ever seen. He started before me and was there when I left, sweating like crazy. I mean, he’s drilling, during a Slam. Drilling! No. 1 in the world. Just won the French and this is how he practices.”
• Another major disappointment (and minor disappointment) for No. 4 Alexander Zverev, who nearly lost in round two—requiring five sets to beat an aggressive Taylor Fritz—and, not unrelatedly, DID lose in round three, capitulating against big-swinging qualifier Ernests Gulbis. Zverev’s fitness coach, Jez Green, is as good as they come. But the body failed Zverev again. Mature and honest in defeat, Zverev’s self-assessment: “I showed in Paris and other matches that I don't really get tired in five-set matches. Today I definitely did. It felt like somebody just unplugged me in the middle of the fourth set. There was no going back there for me.”
• When the WTA Player Exchange opens, I want to buy Daria Kasatkina on the margins. Such a thoroughly likable player, in part because she has the creative flair of an artist and the organized precision of a lawyer.
• We say it again: Camila Giorgi is tennis’ answer to the girl with the curl. When she is good, she is very good indeed. But when she is bad, she is horrid. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who competes more aggressively. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone with less of a difference between a first and second serve. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a player more fun to watch. She lost in the quarters, but not before taking a set off of Serena Williams. For a player who’s had financial trouble, she made $350,000—reaching the quarters and taking a set off Serena—and is now over $3 million in on-court earnings for her career.
• Time for our episode of “Tough sport, this tennis.” Remember Marco Trungelliti, the darling of Paris, the lucky loser who put his grandmother in the backseat and made a Cannonball Run eight-hour drive to arrive in time for his first round match? Here, he lost in the first round of qualies. And Marco Cecchinato, who reached the French Open semis and came here seeded 29th? Out in round one to teenager Alex de Minaur.
• This column’s version of every-match-tells-a-story-don't-it: Madison Keys takes a 5-2 lead over qualifier Evgeniya Rodina. Inexplicably, Rodina reels off nine straight games, to go up 7-5, 4-0. She has a point to go up 7-5, 5-0 but misses a forehand by the distance separating
Here and here.
Keys then rallies to reel off six of the next seven games to win the second set, 7-5. (Break for your Dramamine tablet). In a back-and-forth third set, Rodina finally prevails. It marked a huge upset—and a mystifying, profoundly dispiriting defeat for Keys. But the scoreline told only a fraction of the narrative.
• There’s one in every tournament. The latest billboard for college tennis: Mackie McDonald. The UCLA star and 2016 NCAA individual champion showed that slick movement can be as effective a weapon on grass as power can be. The 23-year-old reached the fourth round with a big-time win, 11-9 in the fifth set, over Nicolas Jarry and then an opportunistic win against Guido Pella (who had beaten Marin Cilic, mine-blasting that pocket of the draw).
• Analytics and data do not support the theory that “a watched pot never boils.” But maybe it’s time we all pivoted our gaze from Nick Kyrgios. At it stands, he is what he is. Not a punk. Not a rebel. Just a talented, fun-to-watch player whose passion for tennis and maturity level have not reached levels sufficient to win majors. He lost to Kei Nishikori in round three.
• You probably think that Wimbledon is an esteemed tennis event, the third Major of the tennis calendar. Wrong! It’s a towel grab with a single-elimination tennis tournament tacked on. How much do players value the free linens? Multiple losers were caught grabbing towels from the court before they headed to the net to shake hands with their opponent. Quite the souvenir.
• Serious point about Federer and Uniqlo: business is business. Nike didn't think he was worth the spend and the commitment. He finds an alternative offer. It went unmatched. New contract reached. Sure, it's a pity that he couldn’t complete his career with one brand. It’s a pity the status of the iconic RF logo is uncertain. It’s perhaps incongruous that a player who projects exclusive elegance is now with a mainstream brand. But overall, isn't this how commerce and negotiation is supposed to work?
• Quite apart from the capitulation of the top-10 seeds, another earmark of the flux on the women’s side (which, we contend, is not always a bad thing): there were THREE former finalists in the qualifier draw. Vera Zvonareva and Genie Bouchard made it. Sabine Lisicki did not.
• Speaking of Bouchard, born 1994, we joked during the tournament that we wanted to option rights to the story of her working with Robert Lansdorp, born 1938. (Santa Monica elevator pitch: “It's Million Dollar Baby meets The Intern!”) Grizzled, hard-bitten, physically frail coach with a track record that speaks for itself takes on young, misbegotten player trying to salvage her career and prove that she is still a formidable player, not simply an Internet celebrity.
