Old Glory

Saturday, August 04, 2012 /by

SwThere are two ways to talk about American tennis these days. The first is to lament its decline from the heights of the Pete and Andre and Jim and Michael era, and wonder when the country’s next generation of stars is going to man up and do some winning. The second way, which isn't tried out nearly often enough, is to try to forget the past, ignore the future, and focus on what’s going on under our noses at the moment. When you do the latter, the world ceases to look quite as gloomy. It’s true that the future of U.S. tennis is uncertain at best, but on a day like today it would be absurd to claim that it isn’t what it used to be. On a day like today, you’d have to say that the American game, while it doesn’t have the fresh face of youth, is aging pretty gracefully. 

Serena Williams and Bob and Mike Bryan, all of them in their 30s and all of them California natives, won Olympic golds on Centre Court this afternoon. Their medals served as career capstones, as both Serena and the Bryans have also won each of the four Grand Slams. They were blown away by the moment. The Bryans immediately called it the biggest win of their long career together, while Serena couldn’t stop saying, while trying to catch her breath, “Wow, I have an Olympic gold medal in singles.” Their wins felt like capstones for a U.S. tennis generation that, while it may not go down as the greatest, could be the best we’ll see for a long time. We’ve been spoiled: career Golden Slams, of which Andre Agassi is also an owner, don’t come around too often.

As the Bryans said later, it was Serena who “got the ball rolling for the Americans” today. That’s a true statement, but it also may be the under statement of the year. To be fair, most descriptions of Serena’s win over Maria Sharapova, and her play throughout this tournament, couldn't do it justice. I’ll start with the most absurd stat, as long you promise not to tell Gilles Simon about it: Roger Federer lost the same number of games in the third set of his semifinal against Juan Martin del Potro, 17, as Serena lost in the Olympics. When I think of the most dominant single-tournament performances in major events, I think of Bjorn Borg’s 21-set sweep through Roland Garros in 1978, and Rafael Nadal’s similar romp on the same courts 30 years later. Serena’s 2012 Olympics has to be mentioned with them. None of her opponents won more than three games in any set, and she beat the No. 1 and No. 3 players in the world, Victoria Azarenka and Sharapova, 6-1, 6-2 and 6-0, 6-1, respectively.

Serena said afterward that this was the best week of her tennis career, and Sharapova couldn’t do anything about it. Besides Serena’s play, she struggled with the wind and her toss. When she did get a decent look at a ball, she rarely took advantage of it. Her only ray of hope came at 1-3 in the second set, when she held a break point and Serena showed a slight sign of nerves. Everyone should have nerves like hers: Serena wiped away the break point with a clean crosscourt backhand winner on the first stroke of a rally. It was hard to watch Sharapova, who so rarely lets anything resembling vulnerability show, appear to fight back tears during the second set. Realistically, though, she should feel lucky not to have been double-bageled, and be happy to walk away with a silver in a week when Serena Williams was at her best.

We’ve seen Williams at her best many times, but she’s never played quite like this. For the most part, she was calm and composed, and determined to win as efficiently as possible. Even her strokes looked more compact than normal. She said that she had practiced like she had never practiced before, and it did appear as if she had honed her shots to a very fine point, to where there was nothing extraneous in them. If the word to describe her best matches in the past was “fierce,” this time the best word might be “cold.” As in, she could strike a cold winner, one where she had to generate all of her own pace, from behind the baseline at any time. As in, the looks she shot across the court could have fired darts of ice. Perhaps most ominous for Sharapova today was how quiet Serena was—no grunts, no shrieks, a minimum of groans, and just a few well-chosen "Come-on!"s. The silence must have been fearful for Maria. Finally, when it was over, Serena couldn't contain herself anymore. She looked up at her big sister Venus, her Olympic inspiration, and danced.

While they come from the same country and state as Serena, the Bryan brothers put on a very different, but equally efficient, show today in their doubles final against the flashy Frenchmen, Michael Llodra and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Where Williams does a slow walk of authority between points, the Bros hop and bounce in tandem. But they put their overabundance of energy to good, controlled use against the French. The Bryans move, poach, and close as well as any team ever has, and they’ve developed a unique and very effective half-swing putaway forehand volley over the years. It’s hard to gauge the “mental toughness” of a doubles team, but I’ve always liked how Bob and Mike shrug off missed shots, put their heads down, and move on the next point. 

BBThe two are known for their insatiable, almost comical appetite for practice and work. And their persistence paid off right up until the final point of their biggest victory. At 6-2 in the second-set tiebreaker, Bob didn’t give up on a volley by Tsonga that appeared to be going for a winner. Instead he tracked it down in the corner of Centre Court and, from over his shoulder, hoisted a towering lob that touched down near the baseline. When they eventually won the point, all that was left was a gold-medal chest bump, one they had been waiting to do for many years. They didn’t bother. They hugged instead.

The Bryans are the first men’s doubles team to win a career Golden Slam. Put that together with their 11 majors, their record 299 weeks at No. 1, and their 78 ATP titles and you’re looking at what may eventually be seen as the greatest men’s doubles team in history. At 34, there’s a good chance that they’ll be around for the Rio Olympics in 2016, and maybe even the 2020 Games. They seem happy in their work.

Serena becomes the first player, man or woman, to complete both singles and doubles career Golden Slams, and you get the feeling her Olympic career isn’t over, either. She hasn’t matched the major totals of Navratilova, Evert, Graf, or Court yet, but it’s hard to imagine any woman in history being as invincible for any stretch of time as Serena was over the last week in London. After this, the WTA might as well hit “shut down” on its rankings computer this week—any list of women players without Serena Williams at the top right now is meaningless.

Hyped-up enthusiasm and slow-walking intimidation; cold winners and fast hands; a miracle lob and a miraculously good serve; a hug between brothers and a dance from one sister to another: American tennis showed off its best to the world on Saturday. Forget the future for a minute and appreciate what we can still see today. If this is decline, I think I can live with it.

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