Weird, In a Good Way

Monday, July 08, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

WIMBLEDON, England—We called this one “Wimbleweird” and “Wimble-geddon” because...well, the names speak for themselves. Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga were among the marquee names gone before the quarterfinals. On the weirdest of those days, forever to be known as Black Wednesday, a third of the seeds in the draw fell—out of the tournament and all over the grass. The fortnight began with Serena and Maria trading barbs about their boyfriends, and finished with Marion Bartoli and a man from Great Britain holding the winner’s trophies. It was weird all the way, but it got better as it went. I came away liking both champions more than ever.

Here’s a look at the players who thrived and those who crashed and burned at this Wimbledon that was turned on its head. As you might guess, it was a rough couple of weeks for the sport’s honor students. Usual caveats: Players don’t get failing grades just for losing matches, and I don’t cover everyone. If you see someone conspicuously missing, give them your own grade.

*****

Andy Murray

At the start of the tournament, the theme—or hype, depending on your point of view—was that Murray had grown up. He had shown the country his vulnerable side at last year’s Wimbledon final, and the country had finally responded to him. He had bounced back from his loss in that match to win a gold medal and his first Grand Slam. This year, he had gained life perspective from his friend Ross Hutchins’ cancer diagnosis. Now, finally, Murray the former surly boy with authority issues, was ready to win Wimbledon, and the Wimbledon audience was ready to embrace him. It had all seemed a little contrived at the time, but this fairytale came true—the Scot won, and the English crowd was behind him like never before. And why not? Murray the player has never been more impressive, and the Murray the man never more likable.

Murray the player came back from two sets down against Fernando Verdasco, picked apart the dangerous Jerzy Janowicz, and out-ran the world No. 1 for the title. He found ways to win rather than to lose, and to the seal the title, he had to win one of the most nerve-wracking games anyone in tennis has ever had to play. In the Times, Simon Barnes writes that when he looked up at the press after winning the last point, his face showed true bliss. I saw joy and relief, too, but also a tinge of madness in his eye. As he said to Sue Barker when she told him how tortuous the final game had been to watch, “Imagine having to play it.”

Then Murray the man showed that he hadn’t just won this one for himself: He had won it for Ivan, for Great Britain, for Dunblane, even for the press! For all of them, he said, he had “tried his best.” He didn’t say that he had succeeded; he said that he had tried. Dedicated to the task since he was 14, only he knew how much it had taken to give Britain a winner again.  A+

Marion Bartoli

She let us know that, every once in a while, dreams come true. And then she gave one of the best descriptions I’ve heard of what that feels like:

“You know, I don't know if you can really realize, but for a tennis player, you start to play like at five or six years old. When you decide to turn pro, your dream is to win a Grand Slam. You dream about it every single day. You think about it every single day.

So when it happen, when it actually happen, you felt like, you know, you achieve something that you dream about for maybe million of hours. You went through pain, you went through tears, you went through low moments, and actually it happened, once it happened.

Those five, ten seconds before you shake the hands of your opponent, you felt like you're almost not walking any more on earth. You're really flying. It's really hard to describe how it felt.

That was the perfect day. It was sunny. It was beautiful. Centre Court Wimbledon, it was packed. I won in two sets. I didn't drop a set for the whole championship. Even in my perfect dream I couldn't have dreamed a perfect moment like that. That is beyond perfection.” A+

Bob and Mike Bryan

Not everything went through the looking glass at Wimbledon this year. The Bryan brothers continued to live their golden years in style, by completing what they termed a "Golden Bryan Slam"—they now hold all of the major titles, as well as the Olympic gold. Watching them cut off shots at net and move in perfect hyper tandem after all these years, you really do feel like they're going to be doing this—i.e., winning—until they're 40. I don't think I've seen them jump quite as high for a chest bump as they did after this Wimbledon win. A+

Sabine Lisicki

Maybe it makes sense that someone who plays better at Wimbledon than anywhere else would be a fan favorite here. Lisicki finally showed what her big game can do, even with its maddening inconsistencies, and she was at her best when her back was against the wall. She said in her post-final presser that while she had to beat Serena and Radwanska, Bartoli had a much easier ride to the final, and that gave her an advantage. That’s the luck of the draw, but staying healthy, playing better everywhere else, and improving her ranking would help get Lisicki better draws in the future. If she can give the moribund but once powerful German tennis industry a shake, her success will be good for tennis. A

