LONDON—So much happens over the two weeks of a major that it can be hard to recall what we were all so obsessed and upset about just a fortnight ago. In the case of this year’s Wimbledon, that’s a good thing. Remember “bored” Bernard Tomic? Remember male players dropping like flies in the first round on Centre Court? Remember John McEnroe’s “Serena would be 700th on the ATP tour” comments? Remember the hole in the court?
With the glaring exception of the grass itself—the hole only grew bigger—things improved at SW19, at least until the very end. After being forced to spend the first week talking about players who didn’t care, we were lucky enough to spend the second week talking about, and marveling at, two players who care as much as any two players ever have, Venus Williams and Roger Federer. Their runs at 37 and 35, respectively, defined this year’s edition of Wimbledon.
But there was more, some of which would be a shame to forget as quickly as we forgot Bernie Tomic. Here’s a look at five moments I’ll remember from the 2017 Championships.
Rybarin’ to Go
While I was walking past Court 18 one day early in the tournament, a player caught my eye. She was lean and long-limbed, and, in her white dress, looked and moved and hit like a ghost from tennis’ past. Two ghosts came to mind, actually, both of Cold War vintage: Hana Mandlikova of Czechoslovakia and Natasha Chmyreva of the Soviet Union. Like those women, Magdalena Rybarikova was playing a quietly stylish and languidly athletic brand of tennis that appeared to be tailor-made for the grass-court game of another, less power-centric era. Could it possibly work in this one? The answer, against all odds, turned out to be yes. Rybarikova would upset No. 3 seed Karolina Pliskova in the fortnight’s most picturesque match on Centre Court and go on to reach the semifinals. The 28-year-old Slovakian, who had undergone two separate surgeries over the last year, and had never made the second week here before, said she was surprised at her lack of nerves. They finally hit her in the semifinals; then her opponent, Garbiñe Muguruza, ran her over. Hopefully when she gets back up, Rybarikova will continue to be as successful—and watchable—on hard courts this summer as she was on grass.
It was the match of the tournament on the men’s side—for everyone except Rafael Nadal. His fourth-round loss to Gilles Muller, which took four hours and 48 minutes and a 15-13 fifth set to complete, was enough to bring Rafa to his knees after one missed return of serve. But it wasn’t his body that betrayed him; it was his nerves. Nadal had numerous chances to break serve in the fifth, but he couldn’t come up with the shot he needed. It was an old problem with Rafa, one that many of us thought he had left behind during his brilliant start to the season. Outside of the French Open, this was the fifth straight major where he had exited in a five-setter.
Nadal wasn’t the only member of the Big Four to falter earlier than expected. For Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, both of whom passed their 30th birthdays this spring, it was the body rather than the mind that rebelled. As with Rafa, old problems caught up to them in the quarterfinals. First, Murray hobbled off a loser to Sam Querrey; the hip issue he had been nursing, and camouflaging, through the first week had flared again. Later the same day, Djokovic was forced to retire in the quarterfinals with an elbow issue that he said has plagued him since the beginning of 2016.
Speculation about their futures began immediately. Djokovic said he was contemplating a break from the game, while reports circulated that Murray would need surgery. Either way, the verdict of the tennis community was unanimous: Murray and Djokovic needed to follow in Federer’s footsteps and take an extended sabbatical. (Federer himself wasn’t so sure; he said, rightly, that everyone’s different and that some players don’t react well to time off.) As the game ages, will “rest” become its prevailing mantra? The U.S. Open, among other events, is praying the answer is no. The loss of Djokovic right now would be particularly unfortunate. His new tri-bromance with coaches Andre Agassi and Mario Ancic was the summer’s most intriguing new development.
Still, because this is Wimbledon, Murray managed to steal the show and turn defeat into social-media victory. His mumbled interjection of “male” when an ESPN reporter said that the U.S. hadn’t had a player in the semifinal of a Slam for eight years got a lot more Twitter mileage than his loss to Querrey, which is good. It’s too common for people who are describing the pro game—I’m guilty of it, too—to say “tennis” when we really mean “men’s tennis.” Maybe Murray’s mumble, and the publicity it received, will begin to change that.
The Empires Strike Back (Temporarily)
Great Britain and the U.S. are two of the sport’s Grand Slam nations; together they created the Davis Cup 117 years ago. Aside from Murray and the Williams sisters, though, neither has been a power to reckon with at the majors in this century. On the men’s side, it had been eight years since the U.S. had put a male player in the semifinals of a Grand Slam. On the women’s side, it had been 39 years since a player from Great Britain had reached the semifinals or better at Wimbledon. Both of those droughts came to welcome ends when Querrey and Johanna Konta made it to the final four.
