First Ball In, 7/21: The Not-Quite-Coincidental Weekend

Monday, July 21, 2014 /by

Some co-names, like Bennifer and Brangelina, are eternal. But I’ll bet you thought you had heard the last of “Wozzilroy” after Rory McIlroy ended his engagement with Caroline Wozniacki two months ago. Not so fast—judging by the events of this weekend, we may be hearing quite a bit more from both of them in the near future. In case you had something better to do on Sunday than stare at Twitter, McIlroy won the British Open, his first major in two years, on the same day that Wozniacki won the WTA event in Istanbul, her first title of any sort in 2014. 

One of those things, as they say, is obviously not like the other—McIlroy’s victory was the golf equivalent of winning Wimbledon, while Wozniacki won a small tournament where she was the top seed. But both the golfer and the tennis player have been much improved over the last six weeks. McIlroy won the first event he played after the breakup; he now has his first British Open; and he’s suddenly a Masters title away from a career Grand Slam at age 25. Wozniacki, meanwhile, reached the semis in Eastbourne, made the second week at Wimbledon, won in Istanbul, and has reversed a recent slide in the rankings. Rather than plummeting out of the Top 20, as she was this spring, she’s knocking on the Top 10 door again. And she's still just 24 years old.

What, if anything, should we make of this not-quite-coincidence? I’d refer readers to two recent quotes from the athletes in question.


“I’ve really found my passion for golf,” McIlroy said after winning the Open. “Not that it ever dwindled, but it’s what I think about when I get up in the morning. It’s what I think about when I go to bed.”

“To play good tennis, your head has to be there,” Wozniacki said at Wimbledon. “I’m in a good place in my head right now, mentally. I think that shows on court. I’m just focused on what I have to do out there and what my purpose is when I go on court. I think that shows.”

In other words, now that the wedding is off, both players have more time to devote to their careers, and more mental energy to give to their games. As Wozniacki says above, it shows on the court, and on the course. This, of course, was always the question with them: How were two people whose working lives took them to different places around the globe for 10 months of the year going to find a way to give 100 percent to their careers—neither of which will last far into middle age—and 100 percent to their relationship? 

This isn't to say that it was the right decision, or the wrong decision, for Wozniacki and McIlroy not to get married. We’ll see if their co-surge lasts; it has only been a few weeks, after all. But it already feels as if Rory and Caro have gotten back their old games, as well as their old names.

*****

It was a weekend of not-quite-coincidental victories. Along with Wozzilroy’s return, we also had Bernie’s revenge. Was anyone surprised that a week after being dropped by his longtime management company, IMG, Bernard Tomic would win his second career title, and first since January 2013, in Bogota? If so, you shouldn't have been.

Like most counterpunchers, Tomic enjoys having a target. The last tournament he won, in Sydney 18 months ago, was inspired in part by his contentious relationship with Tennis Australia. In his trophy speech there, he made a point of praising his father, John, and pledging allegiance to his family rather than to his country’s tennis association. Later in 2013, at Wimbledon, Tomic pledged that same allegiance to his father, who had been banned from the grounds for allegedly beating up one of his son's practice partners. Bernie, happily fighting the authorities again, upset ninth-seeded Richard Gasquet on his way to the fourth round.

This time Tomic was dropped by the company that had, by the time he was 12, made him a household name among tennis aficionados. And this time Bernie showed uncharacteristic stubbornness in victory. He won each of his last two matches in third-set tiebreakers, the second despite being aced 39 times by Ivo Karlovic. Bogota was only an ATP 250 tournament, but the win was enough to push Tomic from No. 124 up to No. 70. It also followed another solid, fourth-round showing at Wimbledon. 

“For me, it was a difficult match,” Tomic said of the final against Karlovic, who was the tournament’s defending champion. “I kept trying and believing in myself. Against him, if you stop believing and trying, he’ll beat you.”

“Believing and trying”: Those are givens for most pros, but not for Bernie. It seems he has recovered from the two hip surgeries he underwent in February. Now the question is: Which authority can he fight next?

*****

“Where did all the teenagers go?” Tennis fans have been asking this question for the better part of a decade, since Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon at 17 in 2004, and Rafael Nadal won the French Open the following year at 19. 

One of the answers I always gave to this question is similar to everyone else’s answer: The game requires more physical maturity now. And I think that’s true. But the other answer I give goes roughly like this: “There won't be any more teenagers at the top of the sport, until there's a teenager at the top of the sport.” By which I meant that it would only take one quasar-like talent to make us believe in prodigies all over again. Over its century-long history, the game has always produced them; was it really going to stop now? 

As of today, there are teenagers in tennis again. Nineteen-year-old Nick Kyrgios, truly like a quasar, landed on Centre Court and burned up Rafael Nadal in the process. Genie Bouchard reached the semis in Australia at 19, and the final at Wimbledon at 20. This weekend, two even younger players, Ana Konjuh, 16, of Croatia, and Alexander Zverev, 17, of Germany, reached the semis at tour events in Istanbul and Hamburg, respectively. (I didn’t see any of Konjuh’s matches last week, so I’ll stick with Zverev here.)

I had only watched Zverev as a junior. He was ranked No. 1 at that level, but it’s never easy to tell how a young player’s game will translate until you see it with a real live pro on the other side of the net. Last year in Melbourne I had seen Kyrgios win the boys’ Aussie Open title; he was impressive, but I had no clue that he would be capable of beating Nadal at Wimbledon 18 months later.

Now we know what Zverev can do with a pro on the other side of the net. In reaching the semis in Hamburg, he became the first 17-year-old to make an ATP quarterfinal since Nadal in 2003. With his win over Mikhail Youzhny, he became the first 17-year-old to beat a Top 20 player in a decade. Ranked outside the Top 800 at the start of 2014, he’s up to No. 161 today.

On the plus side, Zverev is 6’4”, rangy, and moves well for his size. His most immediately notable shot is his full-cut two-handed backhand, which he wraps around his body. He goes down the line with it, à la Novak Djokovic, to open up rallies; at times it functions like another forehand for him. His serve isn’t a bomb yet, but the motion, like the rest of his game, looks fluid. One thing is certain: Zverev has tennis DNA. His parents are former players from the Soviet Union, and his brother, Mischa, is a 26-year-old ATP pro.

So there are teens on the scene again. Yet the old answer about the game being too physical for them has not been proven false. Zverev lost in the semis in Hamburg, 6-0, 6-1, to David Ferrer. 

“He looked a little bit tired,” Ferrer said afterward.

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