Novak Djokovic

The world No. 1, who hasn’t won a major other than the Australian Open since 2011, isn’t a dominant champion these days. He’s lost three of his last four Slam finals, and two of three to Murray. More troublingly, this may have been his worst performance in any of his 10 major finals. Djokovic looked sharp through the quarters and showed heart in beating Juan Martin del Potro in a classic semi, but he let himself get agitated and distracted by line calls in the final. Obviously disappointed, he was terse afterward, though he also said it was a great tournament overall. And it was—for anyone but him. On Sunday, I thought Djokovic felt the weight of the crowd, who weren’t afraid to boo him when he argued. More generally, he has struggled to relax and let his game flow in his biggest matches, and he’s won just two titles since the Aussie Open. Novak used to bend but not break. He’s been breaking more often lately. A-

Juan Martin del Potro

Those of us who have watched him closely over the years knew that Del Potro, while he could look sleepy and shambling, was a subtle showman. Against Djokovic in the semis, he brought his act to the British masses and helped give us the most well-loved match of 2013 so far. At times, Delpo seemed to be in exhibition mode, but it only helped him stay loose, play better, and hang in longer. Just as important, he recorded a win over David Ferrer, who had rolled him here a year ago, and brought back the super-sonic forehand of his pre-surgery days. One them went 120 M.P.H. He’s back, again. A-

Agnieszka Radwanska

Time management is part of winning a Grand Slam; you want to win as efficiently as you can to save your energy for the later rounds. Aga, by her own admission, didn’t do that this year. She dropped sets to Madison Keys, Tsvetana Pironkova, and Li Na, and she said she felt all of those miles at the end of her semifinal with Lisicki. Still, Radwanska helped give us the match of the women’s tournament in that semi. But it wasn’t enough. Hopefully being that close will give her more belief that the majors aren’t out of reach for her.

It’s unfortunate, as I wrote in my review of the match, that all the things Aga did well that day were overshadowed by the one thing she didn’t do so well: Shake Lisicki’s hand. It happens: This isn’t the first time Radwanska has offered her opponent the drive-by treatment, and the handshake Lisicki gave her fellow German Angelique Kerber here last year was on the icy side as well. As anyone who was in her press conference afterward could attest, Aga took this loss hard— “I didn’t feel like that,” she said, meaning she didn’t feel like sharing a moment with Sabine at the net. Radwanska was two points from the Wimbledon final, and she lost to a player who has always been lower than her on the WTA totem pole.

I don’t need to see hugs or even smiles after defeats that painful, but I want to see some minimal sign of respect or acknowledgment pass between the two competitors. Radwanska didn’t give Lisicki that. As an Aga fan, though, I’ll remember how she played the rest of the day, and forgive her her disappointment that it all went for naught. A-

Jerzy Janowicz

Breakout runs by stars-in-the-making have been rare in tennis in recent years, but Janowicz’s semifinal appearance at Wimbledon qualifies. He made a big impression on a lot of people who had never seen him before. The 22-year-old was eventually broken down by Murray in the semis, but not before he showed how well someone 6’8” can move, and the kind of exciting, attacking tennis he can play. Plus, if you want some edge back in tennis, you’ll find a buzzsaw’s worth with him. Just don’t ask Jerzy how how high he can climb. Here’s an exchange from his post-semi press conference:

Q: How good do you think you can be in the next few years?