• Much as we like it when a player defies convention and does things her own way, Sloane Stephens paid the price for her unusual prep work. Arriving in town just 72 hours before her first match, in her first tournament since reaching the French Open final, Stephens curtsied out in round one, falling to Donna Vekic.
• It wouldn't be a 50 Thoughts column without a mention of injuries. To paraphrase from The Smiths, stop me and skip down to the next bullet point if you’ve heard this one before. But the sport has a serious problem that slouches ever further down the priority list. The Tours could blow a hole through their budgets sending out get-well-soon cards to their players. You had the sight of agonizing Ernests Gulbis getting his wrenched knee wrapped up while Kei Nishikori agonized over an arm injury. Hyeon Chung, the Korean star who got his big break in Australia, who was the key to an emerging market, missed another major. So did Andy Murray. Normalizing is dangerous. Tennis should not be.
• I don’t have a hot take here, but in keeping with the recommendation of the Tennis Integrity Report, the ATP is forbidding tournaments from seeking sponsorships from betting operations. But: 1) This is to the huge detriment of the smaller ATP events, which are already struggling. 2) This could be perceived as an overreaction, at a time when sports gambling is becoming more widespread, more socially accepted and more legal. 3) This is, potentially, a venture down a slippery slope. Multiple opponents wondered—not wrongly—how Sam Querrey can endorse hard alcohol, but events are forbidden from legal gaming relationships. 4) This provokes the question: what is the status of the ITF’s Sportradar deal, which is the real source of so many unpleasant issues?
• We are fed a diet of stats that come low in nutritional value. “Distance covered” is a particular pet peeve. A player dictating rallies will happily cover less distance than the opponent. It’s still folly that players’ aces are counted among their winners. (So Milos Raonic can register 50 “winners” for a match, but a minority of them come off the ground.) What WOULD be helpful? I’d like to know which players have the highest rate of breaking serve in the game immediately after they themselves were broken. (My Guess: Nadal would be No. 1.) This data is astonishingly difficult to get. But it would tell you a lot about players’ competitive resolve and how this kind of swing—demoralizing for one player and encouraging for the other—has such a material effect on a match outcome.
• Full stop on the silly idea to reduce the seeds at majors to 16. There were 21 first-round upsets among the 64 seeded players at Wimbledon. I can't imagine someone raising a hand at a meeting and saying, “You know, we need more unpredictability at these events. Let’s halve the number of seeds to 16. That might get us the counterintuitive results we seek and the competitive early matches that are so lacking.” For all that plagues tennis and requires address and redress, this ain’t one of them. A plea for common sense here.
• Several of you wrote in about Venus Williams’ conduct at her press conferences. She enjoys the sessions about as much as cats enjoy bathing and does not hide her contempt for them. She—not wrongly—sees it as a bit of absurdist theater, a group of interrogators reminding her that she is 38, and asking questions that either bore her or are too personal. At some events, Venus doesn't even show up, preferring to eat the fine.
Most media members—certainly myself included—have their issues with the format as well. Yet it’s unclear there exists a better alternative. These are the rules of engagement. The problem with Venus’ attitude: while she can—and does, and should—use social media to connect with her fans, these press conferences present objective questions. So her responses matter. When she doesn't engage, it has an impact.
Last week Chris Evert stuck her neck out to suggest that we break from tradition and that men and women alternate christening Centre Court and playing a Sunday final. Asking Venus, so often credited with the push for equal prize money, to comment on this provocative proposal, would seem logical
Do you have any thoughts on that?VENUS WILLIAMS: I'm not really sure what that means.
Q. The first match on Centre Court this year, say, is Roger Federer. Next year it would be the reigning women's champion.
VENUS WILLIAMS: You're saying alternate Mondays?
Q. Yes. It's always the men.
VENUS WILLIAMS: It's an interesting thought. I haven't given that thought.
Q. The women's final on a Sunday?
VENUS WILLIAMS: That's also an interesting thought. I haven't given that thought either.
And with that dismissive response, the issue lost considerable weight.
• There’s a fine line between spirited and ill-sporting. Dominika Cibulkova’s feistiness—her pluck, as Mary Carillo would call it—is to be admired. But she crossed the line (and lost a few fans) when she insisted the chair umpire stick with an initial call that was indisputably incorrect. We give players wide berth for bad acts committed during the heated state of competition. But hours later, in the press conference, Cibulkova was still contending that she was correct. Which she was not.
• Leonard Fournette, running back for the Jacksonville Jaguars, stopped by the Tennis Channel studio during his visit to Wimbledon:
. It leads you to wonder what would happen if more American athletes of this caliber could be seduced by tennis at an early age. (Then of course, tantalizingly, there’s this image.)
