Wimbledon 2012: Favorites Falter But Survive

A recap of Friday's Wimbledon drama, including Roger Federer winning in five sets.

1. Roger Federer's backhand isn't what it used to be.

At his best, Roger Federer was the perfect tennis player. His serve has never been Pete Sampras' by any means, but his offense was untouchable, his footwork and speed were world class, and his slice backhand consistently killed an opponent's rallies by dying within three feet of the baseline every… single… time.

Now, about a month from his 31st birthday, he still has the Roger™ forehand, he still moves beautifully, and his serve is actually better. But that backhand slice is sitting up more, and it's landing short much more frequently. It's the reason he doesn't win as many return points, and it's the reason he has fallen behind, two sets to none, in three of his last five slam matches: to Juan Martin Del Potro in the French Open quarterfinals (he rallied to win), to Novak Djokovic in the French semis, and to Julien Benneteau in the third round at Wimbledon on Friday. When he is controlling the point, he is as good as ever. But he cannot slow down an opponent's offense as much, and he cannot approach the net off of a backhand chip-and-charge… at least, not if he actually wants to win the point. It is really the only part of his game that has faded, but it is the reason he has gone nine slams in a row without a title.


More: Full Wimbledon Coverage

2. Roger Federer does not lose seven of eight tiebreakers.

… he advanced. The day after Rafael Nadal was toppled in a monumental upset, Federer dropped the first two sets to Benneteau, 6-4, 7-6, then rallied to win the final three, 6-2, 7-6, 6-1. Benneteau lost his focus in the third set, either because of a couple of awkward falls or because he simply eased up; but Benneteau responded in the fourth and came within two points of winning the match when he got ahead of Federer, 15-30, when Federer was serving to force a fourth-set tiebreaker. Federer rallied, rallied again early in the tiebreaker, then took the tiebreak, 8-6. Somehow, Federer had dropped six of his last seven tiebreakers -- even with a lesser backhand, that is unfathomable to me. But he didn't lose seven of eight. He outlasted Benneteau in the fourth set, then crushed his exhausted opponent in the fifth.

Federer looked as shaky in the third round as he looked dominant in the first two. Survive, advance, and hope you play better in the next round. (And speaking of the next round, Federer gets to face another slightly awkward matchup against 31-year old Belgian Xavier Malisse. The two have faced each other at Wimbledon before… in 2001, when the 15th-seeded Federer dropped Malisse in five sets. Malisse, who rebounded to make the Wimbledon semis in 2002, ranks just 75th in the world now, but he continues to play well at Wimbledon. He made the third round in 2010 and the fourth round in 2011 in each of the last two years. Though Federer has won nine of 10 against him, Malisse will be a very tough out.

3. Maria Sharapova still has some work to do.

Here's what I said about Maria Sharapova as she was on the verge of her first French Open title three weeks ago:

Sharapova's discipline has been remarkable to watch. In a women's game filled with players who cannot stay out of their own way (Kvitova, Stosur and Ivanovic quickly come to mind), Sharapova almost comes across as that teacher's pet you used to hate in high school -- she closes her eyes and talks to herself between points, she gives herself little first pumps that she doesn't care to share with the crowd. Only, unlike the teacher's pet, this isn't an act, and it isn't an attempt to impress anybody. She does it because it works. She ends mini-slumps more quickly than any of the tour's big power hitters (even those named Williams), and she has not lost to a player seeded outside of the Top 10 of a tournament since last year's U.S. Open.

Sharapova continues to advance, but her "mini-slumps" are lasting a bit longer at Wimbledon than they did at the French Open. In the second round win over Tsvetana Pironkova, she faced set points in the first set before rallying to win a tiebreaker, then she blew an early 3-1 lead and lost the second set in a tiebreaker. (She won the third set, 6-0.) And in her third-round win over Su-Swi Hsieh on Friday, she cruised through the first set, then suffered an early break in the second before rallying to win, 6-4. She is still winning, obviously, but things aren't coming as easily. Now, to advance from her section of the bracket she must defeat No. 15 Sabine Lisicki (who advanced to the Wimbledon semis last year before losing to Sharapova) and either No. 8 Angelique Kerber (who smoked No. 28 Christina McHale, 6-2, 6-3, on Friday) or Kim Clijsters (who is Kim Clijsters). While Victoria Azarenka's and Agnieszka Radwanska's section has opened up significantly, Sharapova's has trended toward chalk. If she makes another Wimbledon final, she'll have earned it.

4. Agna Radwanska is looking really, really good.

Agnieszka Radwanska, the 23-year old from Poland, has clearly had an excellent year. She has advanced to No. 3 in the world, and she has claimed plenty of scalps both in 2012 and before. But she has yet to advance beyond the quarterfinals of a slam, and she lost in the second round at Wimbledon last year. But through three rounds, she is perhaps playing the most impressive tennis in the women's draw. (Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova might draw issue with that statement, of course.) In six sets, Radwanska has dropped 11 games. In the last two rounds, she has won sets 6-2, 6-1, 6-0 and 6-2. She blew a nervous Heather Watson off the court on Friday, and she did so in Radwanska fashion: with almost completely error-free tennis.

Radwanska plays the Caroline Wozniacki game, serving as a human backboard until you screw up or fall down from exhaustion. She committed just six unforced errors in 14 games on Friday, including just two in her 6-0 first set. Her fourth-round opponent, Camila Giorgi, however, brings a ton of offense to the table -- she had 25 winners in her straight-set victory over No. 20 Nadia Petrova on Friday. Radwanska could run into trouble if she starts struggling to run down potential winners, but so far, so good for the world No. 3.

5. Centre Court gets crazy when the roof closes.

Rafael Nadal lost to Lukas Rosol on Thursday night in London, No. 1 Novak Djokovic dropped the first set to No. 28 Radek Stepanek, and No. 3 Roger Federer dropped the first two sets to No. 29 Julien Benneteau. We are getting quite used to chalk in men's slams -- you know Nadal, Djokovic and Federer are probably claiming three of four semifinal slots, and you know Andy Murray has a good shot at the fourth. But if weather continues to force closure of Centre Court, we could see some more craziness this fortnight.

6. It's been an incredibly fun first week.

Hope you're enjoying it.

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