Janowicz: Honestly? I hate these kind of questions. A-

Kirsten Flipkens

Her variety is a pleasure to watch. Even better was her reaction to her quarterfinal win over Petra Kvitova—pure joy and disbelief. Then she got a beat down. A-

Sloane Stephens

The positives: She backed up her Aussie semifinal with a Wimbledon quarterfinal. She upped her Grand Slam record to 12-3 this year. She can say the words “I’m playing well” again. She’s only 20. And she showed that she can beat rank-and-file opponents without her best. The negative: She was without her best a lot. B+

Bernard Tomic

He said, loudly, that he wanted his father with him on the grounds, but he didn’t pester Wimbledon too much to make it happen. His father’s enforced absence appeared to help Bernie in a couple of ways: On the one hand, he could fight the powers that be, a favorite pastime of his on and off the court; on the other, he didn’t have to look up and see his father staring at him during the matches. The combination worked, until he ran into a player, Tomas Berdych, who was a cut above. Now Tomic is back where he was two years ago, when he reached the quarterfinals here. Let’s hope the next two seasons are more productive. B+

Lukasz Kubot

The 126th-ranked Pole was one of Wimble-geddon’s biggest beneficiaries. When Federer and Nadal went out, he became a surprise quarterfinal substitute. For most of us, it will be what happened after his matches that we remember most. There was dancing, hugging, shirt-swapping, and tears. So dramatic, the men these days. B+

Madison Keys

I knew she could hit with anyone; the pleasant surprise was her perseverance through three sets against Radwanska. Also: She’s 18. B

Fernando Verdasco

He played some excellent grass-court tennis in dropping just one set through the first four rounds. And he scared the Centre Court crowd with his display of serves and forehands against Murray. Still, it wasn’t a surprise when he lost from two sets up. B

Tsvetana Pironkova

Did someone see her when she was young and say, “You know, you could grow up to be the next Tamarine Tanasugarn?” B

Sergiy Stakhovsky

Like Lukas Rosol a year ago, the stopper of 2013 wreaked his havoc before moving on quickly. But it was a pleasure to see his serve-and-volley game and hear his honest and articulate words while they lasted. B

Steve Darcis

He thrilled us for a day with his fearless, high-flying play against Nadal. But he ended up flying a little too high, and crashing a little too hard. A shoulder injury that he suspected happened when he dove for a ball forced the little Belgian to withdraw from his next match. Hey, why not go out when you’re on top? B

Dustin Brown

In beating Lleyton Hewitt, Brown played some pretty cool tennis for a man ranked just inside the Top 200. He served, he volleyed, he dove, he cried, he won. It was quite a show, one for which there was no encore. B

Serena Williams

We’ve talked about her new, more controlled and consistent self, and that game has obviously paid dividends. But, as she said, when things got tight in the third set against Lisicki, Serena played too safely. She’ll have to rebalance her aggressiveness and her restraint. As she realized way back in 1999, when she beat Martina Hingis at the U.S. Open for her first major title, going for it is her game. C

Rafael Nadal

After all of his success this season, I had thought he would be OK for Wimbledon, too. I won’t make that mistake again. After a set and a half against Steve Darcis, it was clear that, even if it ended up being his day, it wasn’t going to be his tournament. The proximity of the clay season and Wimbledon once worked in Nadal’s favor; he could use the momentum he built on dirt to carry him through on turf. Now the opposite is true. Clay wears his knees down to the point where he can’t recover in time for grass. Maybe the biggest problem is that other players now believe he’s vulnerable on the surface; if they let it rip, the way Darcis did here, good things can happen. That’s the last thing you want an opponent to think. C-

Roger Federer

After 36 straight quarterfinal appearances at the Grand Slams, a second-round loss to the world No. 116 at Wimbledon could logically be termed a sign of decline. And Federer’s four-set defeat to Sergiy Stakhovsky pointed up a couple of recurring problems for him: (1) poor returning; and (2) letting chances slip. Those won’t be solved in a day or a month, and more early losses are inevitable. But this was just one match. C-

Maria Sharapova

From her “sad,” as she called it, war of words with Serena Williams to her straight-set loss to mini-me Michelle Larcher de Brito to the dreary afternoon she spent watching her boyfriend, Grigor Dimitrov, lose in five sets, this wasn’t Maria’s Wimbledon. C-

Milos Raonic

The Jon Stewart Show has a recurring bit called, “Please tell me this is rock bottom.” That’s something Raonic might identify with, at least when it comes to his grass game. He’ll be happy to be back on hard courts soon, but no one is prognosticating a Wimbledon title in his near future anymore. D

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