• Healthy skepticism is to be encouraged. And there are advantages conferred on the stars—knowledge they will play only one or two courts; fixed starting times; guaranteed Hawkeye; input into scheduling. But can we do away with the notion that “the draws are fixed for player X,” a topic that still has currency on social media. This is the epitome of fake news.
• Great Britain’s World Cup success has extra resonance at the All England Club. The family of Eric Dier is steeped in tennis and members at the AELTC. His father, Jeremy Dier, a former ATP pro, worked for IMG and then Dunlop, and is friends with Tim Henman.
• Speaking of soccer, you’re torn whether to applaud the tournament for its fidelity to tenniselity to tennis or mock the flat-earth-society stubbornness. But Wimbledon did not bend for the World Cup. The time of the men’s finals didn't budge. The monitors on the grounds showed no football. We were told the attendants in the locker rooms commandeered remotes during games and did not permit players to watch football. There was also concern that, had England made the final, Wimbledon employees and volunteers were going to miss their shifts. And here’s Roger Federer to diffuse the tension. “I’m more concerned the World Cup final will have issues because the Wimbledon final is going on. [The crowd in Russia] will hear every point. ‘Wow, love-15.’ The players are going to look up in the crowds and not understand what’s going on.”
• A few days before the tournament, a quiet, athletic Canadian paid a visit to Wimbledon. He had been in Europe to do some training, but wanted to see Wimbledon. After going for a training run around the village—totally unchecked—he ventured to the All England Club. Sheepishly and nervously, he hit a few balls with the pros, acquitting himself quite well. On a lark, he spent time in the cold pool in the locker room. He walked home, again totally unrecognized. That man was Sidney Crosby, the greatest hockey player alive right now.
• Want to see tennis’ congenital screwed-upness vividly illustrated? Hold your nose and then observe the battle over the ATP’s World Team Cup and the ITF’s Davis Cup, two—yes, two—team events scheduled within weeks of each other, all in a part of the world where few players are based. We’ll spare you the details, or else you’ll want to bathe. But it’s a storm-drain of conflicts, self-dealing and shortsightedness that openly goofs on any notion of good-of-the-sport. One of many consequences: with a second big-money team event now swirling under the auspices of the ATP, don’t be surprised when the reformed Davis Cup proposal fails to pass.
• We’ve seen players robbed of prime years by injury, by burnout and, more happily, by motherhood. But it's hard to recall a case like Victoria Azarenka, a mother, but also a parent locked in a protracted and unpleasant, spiritually (and financially) taxing custody battle. She’s 28. She’s a two-time Slam winner and former world No. 1. At a time when she might be competing for Slams, her devotion to tennis has been compromised. All credit to her for her priorities. But it’s really exacted a price on her game. She lost in the second round—barely in the match against Karolina Pliskova—and now ranked around No. 90, she’ll look to pick up some traction on the North American swing. Root for her. Happily, though, she stuck around, played deep in the mixed doubles with Jamie Murray and left on a high note.
• What’s that? You want sanctimonious moralizing? Okay, riddle us this: how does the BBC—a publically funded entity—justify hiring Boris Becker when he’s sought diplomatic immunity to bankruptcy proceedings? (Then again, maybe this is like the boss who hired her ex-husband just so he has a means of paying child support and spousal maintenance.
• The television cut-and-paste: thanks for your various notes, tips, comments and complaints regarding Tennis Channel coverage. They’re all read. Hat tip to Brett Haber, the host with the most. Hat tip to the good folks in the control room. And in my grudging role as publicist: an early flogging of Tennis Channel’s U.S. Open pregame show—spirited, live programming with the entire team—every day before the matches.
• The bad news for Peter Polansky: at the last three Majors, he has failed to qualify. The good news for Peter Polansky: at the last three majors, he has made the main draw as a lucky loser, which, per ATP stats guru Greg Sharko, is a record.
• Top seeded Chun Hsin Tseng, the 16-year-old also won the French Open juniors title, beat Britain's Jack Draper to win the boys title.In the girls draw, Iga Swiatek, a 17-year-old from Poland, won the title beating Leonie Kung of Switzerland. For all your junior needs, go to Colette Lewis’ incomparable and invaluable Tennis Kalmazoo blog.
• Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova - discount double Czechs— back up their French Open title by winning the women's doubles at Wimbledon, beating Nicole Melichar and Kveta Peschke in the final. No women's doubles matches were played on Centre Court the entire tournament.
• Finally…. Here it is,your moment of Zen
Keep fighting, Jim K….Thanks for playing, everyone. We’ll do it all again in eight weeks in New York!