One step back, one step up: That’s how it worked this weekend for the tours' tournament winners, Roger Federer, Grigor Dimitrov, and Ana Ivanovic. All three bounced back quickly from French Open disappointments and brightened their Wimbledon prospects considerably. Here’s a look at each of their performances. Together they reminded me of what Jimmy Connors said he missed about the sport after he retired. Yes, there were the big titles, he said, and yes, there was the competition. But what he missed most was the sound of people clapping for him.
Roger Federer likes to remind us that he cares about every tournament, that he’s happy to win any of them, and that, even at 32, it isn’t just the Grand Slams that matter. He said it again yesterday after winning the 250-level tournament in Halle, an event in which he played just three matches. Then he explained why.
“I really enjoy winning titles,” Federer said after beating 54th-ranked Alejandro Falla in the final. “It's what I play for, to play and receive a standing ovation at the end.”
Fair enough—I think we would all live for the applause, too, if we could. Of course, Federer didn’t need to swing a racquet to get a standing O in Halle, a town that already has a street named after him. The tournament, which he has now won seven times, has become something of a last bastion for him. It was Federer's only championship in 2013, and, despite his best efforts and some improved play, just his second in 2014, after Dubai.
“I work hard and travel the tour to win these titles and not lose in the quarters or semifinals,” Federer said afterward. “With all the success I've had in the past, I need to aim for titles.”
Federer, in other words, has too much pride to ever phone it in. That alone is enough to separate him from most of his colleagues, who do settle for quarters and semifinals. But as much as Federer wants to win every week, this moment qualifies as crunch time for him. Don’t you think he was at least slightly pleased that his latest set of twins, Leo and Lenny, arrived during the clay season, rather than the grass season? If Federer is going to have one last Grand Slam hurrah, his best chance is probably going to come at this year's Wimbledon.
Will his odds improve after Halle? As I said above, Federer won just three matches there, after receiving a walkover from Rendy Lu in the quarterfinals. On the plus side, he beat a quality opponent in Kei Nishikori, and won two tiebreakers against Falla. Those are going to be crucial at Wimbledon.
“I served extremely well in the tiebreakers,” Federer said, “which was the difference at the end.”
On the downside, Federer continues to struggle with success. Up 5-3 in the first, Federer was broken when he tried to cut a drop volley too fine and drilled a hesitant forehand into the net. When he broke to start the second set, he was broken back immediately after sending a fake drop shot 10 feet long. And while Federer served well when it mattered, Falla had success spinning his lefty serve into Federer’s backhand return.
“I hope it will be back to the good old days.” Federer said afterward, referring to the years when he followed his win in Halle with another at Wimbledon. He knows some titles really are bigger than others.
Grigor Dimitrov also enjoyed the applause on Sunday. After his 6-7 (8), 7-6 (1), 7-6 (6) win over Feliciano Lopez at Queen’s Club, he thanked the “cuties”—i.e., the ball girls—who had been pulling hard for him all week. When the clubby London crowd wasn’t exactly sure what to make of that comment, Dimitrov saved himself by also thanking his girlfriend, Maria Sharapova, who was in the stands. The shades-wearing Sharapova had tried to do a glamorously unsmiling Posh Spice imitation during the match, but her reactions reminded me more of the way Brooke Shields used to react to Andre Agassi's ups and downs. For a tennis player, Maria is kind of an awkward tennis watcher.
Dimitrov says he doesn’t like the comparisons to his spiritual tennis father, Federer, but the two do seem sympatico this season. Twice now in 2014, they’ve won titles in the same week; this time each received a walkover along the way. More important, though, is the fact that Dimitrov has now won four tournaments, on four different types of courts, with coach Roger Rasheed. Their Queen’s Club run also included a Top 10 win, over Stan Wawrinka in the semifinals.
In the final, it could easily have gone the other way. Dimitrov saved a match point on his serve at 5-6 in the second set, and survived a third-set tiebreaker in which both men struggled to put a return in the court. Lopez appears to be playing well enough to beat anyone on grass on the right day. He’ll go to Eastbourne to defend his title this week.
How about Dimitrov? He disappointed us with his first-round loss in Paris, and he went out early to journeyman Grega Zemlja at Wimbledon last year. Should we expect more this time? The talent, the game, the work ethic, and even the experience have been in place for at least a year now. But the vulnerability, to a quality player who is determined to break down his one-handed backhand, remains. Being like Roger has its drawbacks, too.
What was I saying about Ana Ivanovic at the French Open? Something about her backhand being permanently suspect, and how we shouldn’t get our hopes up about her? Well, she proved again that any assessment can be stood on its head in a week’s time in tennis. Ivanovic followed up her early loss in Paris by not dropping a set on her way to her first career grass-court title, in Birmingham.
Even more surprising, her best shot in her 6-3, 6-2 final-round win over Barbara Zahlova-Strycova may have been that suspect backhand. She hit it for winners to both corners in the early going, and she kept hitting it under pressure in the late going. Up 5-1 in the second set, Ivanovic lost two championship points and the game. When she came back out to serve for the title at 5-2, she had to catch her first, wayward toss. Were nerves threatening? If they were, Ivanovic shook them off quickly, by smacking a cross-court backhand pass for a winner on her next shot. OK, count me in: My hopes are back up.
Afterward, Ivanovic celebrated, as only she can do, by blowing kisses to the crowd and pumping her fist at the same time. Then she thanked her coaches, the ball kids, the tournament officials, the legends who had won this tournament before her, and the fans. Ana seemed to enjoy their applause. As with Federer and Dimitrov, Wimbledon could wait until the clapping had died away.