Rich With Portent

Wimbledon 2014

(1) Djokovic d. (4) Federer, 6/7 6/4 7/6 5/7 6/4

Novak Djokovic has won his second Wimbledon title, three years after winning his first, and almost four hours after commencing a classically sinuous final in which triumph and disaster always lurked equally near. In the end, but only in the end, Djokovic held his nerve, and prevailed over Roger Federer in five superb sets. It was the first great Major final in years, and an fitting culmination to another dramatic fortnight rich with portent.

Last year’s edition of Wimbledon gave us the first hint that the incumbent era of Big Four domination was coming to an end (with ‘era’ here used in the sporting sense to denote a period of about half a decade. ‘Generation’ and ‘epoch’ represent similarly telescoped time-frames.) Jerzy Janowicz became the first Polish man to reach a Major semifinal, and the first new Major semifinalist in three years. In New York both Stan Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet reached maiden semifinals, while in Melbourne Wawrinka was the first new Slam finalist since Tomas Berdych in 2010. Al Bello/Getty Images EuropeWawrinka’s subsequent Australian Open victory made him just the second man outside the Big Four to win a Major since January 2005, a period of about 1.9 generations. If an epoch isn’t shifting, something is.

Roland Garros inspired a return to reality, though even there Ernests Gulbis strained credulity by surging to the semis. The fact the hasn’t followed up on it is less surprising. By the conclusion of this latest Wimbledon, however, the indications of generational renewal  have become bludgeoningly clear, even for curmudgeons determined to misread them. Nick Kyrgios reached the quarterfinals on debut, rendering him the most easily justified wildcard since Goran Ivanisevic thirteen years ago. Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov reached the semifinals. Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil overcame the Bryan brothers in a gripping five set doubles final. Ryan Harrison qualified. It almost feels Biblical.

Of course, it is only in fiction that eras conclude all at once. Convenient cataclysms are a structural cliché of all high fantasy, from The Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time to the Bible, but in real life change comes gradually. Sartre was wrong about most things, but he right when he said that we never leave a place all in one go. Dimitrov and Raonic may have reached the semifinals, but they both lost, and the final featured familiar protagonists. Justifiable fears that this would guarantee yet another tedious decider were mercifully allayed. Djokovic and Federer arguably constitute the most dynamic match-up at the truly elite level (I understand this is subjective). I’ll come back to the final in a bit.

Rafael Nadal contrived to lose the first set in each of his first four matches, though only in the last of these did he lose any more than that. The go-to narrative through the early rounds was that he was ‘finding a way’ to win, an oft-chanted mantra among those fans who’re invested heavily in the Spaniard’s alleged fallibility (a category that certainly includes John McEnroe). Really the ‘way’ Nadal found was a well-worn path. By any measure he was a better tennis player than each of his opponents, and after a patchy first set he started to play like it. Simultaneously the guy across the net felt his own erstwhile brilliance dim. Recent history has proved that the Spaniard is vulnerable on first-week grass (not only at Wimbledon), but exploiting this requires an aggressive player who doesn’t stop missing for several hours. Martin Klizan, Lukas Rosol and Mikhail Kukushkin didn’t miss for a while (Rosol sustained it longer than the others), but eventually Nadal’s class won out.

I can’t imagine anyone had realistically expected that the exception – the shocking exception – would be young Kyrgios, who’d only earned a shot at Nadal by saving nine match points against the cosmically fallible Richard Gasquet. (Perhaps I’m wrong – I’ve spent the last two weeks in the jungle with no more than a dribble of internet and a satellite TV feed. This meant I missed Channel 7’s coverage, and was thus spared John Newcombe’s deranged patriotism, though it did leave me at the mercy of McEnroe.) By beating Nadal in the fourth round Kyrgios became the first teenager to reach the Wimbledon quarterfinals in three whole years.

Comparisons between Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic naturally proliferated, and not to Tomic’s advantage. Of course it is only here in Australia that the ensuing discussion blossomed into a matter of national identity. Kyrgios is held to embody those values that we as a country hold dear: steadfastness, never-give-up-ness, staying-true-to-oneself-ness, the ANZAC spirit, arrogant humility (or humble arrogance), love of Vegemite, and a selection of other values that are basically interchangeable with those of every other country. Some have even argued that Kyrgios’ success will be the making of Tomic, since it will lighten the onus of national expectation. It won’t stop him having a dickhead for a father, though. I imagine the few Australians who care will be merely pleased to have someone new upon whom to ladle their hopes.

Speaking of which, Lleyton Hewitt once more demonstrated a delicate capacity for irony, declaring how ‘extremely well’ he was hitting the ball in practice as a prelude to losing to a guy who hits the ball extremely well in match-play. Janowicz was the ‘tremendous ball-striker’ on this occasion, though he struck the ball somewhat less tremendously in the next round, losing in five sets to Tommy Robredo. The Pole thus jettisoned most of the points he amassed in last year’s semifinal run, pushing his ranking out beyond the top fifty. On the subject of rankings, Kyrgios has soared 78 places to 66. He’ll surely climb higher, hopefully dragging Tomic along in his wake.

