Monday, July 13, 2015

WIMBLEDON 2015 - CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR

So, what did we learn from the final this year?  Not much, to be honest.  Actually, the result this year, is really the result we should have had last year, where Federer was down a break and (miraculously) found a way to tie the match at two sets a piece.  But this year there was no respite from either Djokovic's improved serve and his ever-present return, which neutralized his opponent's greatest strength yet again.  There's been a little talk this year in the blogosphere about what is the key to success on grass, and I've always been of the opinion that the return is far more important.

If you needed any more evidence of that, just take a look at the way Djokovic broke the serve of Federer as frequently as he needed to, and how much trouble Federer had doing the same.  Both of them have been strong in the serve throughout the tournament, Federer even longer, losing one service game out of the previous 96, before the final, and then proceeded to be broken 4 times today.  So while it may seem that the serve is the key success factor, it was clear that with all of the failed break point opportunities on one side, and the successful ones on the other, and who wound up winning the title, it's clear that the key was the return.

The interesting thing is that while Federer appears to continue to be the best player in the world on grass (with one glaring exception) it is Djokovic's viability that I begin to question - after all, how long can he expect to remain as nimble and pliable as he is now?  How long can we expect lightning quick responses with impeccable hand-eye coordination, the stretching out of points over and over again, and the impenetrable wall of defense that he's putting up these days?  With the exception of his outlier Wimbledon title in 2012, Federer hasn't really won a major for 5 years, and before that he held three at a time and had made the last 7 major finals in a row - that was after making 10 finals in a row before that.  Nadal was at the peak of his powers in 2010 and again in 2013, after taking 6 months off - since then, he's won a single major and hasn't made it past the quarterfinal round in his last 3.

So we come to Djokovic, and he appears to be at the peak of his powers, having made 14 major finals in the last 5 years, winning 8 of them, it would appear he is well on his way to the end of the rainbow, but it remains to be seen if there is a pot of gold, or leprechaun waiting for him.  The end comes quickly, for those who choose it, and those who do not, and it's hard to imagine him doing much better than he's doing now, but not hard to imagine him doing much, much worse.

On the women's side, Wimbledon has confirmed the one thing that we've all known - Serena Williams is far and away, the best player in the world, and it remains to be seen if she will anoint herself the greatest player in the history of the game.  But there is something that hasn't been brought to light, out of either deference or political correctness, that bears discussion:  is the state of the women's game the equal of the men's game?  And if not, does the palpable absence of reverence for her accomplishments result from one of the "isms" she is wont to claim, or simply an acknowledgement of the paucity of quality that surrounds her?

Gone are the great competitors, with games that had the capacity to challenge her on a regular basis (including her sister's) and left behind is a litany of weak clones with all the aesthetic appeal of her game, and absolutely none of her capacity.  I don't usually subscribe to the weak era argument, but watching one paltry substitute after another play exactly the same way, only much much worse, for the last 3 years, has begun to make me wonder.  In a quote often ascribed to Albert Einstein that, "...madness is defined as doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result."  If so, women's professional tennis is a mad, mad world, indeed.

But on the men's side, the result of the final, was exactly what we should have expected from last year - with only the first and second set results reversed.  According to Chris Evert, Federer did what he did last year with a bad back, and as such, with his ruthless dismissal of Andy Murray, there was an expectation that he would be able to get a different result this year.  But as it turned out, the one who played better than last year was Djokovic, and the result was equally more in line with where they are in their match up.

Federer still depends heavily on the quality of his serve, and although it had been firing on all cylinders for the past 12 matches, in this one, the quality of Djokovic's return forced him just beyond his comfort zone, and whereas he was broken just once in 12 matches, he was broken 4 times in this one.  One can question whether it was the chicken or the egg (did his serve falter or was it caused to falter by the quality of the return), but these are largely academic questions.  As it stands, without his serve affording him 1-2 free points per game, the remainder of his arsenal is insufficient to trouble the best player in the world on his worst surface, where he now has 3 Wimbledon titles to his name, and has never lost a final.

This tournament had the potential to mean a lot of things to a lot of people - Nishikori petered out early with an injury, Dimitrov lost to an inspired Gasquet (with the loss looking better and better as he progressed through the draw), Raonic looked right at home on what should the best surface for his serve, and then promptly lost to the first person who could return it with any level of consistency.  Gasquet looked like he would finally fulfill the potential of his talents, lauded on the covers of French magazines since he was 9 years old, but he too ran into the juggernaut that his Djokovic and was largely ineffective.  His last victim, Stan Wawrinka, was on the verge of entering the pantheon of great players in world tennis, but he, perhaps prophetically, confirmed before the fact, that he is not at the level of those that precede him in prestige and success.

Murray was playing some of the best tennis of his career at Queens and then at Wimbledon, but even the totality of British support for him couldn't overturn the advantage that Federer has over him when it counts.  It wasn't to be for him, nor his conqueror.  And finally, Nick Kyrigos impressed us with the breadth of his personality, and the shallowness of his game, but in the end, he failed to leave much more of an impression than that of a petulant manchild with more bark than bite.  Only time will tell if he can become something more than an Australian Monfils, and finally deliver to that country the major champion it so desperately seeks.

Tangentially, the one area that did surprise me was the extent to which ESPN took advantage of the considerable knowledge and analytical skills of Jason Goodall, who along with Robbie Koenig, is part of the internet's most insightful analyst team in the game, and has been for the last 10 years.  But with the advent of hawkeye technology and statistics, to supplement his propensity to analyze the only thing that matters in tennis - the technical - Goodall put to shame the perfunctory pseudo-psychological drivel that normally passes for analysis in the studio.  All the talk about pressure and confidence and belief sounds more like the expression of their own perceptions of what they felt as players, but brings us no closer to the answers to the question that we all (should) want to know:  how the hell do they do it?  It could be that Goodall's long overdue inclusion at the table, and his clear prowess at it, was the only surprise this year.

So in the end, the Championships at Wimbledon 2015 had the potential to make an impression on the tennis world, but once again failed to do so, and as such we learned little from this tournament that we didn't already know.  Will the US Open do the same?

I have a feeling that just like the last 5 years of that tournament, the last major of the year will turn out the last surprise of the year as well - because this one sure didn't.
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