Bumpy Turf Ahead

Monday, June 13, 2011 /by

Rn Do you wish there was more time between the French Open and Wimbledon? I’m guessing you do, considering that everyone does. The brief and sudden sight of tennis being played, so briskly and quietly, on grass always leaves us wishing for more. We know we can’t have it, even if we can’t exactly say why. The explanation I’ve always been given is that Wimbledon won’t move its dates farther from the French Open’s because it fits neatly into the BBC’s summer TV sports line-up, which also includes the British Open and a horse race. Of course, there’s at least one other reason that doesn’t need to be stated: Because it’s Wimbledon, the tennis sun around which the tours so fortunately revolve.

The upside, though, is that tennis gets to feel a little crazed and irrationally over-full for six weeks. We get done with one massive event, the one that we’ve been building toward for months, and yet we know that there’s an even bigger tournament just around the corner, with almost no build-up of its own. It makes no sense, but there's an excitement to this particular moment that I'd miss if the schedule ever turned sane.

The two tournaments used to represent separate kingdoms, but that’s all changed in the last half-decade, at least on the men’s side. Since 2006, the French has been a very good predictor of form at Wimbledon. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer faced off in all six finals from 2006 to 2008; Nadal won both tournaments in 2008 and 2010; and Federer did the same in 2009. This year in Paris it didn’t appear that anything at all had changed: Nadal and Federer played a fourth final at Roland Garros, and for the fourth time Nadal won. But this time, at the midpoint of our transition from France to England and from clay to grass, the men’s side feels more unsettled than usual. “Unsettled” is a state that the women’s game knows well, and knows again now. Here’s a look at five of the players and futures that appear to be up for grabs at the moment.

Andy Murray
It seemed as Queen's began that Murray was caught in a dilemma: He wanted and needed matches on grass, but every point he played could potentially damage his injured ankle prior to Wimbledon. Those fears had vanished by Saturday, when Murray pummeled Andy Roddick 3 and 1 with a display of aggressive shot-making that we rarely see from the play-it-safe Scot. Murray hit running passing-shot winners and took huge cuts at forehand returns, as if he had all day to set up and see Roddick’s once-formidable serve.

Then Murray, after the easy win, did it the hard way this afternoon, coming back to beat a sharp Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in three sets for the title. What does it mean for Murray? For the moment, he’s gotten the natives hopes up coming into Wimbledon one more time. But with the 2011 ascendance of Novak Djokovic, Murray, as well as he has been playing for the last month, feels a step farther from the title than he did a year ago.

Andy Roddick
If the Murray-Roddick Queen's semifinal was a harbinger of good things for one Andy, it didn’t portend anything good at all for the other. Once upon a time, Queen's was the site of Roddick’s first win over Andre Agassi, in a match where the younger American broke the service-speed record at the time. Watching Roddick this weekend, that match came back to me. One ended in a rousing, confidence-boosting victory for a kid heading toward the top, the other in a loss that makes Roddick appear far from the elite of the sport. What was different? On the surface, not a lot: Roddick played both matches in much the same way—serve big and then look to control the rallies by running around and hitting his forehand to either corner. An aging Agassi couldn’t handle it; a Murray entering his prime was more than ready for it. In the first, Roddick was filled with the blindhope of youth; in the second, he looked simply blindsided by the quality of his younger opponent's game. The sport moves on.

Serena Williams
Here begins Serena’s what, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh career? It’s impossible to remember all of her ups and downs, absences and comebacks since she won the U.S. Open way back in the last century. After all of that, though, even if it’s been a full year since she played, does anyone think that she can’t win Wimbledon? We’ll get an immediate gauge tomorrow, when she plays All England semifinalist Pironkova in Eastbourne, and then, most likely, top seed and All England finalist Vera Zvonareva in the following round. Already it feels like she’s closer to a Wimbledon title than everyone in tennis except, perhaps, Nadal and Federer.

Rafael Nadal
How far, exactly, does Nadal seem to be from another Centre Court somersault, probably the gutsiest celebration we’ve seen there—it really could have gone haywire, but Nadal must have felt like he could do no wrong at that point. As for this year, he got his requisite three grass-court matches in before heading home; even after he won the first set, you could smell a loss coming to Tsonga, just like you could to Lopez a year ago. This time there are a few more doubts than usual after Nadal’s French title. First, he never had to beat the guy who had been beating him, Novak Djokovic, and second, his talk about his mediocre form through the first week left the impression, erroneous or not, that he wasn’t ever really satisfied with his game there. An early-round scare at Wimbledon, à la Isner in Paris, would seem appropriate.

Li Na
She’s re-upped with her new coach, Michael Mortenson, and why not? One month of work together was enough to earn her a first Slam title, at age 29. By all accounts, he’s helped her slow down and focus better between points, and bring a little more swagger to the court. What’s next for Li? She has a history of strong results followed by immediate and prolonged disappearing acts, including one this year after her runner-up finish in Melbourne. Can that finally change? Can Mortenson work another miracle? Li made her first Slam breakthrough back in 2006 at Wimbledon, when she reached the quarters in her debut there. As with Serena, this is the week when we’ll begin to find out. Li is in Eastbourne, too.

As with everything else in tennis at this moment, her future seems like it could go in any direction you can imagine.

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