Andy Murray, on the other hand, has fallen to number ten, his lowest ranking in six years. His Wimbledon title defence petered out in the quarterfinals with a dispiriting loss to Dimitrov, continuing a trend of ignominious exits at Majors. Three of Murray’s last four losses at this level have been in straight sets, and he only won a set in Melbourne when Federer checked out for a while. Injury and subsequent surgery of course played its part, but Murray has been back on the tour for some time now. There are those who return from extended injury breaks unchanged or even improved, but I worry that Murray won’t be one of them. Instead, like Nikolay Davydenko or Magnus Norman, it appears as though something vital went missing. He still bosses around lesser players, to the extent that he can drive through an open draw – as happened in Paris – but against the best he can look frankly uncompetitive. Dimitrov now outranks Murray, and in their quarterfinal he played like it. He was actually toying with the Scot at times.

Unlike Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga cannot blame a chronic back injury – let alone surgery – yet he too increasingly looks overmatched by top class opponents. The Frenchman bluffed and bullied his way through the initial rounds, only to become one of the least problematic parts of Djokovic’s title run. There was a time when Tsonga had a strong winning record against the Serb. Djokovic was a different player then, I suppose, but so was Tsonga. Berdych’s loss to Marin Cilic was altogether more surprising, and as it transpired, controversial. Both combined for the latest finish for a match in Wimbledon history (not including matches played under the roof) which turned out not to be a record either man was particularly interested in breaking. Dull gloom had wholly enveloped the court by about 5/5 in the final set, and saner parties began to entreat the umpire to suspend play. The officials remained unmoved, pointing out that our distant ancestors hunted antelope on the African plains by night. The subsequent tiebreak was about as skilful as top class tennis played in darkness can be. We now know that Cilic is better at this than Berdych. A man for all conditions, he followed this up by taking Djokovic to five sets in broad daylight. From two sets to one down, Djokovic found a way.

From two sets to one up on Dimitrov, he even found a way to win the fourth set, thus obviating the need for a fifth. The Bulgarian had a handful of points to force a decider, including some on serve, but alas couldn’t make them stick. He otherwise rag-dolled himself about the court with great élan, as did Djokovic, and often at the same time. A few points ended with both men prostrate, leaving no doubt as to their commitment, though questions linger over their footwear. Dimitrov is still mightily inconsistent – in an earlier round he was lucky to survive the even less consistent Alexandr Dolgopolov – but he has lately arrived at a game style with just enough structure that his frequent moments of brilliance coalesce into meaningful results. I won’t deny that Roger Rasheed has been pivotal. I’ve historically given Rasheed a pretty hard time, but only for the nonsense he utters: I’ve never doubted his ability to extract results from the kind of talent hitherto held back by a lack of discipline. Since teaming up with Rasheed, Dimitrov has won titles on hardcourt (indoor and outdoor), clay and grass, and has now reached the semifinals of the world’s premier tennis tournament. He is ranked number nine, the youngest man in the top ten.

Raonic is only five months older, and along with Eugenie Bouchard ensured this edition of Wimbledon would be especially unforgettable for Canada. Raonic has risen to number six, though this seems rather high given how easily he was handled by Federer in the semifinals. As with Dimitrov, it seems the choice of coach was decisive, in this case Ivan Ljubicic. The fearsome serve has lately been augmented by a far more rounded and aggressive ground game. This enabled him to sail through tricky previous rounds against Kei Nishikori – a match I’d believed the Japanese man would win – and Kyrgios. Sadly Raonic’s return-game remains inadequate, and in the semifinal he barely troubled Federer’s serve. His own serve was nearly impregnable but for a fatal lapse in each of the three sets, at which point he was duly broken. Federer learned long ago how to navigate encounters like this.

It is startling to realise that this was only the second time Federer and Djokovic have met in a Major final – the other being the 2007 US Open – especially when we consider that they have played 12 times at this level, including nine semifinals. The reasons for this are most structural, and according to some downright shady. The Federer-Nadal duopoly at the top of the rankings forced Djokovic to endure an arduous apprenticeship at number three, and for whatever sinister reason he was almost always drawn in Federer’s half. There was apparently a conspiracy, though its goals were unclear. Apparently these goals have been attained, or abandoned.

Djokovic was the better player through the first set, or at any rate was holding more comfortably. Federer nonetheless won the tiebreak, and might have won another in the second set had Djokovic not spoiled it by breaking early and then gradually serving out the set. It was only the second time in the tournament Federer had been broken (he dropped serve to Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals). The tennis was brisk and fascinating, with stylistic contrast provided by Federer’s inclination to charge the net and Djokovic’s perfect willingness to go on passing him. The longest rally in the entire match was only 23 strokes, and it was very rare for any point to exceed ten. As ever, I was impressed by Djokovic’s adaptability. When facing Federer he stands up on the baseline and matches the Swiss champion’s intensity, going stroke for stroke, and winner for winner.

