LONDON—There’s always a new order being established, isn't there? There’s always a changing of the guard. It’s forever the end of an era—half the time, the era seems to be over before you knew it had begun. Every tournament with a new winner foretells the immediate demise of the player or players who didn’t win it. After the first week of this year’s Wimbledon, we heard about the sure decline of Venus and Serena Williams, straight-set losers on the same crazy Monday. A week later, there was talk of a new, even more powerful force rising in the women’s game, in the imposingly casual form of Petra Kvitova. And a day later we were alerted to the possible break-up of the evil conglomerate long run by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Wimbledon, in Novak Djokovic, got its first non-Rog-Rafa winner since . . . jeez . . . when was that? Since Lleyton Hewitt in 2002? Can that be right?
Is it the end of an era? Is it, as Djokovic’s mother has already proclaimed, the start of a new—and, I have to say, unimaginatively named—period called the “Novak-Novak-Novak era?” (It’s going to be tiring to keep saying, if it is. Maybe we can agree to shorten it to two “Novak”s instead of having to go with the full three every time.)
Nah, it’s just a big win, a very big win, for Nole; there’s another Slam, and probably another changing of the guard, coming down the pike in a couple of months. For now, here’s a look back at who did what well at a not-as-surprising-as-it-may-have-seemed Wimbledon.
(For my Racquet Reaction on the men's final, go here.)
One player rises up, conquers the old champ, establishes himself at No. 1, and appears ready to dominate, to begin his own “era.” What happens instead is that another player comes along, more quickly than seems possible, who has just the right game to expose one of the new champ’s few weaknesses. Motivated by the example that the champ sets, the new player chases him down and supplants him. This was the scenario when Roger Federer won three Grand Slams in 2004, only to have Rafael Nadal, the man who could exploit his slightly weak high one-handed backhand, arrive at the top of the sport. Now the tables have turned (how quickly they turn). Nadal was in the role of Federer today, and it was Djokovic who had the right game to beat him. He can run with Rafa, he can absorb Rafa’s power and spin, and he can take Rafa’s best shot, his crosscourt forehand, and counter it with his own best shot, his two-handed backhand. Right now, after five wins in five finals in 2011, he’s the new kryptonite, both for Nadal and for the rest of the tour.
This is good: It shows that the sport is bigger than any one person, that individual match-ups play a role and that no one is untouchable or flawless or above the scrum. Beyond his specific match-up with Nadal, though, what’s interesting about Djokovic is that he represents a new way of thinking about winning in tennis. It’s not about weapons with him, it’s about lack of weaknesses. It’s about overall competence, about flexibility and balance, about being “everywhere”—as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga described Djokovic’s defense—and being able to hit everything. Djokovic comes from a family of skiiers ("I am the mountain man!" he once bellowed to me in an interview), and he plays with that kind of total, integrated body control. To the uninitiated or the aestheticians, his game may not be awe-inspiring. But to a player, what he does is as impressive—effortlessly, professionally impressive—as anything you can imagine on a court. Djokovic has always been a player's player. Now he's the best player.
It’s fun to watch a new Slam winner, to see how this person, who we always knew as a great player but never knew as a major champion, reacts to this change in status—it’s usually a pretty positive reaction. It’s even more fun when the Slam in question is Wimbledon. This is the tournament that all tennis players dream of winning, but which few dare to allow themselves to believe that they can actually win, until it happens. Winning Wimbledon makes you immortal (yes, there are exceptions) and who would dare to believe they could become that? Today we saw Novak Djokovic dare, dare with that stunning serve and volley at 30-all in the final game: “You have to take your chances,” Djokovic said of that point, with the wisdom of a new Wimbledon champion. Like Li Na last month in Paris, Djokovic was the first player from his country to win Wimbledon. And as with Li, watching what Djokovic did when it was over made the world feel just a little bit smaller. He reacted like every other first-time Wimbledon winner, from every other country. He was floored. A+
Was Petra Kvitova floored? She did drop down to the court when she won, and she did crack a little when she addressed Martina Navratilova during her trophy speech, but otherwise she took it all in stride. Her run was both expected—we knew she had the game—and a little surreal. We knew she had the game, but were we ready for her to win Wimbledon? What was remarkable to me was that she was so much better than everyone else—so much stronger, on her serves, returns, forehands, and backhands—that she could suffer two set-long mental meltdowns and it didn't matter. It also didn’t matter that she was facing the famously tough and much more experienced Maria Sharapova in the final. We knew Kvitova could play. Now we know that she knows it, too. I would say that the sky is the limit, except that she just hit her head against it. A+
“He’s in the best moment of his career. I am in one of the best moments of my career. Still not enough for him. I have to play more aggressive. I have to have less mistakes. Yes, that’s what I have to do.
“He has good backhand, very good forehand, good serve. His movement is probably one of the best of the world of the moment.
“Seriously, I lose because I am playing against the best player of the world, and I am the second. And when you play against these players and they are playing unbelievable, the normal thing is: lose.
“My experience says this level [of Djokovic’s] is not forever. Even for me when I was last year winning three Grand Slams, my level of last year is not forever. Probably the level of Novak of today is not forever. I gonna be here fighting all the time, waiting for my moment. I don’t have to wait a lot, because I already won three tournaments this year and one Grand Slam. But waiting for my moment to beat him another time.
“I understand the sport like this. When one player is better than you, at this moment the only thing you can do is work, try to find solutions, and try to wait a little bit for your time.
“Last five times wasn’t my time. I gonna wait and I gonna try a sixth. And if the sixth doesn’t happen, to the seventh. It’s going to be like this. That’s the spirit of the sport.” A
For someone who is only 24, Sharapova’s run here felt like that of a much older champion. She took a very good draw and made the most of it. She stole a match, with less than her best, from a young player making her Grand Slam semifinal debut. Then she finally succumbed to reality when a fatal flaw reared back up in the final, and a talented newcomer wouldn’t let her off the hook. That "newcomer," Kvitova, is just three years younger than Sharapova, but when Maria, right when she seemed ready to mount a comeback, missed three easy returns to go down 3-5 in the second set, their age difference felt a lot wider. Sharpova has answered one question this season: Can she get her old fearsome form back? Now she has to answer another, even trickier one: Will her serve ever let her make the most of that form? A-
What do we look for from Jo? It’s not victory. Nor is it sustained brilliance. We look to Jo for moments, all kinds of moments that we can't get anywhere else. Running to his right across the baseline and muscling a forehand back crosscourt while his feet are off the ground. Moving to his left to return a good kick serve in the ad court, reaching up above his head, and battering a forehand with the loudest sound you’ve ever heard from a set of strings, for an untouchable winner. Carving a sidespin drop volley, without bothering to stop or get set up or bend a whole lot, and watching with an innocently overjoyed smile as it crawls across the net and bounces away from his helpless opponent.
What do we do then? We hope that we get to see one of those things happen again sometime soon. A-
A belted forehand, mixed in with the high looper. A rocket serve. An ability, when all is right, to take over any point against any player. A lack of shriek. A disarmingly quick and toothy smile. Lisicki gave the tournament its first good kick with her indoor win over Li Na, and the tears that followed. May we see more of them soon, in victory rather than defeat. A-
We'll hash out the rest of the best, and worst of the worst, on Tuesday.