Time and tennis move fast. Surely, the All England Club is already reseeding the grass for next year’s fortnight. As the tennis season inexorably moves forward, it’s worth considering the questions posed and answers given on the Wimbledon lawns.
1. Can Novak and Serena be stopped?
So far, the answer seems to be no, or at least, not often. Serena has already completed Serena Slam 2.0, and is on the verge of the calendar year Grand Slam. Serena’s only viable opponent is … wait for it … Serena herself. Seeing the footage of Serena Slam 1.0 underscores how amazing Serena’s second act has been. Defined by her relationship to Venus at the start of her career, she will end her career as the standard against which at least two generations of tennis players have been measured. As long as she remains mentally engaged and injury free, it’s hard to imagine a consistent challenger to her throne anytime soon.
As much as Serena’s dominance has the quality of a bulldozer, simply plowing through the opposition, Novak Djokovic’s mastery of the field is more like smoke – enveloping his competition, and defeating them from the inside out. Despite his disappointment in Paris, he has not relented at all in his pursuit of history. Unlike Serena, Novak has opponents who, on the right day, with the right form, can sneak a title away from him, but not often and not easily. If he remains on the tour longer than Federer and Nadal, he may inherit the love of the fans he so desperately wants and richly deserves. For now, he has their respect, which may be most important of all.
2. How do you solve a problem like Maria?
Ah, Maria Sharapova, as Chris Evert would say (Chrissie does love using full names, like a Chekhov play). The grittiest competitor on the tour has had no answer for Serena Williams for over a decade. At times it has felt that Maria’s heart is simply not in it, when Serena is on the other side of the net. It is a bad match-up, but more and more, these matches are harder and harder to watch. It was fascinating to hear Tim Henman, Andy Roddick and John McEnroe dissect Maria’s serve for their BBC podcast (more on that later!), but the fact that her service woes are that easily diagnosed means that she has work to do. At age 28, she is still in her prime, but definitely at the back end of her career. It will be interesting to see how much Maria will be willing to invest in trying to beat Serena, or whether she will be content to grab what’s available when (if?) Serena isn’t there in the final rounds.
It is useful to contrast Sharapova with Victoria Azarenka. A few years younger than Sharapova, Azarenka has played Serena far tougher. Even in her loss to Serena this year at Wimbledon, it was heartening to see how much Vika pumped herself up, trying to will herself to victory, even when losing seemed inevitable. There’s much to respect in Vika’s fight, and also in her climb back from a tough year – a hard breakup, losing her beloved coach to a new tennis “it girl” in Eugenie Bouchard, and struggling after coming back from injury. Easily Serena’s best opponent since Justine Henin or even Venus, Vika hasn’t always gotten the respect she deserves. Her Nike gear is rarely well-suited to her, as if the best designs were given to Serena and Maria, and Vika got the leftovers, and crowds have been slow to warm to her after her controversial medical timeout against Sloane Stephens in Australia. But, the heart she has shown in making her way back to the top shows there is much to admire and much to look forward to.
3. The Notorious Richard G.
In reviewing Richard Gasquet’s loss to Novak Djokovic, a commentator pithily summed it up as “Richard Gasquet showed us that he is who we thought he was.” It’s true that Gasquet was not able to overcome the onslaught of Djokovic, but it is unfair to say that the Frenchman simply crumbled. A notable child prodigy, Gasquet has lived under the burden of being France’s greatest hope for a champion, and then, when he didn’t collect the expected trophies, France’s greatest disappointment. All of these labels belittle a man who had an outstanding result at this year’s Wimbledon – defeating the reigning Roland Garros champion, Stan Wawrinka, and making the semifinals of a major for the third time in his career. While he joked that he was the “worst” of the four semifinalists, reaching that stage of the tournament was a good showing. His win over Wawrinka showed considerable nerve. It’s underestimated how much Wawrinka’s late career success must have unsettled his peers, who were resigned to lurking in the shadows of the Big Three, by putting them under pressure to make their marks before time ran out. While Gasquet may not replicate Wawrinka’s success, he has continued to push forward, providing some beautiful tennis along the way.
4. Too early for goodbyes
It’s inevitable that, as much as the narrative of tennis a decade ago was about the smoldering rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the current narrative is, in part, about its demise. Of course, this is unfair to the considerable achievements of Novak Djokovic, but every great fairy tale needs an end, right?
While the days of the Federer-Nadal rivalry as the signature rivalry of the sport are well past, the diverging paths of the protagonists are on everyone’s minds. Nadal has struggled this year more than he has in a decade, losing his grip on the French Open, and falling, once again, in the early rounds at Wimbledon. He is too young and tenacious not to make another full run at regaining his top form, but it’s no given that he will be able to catch Djokovic in the next couple of years. For now, Nadal needs to focus on reliably beating the field, but it would be surprising for him not to make more deep runs at the majors, especially in Paris. While every comeback may not have the success of his 2010 return to form, there’s certainly more upside to Nadal than what we’ve seen so far this year.
As for Roger Federer, he’s not likely to leave Wimbledon too disappointed in this year’s effort. He summoned up some of his best, swoon-worthy tennis to beat Andy Murray in the semifinals, provided the obligatory tweener hot-shot in the first week, and if he had won a few more close points, could have grabbed his 18th major. Not bad for two weeks’ work, that’s for sure. Inevitably, every appearance he makes in the latter stages of a Slam raises the question of whether it will be his last chance to win another one. Consider this: only Novak Djokovic has appeared in more Slam finals since the 2014 Australian Open, and Federer has appeared in the same number of finals as Stan Wawrinka and Rafael Nadal in that time period. Of course, Stan won both of his finals and Rafa split his, while Federer has lost. But, if he remains healthy and keeps his movement up, it’s hard not to like Federer’s odds of being in the hunt going forward, with his improved health and bigger racquet. As long has he can remain a contender, he’s not going anywhere.
5. Welcome home, Andy.
Andy Roddick has returned home to tennis, and the sport is already richer for it. His BBC broadcasting debut was nothing short of perfect, with his blend of current insight and humor giving the broadcast the modern update it needs. More importantly, it gave us the opportunity to hear him, John McEnroe, and Tim Henman together on their 6 Love 6 podcast for BBC. There have been many complaints about John McEnroe as a commentator – out-of-date on players, flip-flopping on the GOAT question, too many words, but this podcast shows McEnroe in his element, mixing it up with callers, encouraging children, and joking around with Henman and Roddick. It’s sometimes easy to forget how good McEnroe can be as a broadcaster – it’s hard to imagine any other tennis player guest hosting a late night show as he did for David Letterman – but he is at his best when he has some chemistry with his partners in the booth, like he did with Mary Carillo. If there’s one nit to pick with Roddick’s return, it’s that his talents are a bit wasted on the taciturn BBC broadcasts. But put him with John McEnroe, and it could be a match made in heaven … or at least somewhere interesting. Universe, make it happen, preferably with Mary Carillo. Tennis Channel has some extra airtime we could use.