Indeed, today he more than matched Federer from the ground, amassing about three times as many forehand winners. Federer for his part hardly bothered to aim his first serves anywhere but at the lines, and finished with 29 aces. The third set ticked along metronomically on serve, notwithstanding a few dicey cross-rhythms introduced at the end. Once into the tiebreak Djokovic steadied, while Federer embarked on a poly-rhythmic spree of errors. In the fourth Djokovic emerged from a mid-set flurry of each-way breaks holding a 5/2 lead. Federer held for 5/3. Djokovic stepped up to serve for the championship, but not well. His ballooned forehand error on the first point signalled the momentum switch. The Serb receded and Federer surged: breaking back, and saving a championship point in his next service game. By 5/5 Djokovic had comprehensively fallen apart, and was broken once more amidst a flurry of mistakes. Federer held comfortably to claim his fifth straight game. The match was poised at two sets apiece – the first five set Wimbledon final in five years.

Anticipating the heavy toil ahead, Djokovic availed himself of an extended toilet break, while Federer lounged court-side. Idle-handed BBC cameramen swept the crowd for stray celebrities, alighting frequently on Victoria Beckham, who looked neither pleased nor remotely curious about what was happening. Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman and Orlando Bloom all seemed happier to be there. Federer didn’t drop a point on serve through his first three service games of the fifth set, implying he’d retained momentum. One doubted whether this streak could last against a returner of Djokovic’s quality. So it proved.

In the eighth game Djokovic returned all eight serves he faced, although Federer eked out the hold for 4/4. Djokovic held comfortably, and Federer was now serving to stay in the match. In the 2012 Olympic semifinal he’d managed to do this over a dozen times on this very court, but any anxiety that they were settling in for the long haul proved unfounded. Djokovic’s returns only grew more potent, and Federer’s backhand contributed a string of unforced errors (like Sam Stosur’s biceps, Federer’s backhand boasts an independent, folkloric existence). The last of these errors came on break point, caroming from the net, and meant that Federer lost the game, the set, and the match, and therefore the 2014 Wimbledon title. Al Bello/Getty Images EuropeMore accurately, Novak Djokovic won it. He is now the first man to defeat Federer at all four Majors, although it’s conceivable this achievement wasn’t uppermost in his mind as he thrust his arms aloft, as he once again sampled the Centre Court grass, or even as he darted through the crowd to embrace his team.

Federer for his part appeared far less disappointed to receive his second runner-up plate than he did his first; his single tear was a far cry from 2008, when the loss of his Wimbledon crown reduced him to ash-hued devastation. Victory this year would have pleased him infinitely more, but at this late stage of the sport’s most distinguished career it all must mostly feel like icing. I doubt he’ll ever treat triumph and disaster the same – what professional athlete truly does? – but at least he’s learned they’re fleeting imposters. For reaching the final he returns to number three in the world, and supplants Wawrinka as the Swiss number one, a switch that might please both of them (unless it obliges Wawrinka to contest the deciding rubber of the Davis Cup final).

Djokovic returns to number one thanks to his second Wimbledon title, precisely three years after his first title propelled him to the top. Incredibly, this is the third time in five years that the Wimbledon champion has gone to number one. Of course the reality of a 52 week ranking system is that no player makes it to number one just by winning one tournament – Djokovic’s latest reascent is a testament to nine months of brilliance and toil – but it is nonetheless poetic that the world’s most prestigious event seems so pivotal. Even if it’s a nice coincidence, it helps legitimate the otherwise inscrutable rankings in the mind of the general public. (I recall my mother’s sneering disbelief when Thomas Muster made it to number one despite ‘only’ winning the French Open.)

Beyond the general public, though, I suspect that even for the players the number one ranking feels more lustrous when accompanied by the Wimbledon trophy. This is especially the case when the title was so hard won. Djokovic fought harder than anyone to reach this year’s final, all the while displaying the essential Australian qualities of steadfastness, never-give-up-ness and staying-true-to-oneself-ness, which as it happens are essential Serbian qualities too. Or perhaps they’re just intrinsic to Djokovic. As he eloquently pointed out afterwards: even after that fourth set disaster, his convictions still outweighed his doubts. His note-perfect on-court speech, delivered through a sheen of tears, made it clear that for the new number one, as for the man he’d defeated, Wimbledon still means nearly everything.

 

Apologies for any factual inaccuracies in this post. As I say, I’m located in a fairly isolated spot in the jungle, with very limited internet. Think Heart of Darkness with better food. This post, for example, took fifteen minutes and four attempts to upload. The horror.

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