Returning home from Wimbledon on Monday, I found myself reflecting on a tournament that was compelling in so many ways. The end of the proceedings was particularly absorbing. Something dramatic seemed to happen day after day. Anticipating the results of critical matches was a difficult task. Figuring out which players would rise to the occasion was, by and large, a fool’s errand. The unpredictability down the stretch gave this Wimbledon a healthy sense of intrigue.
Here is what will linger the longest in my mind from the fortnight gone by:
NOVAK DJOKOVIC’S TITLE RUN
There were many skeptics surrounding Novak Djokovic as he went into this Wimbledon, and, perhaps, Djokovic himself was one of them. But I believe there was an awful lot of evidence to suggest that the Serbian was ready to make a serious bid to take the single most important title in the game of tennis. Djokovic had put his disjointed early-season campaign behind him and was playing much better tennis than many people realized.
Gone was the player who had come back too soon at the Australian Open, the fellow who served so uncomfortably with an abbreviated motion. Gone was the Djokovic who returned prematurely in the spring at Indian Wells and Miami, performing with extreme emotional discomfort in both events. On the clay over the spring, he gradually raised his game, and made it to the semifinals of Rome and the quarterfinals of Roland Garros.
Despite a devastating four-set loss at the French Open to Marco Cecchinato, Djokovic was gaining traction in his quest to reestablish himself in the upper levels of the sport. So on went Djokovic to Queen’s Club for the Fever-Tree Championships, and he was one point away from winning that tournament, falling against Marin Cilic. The big fellow saved a match point with an unanswerable first serve out wide in the ad court. Later, Djokovic wasted a 4-1 tiebreaker lead, double faulting at 4-3. He was too self-conscious as he tried to close it out.
But Djokovic had set the stage for an uplifting Wimbledon. He blitzed through the first two rounds before a tense third-round meeting with Kyle Edmund on Centre Court. He fell behind by a set but stormed back resourcefully for a four-set triumph. In the round of 16 he took his game up another notch in a straight-set dismissal of Karen Khachanov, and then accounted for Kei Nishikori in four sets.
And that set the stage for the match of the tournament, pitting Djokovic against Rafael Nadal. In this two-day confrontation played entirely under the roof, Djokovic revisited his greatness and performed magnificently against an inspired Nadal to win over the Spaniard in five captivating sets, raising his record against his old rival to 27-25. At one set all, he saved three set points in the tiebreaker, releasing two first serves that were unmanageable for Nadal, and executing an impeccable backhand drop shot on the other.
Djokovic took that tiebreaker 11-9 and then the players had to stop. The next day, Nadal secured the fourth set. In the fifth, both competitors peaked. This was a gem. Nadal was ripping the cover off the ball whenever possible. Djokovic was defending stupendously and lacing his two-hander crosscourt to neutralize the incomparable Nadal forehand. The points were played out with unimaginable brilliance. With no wind or sun, in idyllic conditions, through it all, the two men were almost out of this world.
In the end, Djokovic came through spectacularly 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9), 3-6, 10-8. He incessantly kept the pressure on Nadal, who saved a match point with a gorgeous drop shot, but the Serbian had to wiggle out of some dangerous situations as well, holding from 15-40 at 4-4 and again at 7-7. Ultimately, I believe his serve was the determining factor in this match. In the fifth set, Djokovic won no fewer than 85% of his first serve points. He served eight of his 23 aces in that final set. But, above all else, he held his nerve even more persuasively than the redoubtable Nadal, who played his heart out but was unrewarded for his gallantry.
Remarkably, this was the third epic five-setter contested by these two gladiators. In 2012 at the Australian Open, Djokovic stopped Nadal in a five-hour, 53-minute final, recusing himself after trailing 4-2, 30-15 in the final set, coming through 8-6 in the fifth set. The following year, Nadal battled back from a break down in the fifth set to oust Djokovic at Roland Garros 9-7 in the fifth. This time in the penultimate round on Centre Court, Djokovic won 10-8 in the fifth. How much better can they get?
In the final, Djokovic took apart an apprehensive and fatigued Kevin Anderson across the first two sets and then ably withstood a last ditch effort from Anderson in the third, saving five set points combined at 4-5 and 5-6 on his serve before playing a terrific breaker. Djokovic prevailed 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3) for his fourth crown on Centre Court, his 13th major altogether, and his first “Big Four” prize since the French Open in 2016.
In my view, this was very good for the game. A revitalized Djokovic challenging Nadal and Federer for world supremacy is what tennis fans genuinely want. The players will all assemble in late August for the US Open. Djokovic just might be the man to beat in New York.
KERBER PROVES 2016 WAS NO ACCIDENT
Two years ago, Germany’s Angelique Kerber had a season that decidedly surpassed her expectations. She opened that campaign with a three-set triumph over Serena Williams in the final of the Australian Open. She fell in the first round of the French Open, but then advanced to the final of Wimbledon before losing to a supremely confident Serena Williams in a high-quality final. On to the US Open went a determined Kerber, and there on the hard courts in New York she took her second major title of the season with a hard-fought victory over Karolina Pliskova.
I’ve never understood what happened to Kerber in 2017. She never made it past the fourth round at any of the majors, slipped to No. 21 in the world, and seemed miserable through most of the season. It was as if she did not think she really belonged among the elite. Her heart wasn’t in her tennis. Her mind was muddled. Her spirit was largely broken.
