All England A-List

Monday, July 09, 2012 /by

RFThese days every Grand Slam produces a surplus of memorable stories, so many that by the end only a few stick in your mind. But this Wimbledon had something extra. It had resurgent champs and rookie runners-up; a valiant local hero; an epic upset and a perfect set; late-night drama and gender-charged controversy. There was no shortage of intrigue over the two weeks. Tennis really does keep getting better, doesn’t it? Even Ernests Gulbis played his part. Remember his first-round win, way back when? Yes, it happened at this tournament. It’s been a good two weeks, and it’s been a long two weeks. Time to make our assessments; I’ll start with the A-list. 

(To see my Racquet Reactions on both the men's the women's finals, go here.)

***** 

Roger Federer
Last week I noted that Federer had been dominant against his own generation of players, but had struggled against the cream of the next generation, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray. That wasn’t true this time around, as he beat two of those three youngsters convincingly for his seventh Wimbledon title. Suddenly it seems like the last two and a half years, which had appeared to be the early stages of decline for Federer, could end up looking like a period of re-adjustment, a period when Federer did what was necessary to meet the challenges of his younger rivals, and of playing and traveling with a family. New father Jimmy Connors went through something similar, at a similar age, before getting back to No. 1 in 1982 and remaining competitive until the mid-80s.

We’ll see. I’m not predicting Federer’s return to mid-2000s dominance, though more Grand Slam titles seem certain. Was he helped by the roof closings against Djokovic and Murray? Yes, Federer himself he said he played better under it in the final than he had in the open air, and we know how good he is indoors in general. At the same time, though, Djokovic and Murray have also won big indoor titles over the years. Whatever happens going forward, Federer’s win, after 12 months of Slam finals between Nadal and Djokovic, was invigorating for the ATP.

At the moment, Federer looks eternal. Closing in on his 31st birthday, he has reclaimed Wimbledon, extended his career lead in Grand Slams, and taken over No. 1 again. Just as impressive was the way he did it. In the final, he found an element to his game—outstanding net play—that hadn’t been there earlier in the tournament. In that sense, this win was something like his first title, in 2003, when he rushed the net consistently.

Also reminiscent of his early years, as well as all the years in between, was the way Federer reached every one of Murray’s drop shots, usually in time to do damage on the next ball. The way he broke out of the blocks and gobbled up the grass so quickly could be a metaphor for his current state: In his agile movement, in his versatile play, in his sky-high ranking, in his consistent Grand Slam success, in his victories over younger opponents, Federer remains in full flight, defying gravity. A+ 

Serena Williams
Q: What could top this now? What more do you want from life?

Serena Williams: Are you kidding? The U.S. Open, the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon 2013, the Championships.

In many ways, this was the long-awaited return of the old Serena to Grand Slam glory. She refused to lose in two early-round nail-biters, against Jie Zheng and Yaroslava Shvedova. She sternly closed out high-quality matches against title contenders Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova. And she made her serve, already the all-time best, even better. 

SwIn another way, though, this was a different Serena from the one we had seen in the past. The only time I can recall her panicking—Serena’s word—while trying to close out any match, the way she did trying to finish the final against Agnieszka Radwanska, was in her first-round loss to Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros last month. 

What’s important isn’t that Serena showed vulnerability again. It’s that this time she had the resources to do something about it. We think of her as a power player, and she is. But in the third set against Radwanska, she realized that her normal power game was going to be too risky for where she was mentally, against this clever opponent, on this occasion. So she slowed down, played with more control, regained her confidence, and won going away. On the final shot, she let loose with a vintage backhand winner down the line. New Serena, meet old Serena. You should make a formidable team. A+ 

Jonny Marray
I had never heard of the 31-year-old Englishman before, and when I saw his name on Twitter last week, I assumed that the first “a” in his last name was meant to be a “u.” I was amazed by his out of nowhere, wildcard doubles title with Frederik Nielsen of Denmark, which made Marray the first Brit to win the men’s doubles since 1936. 

Marray topped himself in my eyes when, in the third-set tiebreaker in the final, he hit the net with his racquet on a volley, stopped the point, and told chair umpire Eva Asderaki, who hadn’t seen the infraction, that he was conceding the point. It was the right thing to do, the only thing to do, but it was still a shock to see that kind of pure sportsmanship in such a pressurized moment. Fortunately, this was one good deed that went unpunished. Marray and Nielsen won the tiebreaker, and the match. Good, good show. A+ 

Andy Murray
Murray was right, in his sober assessment after the tournament, that once the tears and cheers had ended, the “main thing” was that he had played better in a major final than he had before. Just a single set better, yes, but he has to take it one small step at a time against the Big 3. 

The fact that Murray became the first Brit to make the Wimbledon final since the 1930s obscured the fact that all he had really done was go one round farther. He hadn’t beaten any of the players who typically beat him at the Slams—Nadal, Djokovic, or Federer. Still, there was progress, in the way he hung in against iron man David Ferrer, and the way he put together two of the best sets of his career against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semis, came down to earth, yet still found a way to win. It wasn’t the pressure of the moment that eventually got to Murray, but the pressure from his opponent in the final. He might have seized his second-set chances against Federer, it's true, but after that there wasn't a whole lot he could have done. Murray at his best is not as good as Federer at his best.

Along the way, though, Murray made the tournament more fun—more mad. When it was over, he apologized to Federer for crying, saying that he didn’t mean to take over the moment. Murray didn’t need to apologize. Federer of all people knew the tears were genuine and uncontrollable, and we knew how much of his heart Murray had put into it, for himself and his team and everyone watching in Great Britain. I was impressed with the way Murray held his own against Federer. I was just as impressed that he held his own, and kept it together, against those other final-day opponents that every loser must face at Wimbledon, Sue Barker and the listening world.

Agnieszka Radwanska
She won’t always get a draw like this—no Vika, no Maria, no Petra, Venus bowing out a round before they were supposed to play. But Radwanska put a needed stamp of Grand Slam legitimacy on her year-long rise in the rankings, and she showed that when they’re done right, there’s always a place in tennis for finesse, touch, craft, and old-fashioned court sense. I’m glad she made the final competitive, and I’m glad she’s not going to be No. 1 without a Grand Slam title. That’s the last thing any player needs. A 

JmESPN
The network broadcast Wimbledon from start to finish for the first time, and it rose to the occasion. Two channels on the dial gave it much more flexibility in what it could show, and if you were lucky enough to be able to see the half-dozen other matches on ESPN3 online during the day—a big if, I know—you really did feel like you were there. I would never have seen Jonny Marray’s great sporting gesture if the network hadn’t stayed live on the men’s doubles final on Saturday afternoon, even when there were no Americans involved.

ESPN will never do it exactly as we hardcore fans would like. The commentators still talk too much—nothing is left unsaid—and while one of its outside studio pros (Mike Tirico) was a good fit, another (Hannah Storm) wasn’t. I was torn by the feature on Andy Murray’s hometown of Dunblane, and the school murders that he survived. On the one hand, it was powerful and well-made. I’d never seen Judy Murray talk about that day, let alone Murray’s grandparents. Everyone in the town came off as extremely dignified—I doubt anyone watching wasn’t in tears. But seeing it during the rain delay in the middle of the final left me with a weird and solemn feeling through the rest of the match. I wish I had caught it another time.

Still, this was a tremendous, overstuffed Wimbledon, and ESPN’s all-out effort for two weeks did it justice. That’s saying something. A

*****

I'll be back tomorrow with the rest of the best, and worst, from the A-minuses on down.

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