Querrey was the beneficiary of Murray’s injury in the quarters, but give the Californian credit for winning three straight five-setters. Asked if he would become the focus of national attention, the way Murray is here each year, Querrey scoffed. “I mean, it’s not like tennis is the most popular sport in America,” he said. “This isn’t the NBA championships or anything.” At 29, Querrey hardly announced himself as the future of American tennis, but he did show that progress is possible.
While Querrey moseyed into the semis and downplayed its impact back home, Konta made millions of people around Great Britain sit up and take notice of her for the first time. Her early win over Donna Vekic, 10-8 in the third, was a Centre Court classic, and her comeback win on the same court over Simona Halep, 6-4 in the third, may have been the finest fight of her career. When hundreds of fans stayed on Henman Hill in the pouring rain to watch that match, she had officially become a star. “Our Jo,” the pro-Brexit Sun newspaper called her after she lost to Venus Williams in the semifinals. Did the editors know her parents are Hungarian, she was born in Australia, she just become a British citizen in 2012 and she’s done her most important training in Spain? Konta’s acceptance here was another example of tennis crossing borders and climbing over walls, even in a time when those walls are getting higher.
A Tale of Two Sets
The women’s final had the makings of a classic. Muguruza and Venus Williams are 14 years apart in age, but their games were virtual mirror images on Centre Court. Six-footers with regal bearings, imposing serves and bullet ground strokes that they rarely temper, the two women started by holding 10 straight times. Every shot felt not just like a way to win a point, but a way to establish a position of psychological dominance. But each of them also had the same weakness: a forehand that could go off at any time. The key was that, just as Muguruza’s forehand appeared destined to go off, she made it stay on. It was left to Venus to miss two crucial forehands at the end of the set.
Muguruza had been impressive all week. She had leaned in and powered her shots toward the corners as she always does, but this time they found their targets; tennis coaches tell you to aim three feet from the lines, but Muguruza made that advice sound hopelessly uncool. Still, what finally won her the title was her ability, at 4-5 in the first set, to forget the two forehands she had just missed and not miss a third. That’s what turns a slugger into a player, and this player into a champion. We know Muguruza can rise to the occasion. Can we get her to rise to a few non-occasions as well? Tennis is better when she’s better.
While Muguruza was off to the races after the first set, Venus’ game staggered to a complete, silent halt. Her coach said she never settled down during the final; like Marin Cilic the following day, the court and the moment magnified every mistake, and soon she couldn’t put the ball within five feet of the lines. She had gone as far as her body and mind could take her at 37. But while the rest of us were reeling from the experience, Venus already seemed to be bouncing back. “I think there’ll be other opportunities,” she told her sister through the TV camera. Venus had tried to match Serena and keep the Wimbledon plate in the family. She had fallen short, but she succeeded in keeping another tradition of her own alive: leaving with her head held high. It has worked too well for too long for Venus to abandon it now.
Federer’s Wimbledon was a triumphant ride—cruise, really—from start to finish, but it was robbed of some of its glory in the end. By the final, his chief rivals—Nadal, Djokovic and Murray—had all fallen by the wayside. And then on Sunday, Cilic’s blister, and his emotional reaction when he couldn’t overcome it, took the air out of Centre Court. To me, the moment to remember from his eighth title here, and his 19th major win, came in the semifinals.
Federer was up two sets to love against Tomas Berdych. He had produced his best tennis exactly when he needed it, hitting four straight point-winning forehands in the second-set tiebreaker. Now he was up a break in the third, and it was showtime.
As he walked to the baseline to serve, Federer bounced a ball off his foot. Watching it roll away, he said something to it in a deep, mock-scolding voice—“Noooooo,” perhaps. Rather than have a ballperson track it down for him, Federer walked over, picked it up, stepped back to the line and fired an ace down the T.
Federer says his resurgence has been all about rest and recuperation and getting back to full strength, and there’s no question he’s a better, sharper, more complete player now than he was over the last two or three years. By winning two major titles at 35, he has given athletes and sports fans a new question to ponder: How long can good health win out over age? How long can talent, properly cared for, hold off Father Time? As Federer said on Sunday, he’s discovering that it may be longer than he, or any of us, once believed.
For now, Federer’s Wimbledon win was an appropriate way for the first half of 2017 to end. It was a six-month stretch that was utterly dominated by two names that seemed to be fading into the rearview mirror: Together, Federer and Nadal swept the three majors and won four of the five Masters events played—only Rome escaped their grasp.
Seven years ago, in 2010, I predicted that Federer would end his career with 19 major titles and Nadal would finish with 16. For a long time, I thought I had erred on the high side. Now it’s pretty clear that I—along with many others—underestimated them all along.
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