(Mostly) Noble Efforts

by: Steve Tignor | July 05, 2011

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TENNIS.com

Middleton Today we’ll move on to discuss the valiant and the awful from the last two weeks at Wimbledon. But let me start with a last word about the best player of the tournament, Novak Djokovic, and the current state of his rivalry with the second-best, Rafael Nadal.

Nadal was asked in his press conference after the final whether his four losses to Djokovic earlier this year had played a role in this one; whether, essentially, the Serb is in his head. Nadal admitted, with a shrug, that yes, it probably was a factor. And the way he played the final—tighter than normal in the last game of the first set, and more annoyed and demoralized than usual at the end—would lead you to think that his belief level isn’t high against Djokovic right now. That tends to happen when you can’t find a single way to hurt a guy over the course of 11 lost sets out of 13 played.

But it was Djokovic, in his post-final presser, who made the stronger statement about what their recent history meant at Wimbledon. He didn’t say it directly, but it was there in his words. Asked what had happened to him in the third set of the final, which he lost 6-1 after winning the previous set by the same score, Djokovic said that he relaxed too much, and that while Nadal is good at taking his opportunities, it was more a case of him, Djokovic, letting his opponent back into the match.

Despite Rafa’s excellent form against Andy Murray the previous day, and despite being 0-5 against him in Grand Slams, Djokovic still believed that he had Nadal’s number in this one, and that the match was on his racquet. That’s a level of confidence I haven’t seen from anyone against Nadal at any time.

On to the rest, who only wish they could feel like Novak Djokovic right now.

*****

Victoria Azarenka
Her first Slam semifinal appearance was a big positive. She has made herself much more reliable this year, and the results are steadily improving. At the same time, though, she was passed in the race for majors by a new player, Petra Kvitova, who does the one very important thing that Azarenka can’t do: she hits the ball past her opponents from the baseline. It’s also not something you can teach a player in mid-career. B+

Bernard Tomic
The 18-year-old hung with the big hitters—Andreev and Soderling—like a pro, and showed how much you can do, from both an effectiveness standpoint and an entertainment standpoint, with seemingly very little. All hail the future of tennis: “Seemingly very little.” B+

Grigor Dimitrov
Finally the world had a chance to appreciate what this young, artful non-Roger can do. His match with Tsonga, and their happy hug afterward, might have been the tournament’s most memorable moment. B+

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge
Wasn’t he Prince William as a bachelor? Did he descend in the world when he got married? Either way, Wills and Kate gave Wimbledon a needed shot of royal youth this year. Also worth noting were reactions to two other royal box appearances. John McEnroe, upon seeing Mansour Bahrami hobnobbing with royalty: “How does this guy get in there?” Tim Henman, on spotting Justin Gimelstob there for the final: “[Pause] . . . they must have been short of numbers today.” B+

Andy Murray
When he missed the Now Infamous Forehand, I had a feeling that the way he reacted to that moment would be a huge factor in the outcome of the match—you could sense that he was deflating fast. But I didn’t think it would lead to an all-out collapse. It’s still hard to fathom. Murray later said that he was too aggressive overall, but he won when he was aggressive with his forehand, and lost when he stopped going for it as relentlessly. This match showed one of two things about Murray (or maybe both of them at once): Either his forehand can only be used as a point-controlling shot for a limited amount of time before he starts to miss with it; or deep down he simply doesn’t believe that that’s his game, and that big miss at the start of the second set confirmed it for him. I had always thought the former, that his forehand just isn’t built to blast. After this match, after seeing him out-gun Rafael Nadal for a set, I’m leaning toward the latter. It's as much in his head as it in his right arm. B

Feliciano Lopez
In reaching the quarterfinals, he showed that even today’s grass can be hospitable to a net-rushing player with a one-handed backhand. That style continues to live on in the corners of the sport, waiting for someone to teach it to a young player with more talent than Lopez. Upped a notch for inadvertently providing, with Judy Murray, a funny and mostly not-creepy side story to the fortnight. B

Marion Bartoli
She gave the tournament a jolt, as she does every few years, with her two-handed belts and patina of nuttiness. Then Sabine Lisicki showed why Bartoli doesn’t give us more of them when she exposed the downside of Bartoli's all-two-handed game: a fatal lack of reach. B

Tsvetana Pironkova
Deceptively varied, her game is deceptively fun to watch; hopefully I’ll get to watch it again before Wimbledon next year. B

Serena Williams
In some ways, getting as far as she did after so much time off was an outstanding performance. But again she played herself to the end of the plank against Bartoli before finally coming to life at match point. We know she thrives in those moments, but does she have to prove it us so often? Couldn’t she show her best just a little earlier, so she’s not always pulling herself back from the brink? Nevertheless, it’s good to see her again. If nothing else, she ups tennis’s blood pressure a few degrees. And I’m pretty sure you want to see her take on Petra Kvitova in New York. B

Kimiko Date-Krumm
With Venus, she gave us the most entertaining women’s match of the tournament, a bonus on a rainy first-week day. Her no-backswing winners and uncanny touch angles were fun to see on their own, and they had the added virtue of inspiring a vintage gutsy effort from Venus. B

Roger Federer
He has become a case study in the significance, or lack thereof, of body language. What should we read into his outwardly passive reaction to so many of his defeats this year, including his five-set loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Wimbledon? Is he really rolling over, the way it can look? Or are we just not seeing the fire inside? We’ve always called Federer's style “effortless.” That’s a compliment when he’s winning, but that seeming lack of effort starts to look nonchalant and defeatist when he loses.

I’ve noted this look in Federer a few times this year—against Djokovic in Dubai and Nadal in Key Biscayne in particular—and his head did hang at times against Tsonga. More important, he was reactive in rallies, stuck with a chip return that wasn’t troubling Tsonga in the least, and allowed the Frenchman to keep rolling by playing a poor service game at the start of the fourth set. I mention this because the same afternoon I was struck by how Nadal, after losing his own third set to Mardy Fish, upped his effort level and made sure not to allow himself to be broken at the beginning of the fourth—that effort was enough to kill Fish's momentum before it started.

Despite these problems, though, I agreed with Federer’s own post-match assessment: He was beaten by a guy who was playing unstoppable tennis that day. B-

Caroline Wozniacki
She's at a low. No. 1 in the world and relegated to Court 2, she was outplayed and outfought by Dominika Cibulkova. Worse than that, it wasn't even news. C-

Vera Zvonareva
Unreliable for years, reliable for months, unreliable all over again. And suddenly she’s watching Kvitova from five laps back. D+

Isner-Mahut II
The sequel was a dreary dud. Not just because the match didn’t measure up in any way to last year’s, but because there was such a sparse crowd to see it. Was it a case of ticket-holders for Court 3 going home before its 6:30 P.M. start? Or was it just that nobody really wanted to watch these guys play any more than they already had? Even worse, Mahut’s nice comment to Isner at the net—“I want to see you in the second week this time”—went for nought. The American went down in the next round, to another guy named Nicolas (Almagro) on Court 18. D

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