Five thoughts from Monday's fourth-round Wimbledon action, where Victoria Azarenka and Novak Djokovic looked fantastic, Maria Sharapova fell, and the rain shortened the proceedings.
1. Rain sucks.
Well, that isn't entirely true. Throughout much of the United States right now, it's the lack of rain that sucks. But in England, rain always has a way of messing with the Wimbledon fortnight. All eight scheduled women's matches were eventually completed, but only three of the eight men's matches finished with a result. On Tuesday, one men's match will be completed (Florian Mayer leads Richard Gasquet, 6-3, 2-1), and four others will begin. That is, unless the rain interferes again.
2. We take Roger Federer for granted.
The last time Roger Federer didn't play in a men's slam was the 1999 U.S. Open. Michael Chang was still kicking around at that point. Pete Sampras was the No. 1 seed at that event (he withdrew with a back injury), and Andre Agassi won it.
It was a long time ago, in other words. While we seem to have collectively come to accept that Federer isn't quite as good as he used to be, we still take for granted the simple fact that he will be there. He's going to show up, he's going to stay fit, and he's going to look like Roger Federer, even if he doesn't always play like it.
It was incredibly jarring, then, to see him hobbling around the court with a bad back in the first set of his eventual four-set win over Xavier Malisse. At one point, he left the court altogether to get treatment. He did overcome the injury, and a rain delay, to take out Malisse, 7-6, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3; he says he should be just fine for his quarterfinal matchup with No. 26 Mikhail Youzhny, but still, you don't realize what you have until it is threatened. Eventually Federer will suffer a more serious injury. Or he might just retire. But we're not quite ready for a Federerless universe just yet, and today was a reminder of how spoiled we've been.
3. I am a sucker.
For years, the women's tour has seen a new player surge to the No. 1 ranking, then immediately falter. The same goes for slam champions. Kim Clijsters won the 2011 Australian Open, then fell in the second round at the French Open. Li Na won the 2011 French Open, then bowed out in the second round at Wimbledon. Petra Kvitova won the 2011 Wimbledon championship, then lost in the first round at the U.S. Open. Sam Stosur won the 2011 U.S. Open, then lost in the first round at the Australian Open.
When I began covering slams for SB Nation this January, however, I became convinced that this was not going to continue. Victoria Azarenka just looked too damn good in disposing of Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open finals (and not losing a 2012 match for another couple of months). Now way was she going to suffer the same ills as the 2011 champions. Okay, she lost in the fourth round. But Maria Sharapova looked far too strong in conquering the French Open clay. She's too disciplined to suffer an early lapse at Wimbledon.
Or not. Sharapova double-faulted four times and hit just 15 winners, and No. 15 Sabine Lisicki blew her off the court, 6-4, 6-3, in the fourth round on Monday. Granted, both Azarenka and Sharapova fared better following their titles than last year's champions did (they did, after all, each reach the second week and win a few matches). But they still didn't live up to their seeds. The top of the women's game is still stronger than it was a few years ago (just ask Ana Ivanovic, the former No. 1 who was obliterated by Azarenka on Monday), but it is probably not as strong as I wanted to think it was.
That said …
4. Victoria Azarenka's ceiling is really, really high.
At 22, she still has some growing pains to fight through, but the world's No. 2 player looked like she's ready to become No. 1 again. (That's good, because she will be.) She completely outclassed Ivanovic, 6-1, 6-0, in 62 minutes on Centre Court, hitting 19 winners to just six unforced errors and winning 65 percent of the match's 97 points. She won nine of the match's 11 break points (6-for-8 on Ivanovic's serve, 3-for-3 on her own), she won 79 percent of her first-serve points, and she won 80 percent of Ivanovic's second-serve points. This was the Azarenka that defeated Sharapova in Melbourne, and right now, if you put money on an Azarenka-Angelique Kerber final, you are feeling pretty good about yourself. The surging Kerber looked unstoppable in taking out Kim Clijsters, 6-1, 6-1.
Of course, before Azarenka can reach the finals, she still has to get past unseeded Tamira Pazek in the quarterfinals, then either Petra Kvitova or Serena Williams in the semis. Williams showed she still has a fifth gear in hitting three straight gorgeous winners to finish off Yaroslava Shvedova, 7-5, in the third set; Kvitova, meanwhile, played a very Kvitova match, looking tight and nervous in losing the first set to Francesca Shiavone, 6-4, then looking like an offensive powerhouse in taking the final two sets, 7-5, 6-1.
5. Novak Djokovic can still play absurdly well.
He struggled with his form at the French Open (but still made the finals). He dropped a set versus Radek Stepanek in the third round and never looked like 100 percent against Ryan Harrison in the second round. It had been a while since we saw just how devastating the Djoker can be when his entire game is working, but that's exactly what we saw on Monday.
Djokovic thoroughly whipped countryman Viktor Troicki, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3, winning 62 percent of the match's 143 points, taking 81 percent of his first-serve points and 58 percent of Troicki's second-serve points, and firing 31 winners to just 11 unforced errors. (Troicki had 15 of each.) He boomed in terribly accurate first serves (he reached as high as 128 miles per hour and landed 76 percent of his first serves), and he thoroughly demoralized Troicki. The second set lasted just 24 minutes, and the entire match lasted just 90. Even though Federer thinks he will be 100 percent in time for his next match, one has to figure Djokovic is the favorite to reach the finals from the top half of the bracket. Which makes sense, of course, since he's the No. 1 seed and defending champion and all…