But what a welcome sight it was to see Kerber start 2018 with renewed vigor and purpose. She won her opening tournament in Sydney, made it to the penultimate round at the Australian Open, and had two match points against Simona Halep. If Kerber had succeeded, she would have faced Caroline Wozniacki in the final. I believe she would have won.
Thereafter, her 2018 season had been unremarkable, her results only mediocre, her mindset not quite what it was two years ago. But with the Top 10 seeds falling over the first four rounds of the tournament, the No. 11 seed Kerber kept plugging away. In the quarterfinals she ousted No. 14 seed Daria Kasatkina and in the semis she stopped 2017 French Open victor Jelena Ostapenko.
Kerber was back in her second Centre Court final, but most of the experts were picking Serena Williams to beat the German again at the shrine of the sport. It was Serena’s kind of setting, her surface, and, presumably, her time to win her first major as a mother.
Kerber, however, was undaunted by confronting Williams in another Grand Slam tournament final. With Williams making clusters of errors off the ground, serving inconsistently and unproductively, and making a mess of her transition game, the opening was there for Kerber to exploit her strategic acumen, superb ball control, underrated forehand down the line, and point-playing prowess to the hilt. She served with high intelligence throughout and was broken only once, going frequently to the Williams forehand in the deuce court.
Kerber took apart Williams 6-3, 6-3. After losing three games in a row to trail 3-2 in the first set, she swept 10 of the last 13 games to capture her third major singles title and rise to No. 4 in the world. The hope here is that Kerber will come to the US Open fully intending to win it. The guileful left-hander wears success well, and must keep pursuing it at full force.
THE RAMIFICATIONS OF NO FIFTH-SET TIEBREAKERS
This was a Wimbledon that was running smoothly from the opening day until near the end of the tournament. The skies were predominantly blue. It hardly rained at all. The players got into a routine and were appreciative of the excellent weather.
But then John Isner and Kevin Anderson fought out a six-hour and 36-minute marathon on Centre Court. By the latter stages of this big server’s contest, we were witnessing two players who had turned into wounded warriors. It was painful to watch them over the last 90 minutes of this match. Anderson was victorious 7-6 (6), 6-7 (5), 6-7 (9), 6-4, 26-24. He was clearly less compromised physically than Isner, but the 6’8” South African was a victim—as was Isner—of a rule that has never made any sense to me.
Three of the four majors—all but the US Open—do not allow tiebreakers in the third set of women’s matches and the fifth set of men’s contests. That has always been a serious mistake in my view. The rules for each set should be exactly the same. It is already a stern challenge to play best of five sets, but that is fully justifiable as a test of both stamina and character. But it is foolish to play endless sets.
In 2010, Isner defeated Nicholas Mahut 70-68 in the fifth set of a three-day encounter. I thought then that there would be a widespread call from authorities to immediately institute fifth set tiebreakers at all of the majors, but it did not happen, probably because that was a first-round match.
I hope this time it will be different. Djokovic and Nadal did not get started until 8:00 P.M. and had to finish their semifinal on Saturday, thus delaying the women’s final. Anderson was exhausted by his long ordeal and deeply debilitated coming into the final. Djokovic had to play for five hours and 15 minutes over two days leading up to the final. He, too, was not given a fair shake.
It is time for all of the majors to play final set tiebreakers, and it is up to the players to lobby relentlessly and make certain it happens.
When Djokovic and Nadal staged their classic, they both realized that their semifinal was more like a final. Whoever emerged as the winner was going to be the prohibitive favorite in the final, particularly with Anderson so depleted. Moreover, when the Djokovic-Nadal match was completed on Saturday, the roof remained closed. Djokovic understandably wanted the conditions to be the same as the night before while Nadal would have much preferred performing under a strong sun. Yet Nadal simply would not complain about the decision for the players to compete indoors when the weather was fine.
The Spaniard’s press conference was exemplary in every way. He was extraordinarily classy in defeat. He surely felt as if he had been on the verge of an 18th Grand Slam singles title, knowing full well that he had beaten Anderson in the US Open final and would have been a big favorite to repeat that triumph on Centre Court. To lose 10-8 in the fifth set was an excruciating setback. But Nadal never whined and revealed no self-pity. This is a man not only of stature but also of immense grace and dignity. I feel much the same way about Djokovic.
On his way to the quarterfinals, defending champion Roger Federer never lost his serve. He was marching through the draw with his usual ease and elegance, reaffirming for his wide legion of followers why he was the favorite to win a ninth crown at the All England Club.
But Federer was caught off guard by Anderson, who had never taken a set off the Swiss before. The defending champ led two sets to love and had a match point in the third set but was eventually beaten 2-6, 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-4, 13-11. Remarkably, Federer was serving first in the final set, but he could not get across the finish line. It was the twentieth time in Federer’s astonishing career that he has lost a match after having at least one match point. Squandering a two-set lead surely made it more painful.
But the way I saw it, Federer was not that drained physically. He will be 37 in less than a month but he moves like a 27 year old. This one got away mentally. Undoubtedly he will lose more tight matches over the next couple of years. But the view here is that Federer will forget about this loss swiftly, and turn his full attention toward the US Open. Federer knows full well that he can garner more prestigious prizes between now and the end of his illustrious career.