Definitive Moments

Wimbledon, Semifinals

(1) Nadal d. (4) Murray

(2) Djokovic d. (12) Tsonga

I do not generally subscribe the idea of a single definitive turning point in tennis matches, and am slow to discuss any encounter in such terms. Fundamentally, the idea is just too pat, and cedes insufficient importance to the kaleidoscopic thatch of small points within which these so-called key moments nest. The patness derives from the a priori nature of casual analysis, since it is usually impossible to discern a momentum shift as it is experienced. The exceptions, such as they are, take place when no point is being played at all, which is to say, during medical timeouts or, more often, at the sit-down between sets. With all of that said, there are times when the moment is clear, even as it happens.

Until 7/5 2/1, Andy Murray was not exactly unplayable, but he was playing out of his mind, executing that special gameplan – an unrelenting assault on the lines – that he apparently reserves for Rafael Nadal and no one else. Nadal, characteristically, was hanging on, grimly, having only conceded that lone break to drop the first set, a game in which Murray had pummelled him to 0-40, before finally breaking through. As Nadal served at 1/2, 15-30, Murray launched another big return, streaking crosscourt, which Nadal could only reflex back lamely to the service line. Murray skipped around and lined up a forehand. Forced to guess, Nadal guessed wrong, and scooted to cover the vacant crosscourt. Murray, wisely, pulled the shot up the line behind his opponent, into a hectare of open court. But somehow he missed, inches. A challenge, and it was confirmed long. It would have been 15-40, double breakpoint, but it wasn’t, and Nadal went on first to hold, and then to take 11 of the next 13 games.

From that forehand on, Murray was never the same. If the idea of a defining point holds any currency, it is because tennis is a contest between fallible humans. If you believe that momentum has swung dramatic against you, then it inevitably has. Murray fell sharply away, resurged briefly but fruitlessly in the fourth, and then that was that. Afterwards Nadal was, as ever, gracious to the point of being patronising. Everyone is well aware Murray is good enough to win a major. It’s just that there are a few guys who are better at it, and he can’t seem to avoid them. They’re always lurking at the pointy end of the draw.

The world No.1 moves through to his fifth Wimbledon final, hoping to maintain his imposing record for another year. The No.1 ranking, however, is already gone, to the man he’ll face on Sunday, the man who has already beaten him in four out of four finals this year. Nadal and Djokovic were supposed to contest the decider in Paris, an inevitable match that never happened, but they’ll get their chance now, one month on.

Djokovic looked far more convincing in winning his semifinal than he had the round before, and certainly more than he did a year ago, when he lovingly handcrafted three of the poorest sets conceivable in going out to Tomas Berdych. Nonetheless, today’s win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga remained some way from the Serb’s best. Tsonga, for his part, did not reprise the outrageous bravura he’d displayed in over-running an in-form Roger Federer. He was decent, don’t get me wrong, but he wasn’t frightening.

This match did not necessarily have a key point, although it boasted a myriad of terrifically entertaining ones. But if it did, it occurred at 5/4 40-40 in the first set, with Tsonga serving for the set. He fought back from 0-40, then missed his first serve. Why he then chose to fire down a 133mph second serve is a nice question, one which would doubtless produce a disarming and wholly Gallic shrug from the culprit himself. ‘Did he forget it was a second serve?’ wondered McEnroe in the booth. He was broken back on the next point, and went on to lose the set. It hadn’t been a momentum shift as such, since Djokovic was already getting a read on the Frenchman’s delivery, but it was a pretty big stuff-up.

Upon claiming that first set, Djokovic permitted himself an emotion other than dire frustration, and turned yet again to the weird tracksuit cult ensconced in his player’s box – the cult of Novak. They have t-shirts. I can readily imagine every last one of them inhabiting a walled compound, working tirelessly at constructing the Interstellar Transport Vessel, before perishing tragically in an FBI siege. Anyway, having received instructions from the Planet Zarquon, they all raised their arms aloft and shouted in unison, eyes unchanging. It happened again at the end of the match, only this time Djokovic was on his knees, bellowing contentedly.

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