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.

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