Five thoughts about the 2012 Wimbledon Championships, from the old hands in an older person's game (Serena Williams and Roger Federer), to a fortnight's ups and downs, to Andy Murray's improvement, to inexplicable roof decisions, to ESPN's nearly perfect tennis coverage.
1. Thirty Is The New (Nevermind, You Already Know The Cliche).
Apparently getting old doesn't suck as much as I said it did a couple of weeks ago. Players like Venus Williams, James Blake, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Lleyton Hewitt, Kimiko Date-Krumm and Tommy Haas may have exited the singles competition early, but it is difficult to go too far down the "age matters" road when 30-year-old Roger Federer (31 in August) and 30-year-old Serena Williams (31 in September) take the singles titles.
I've talked a lot about how fitness and technology have made tennis an older person's game. A teenaged Boris Becker or Pete Sampras isn't allowed to wreck shop in a grand slam just because of a huge serve and physical superiority. At this point, everybody has some level of physical superiority. Winning today requires both serious athletic prowess -- and wisdom.
On the men's side, youngsters like Milos Raonic (21 years old, No. 23 in the world as of Monday), Bernard Tomic (19 years old, No. 45), Ryan Harrison (20 years old, No. 48), and David Goffin (21 years old, No. 59) have made inroads in 2012, but their ceilings are still going to be relatively low until they master the mental portion of their craft. The same goes for players like Christina McHale (20 years old, No. 28), Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (21 years old, No. 29), Simona Halep (20 years old, No. 45), Petra Martic (21 years old, No. 48), Sloane Stephens (19 years old, No. 49), Timea Babos (19 years old, No. 65), Arantxa Rus (21 years old, No. 67) on the women's side.
Building a high tennis IQ, and coming to grips with just how fit you have to be to succeed at a high level, takes time. Women like 2012 Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka (22 years old, No. 1) and 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova (22 years old, No. 6) have begun to break through, but Williams' straight-set wins over both players showed that they still have some learning to do.
2. A Fortnight Is A Long Time.
A week ago, I was expressing serious concerns about both Federer and Williams. Williams' footwork was slow and labored, and she was forced to go deep into the third set to defeat both No. 25 Jie Zheng in the third round (9-7 in the third) and wildcard Yaroslava Shvedova in the fourth round (7-5). Federer, meanwhile, couldn't drive his backhand deep and dropped his first two sets to No. 29 Julien Benneteau in the third round, then tweaked his back and limped through the first-set against Xavier Malisse in the fourth round before loosening up and winning in four sets. The two players, who have now combined for 12 Wimbledon titles, looked like shadows of their former selves.
But two weeks is a long time, and you are simply not going to maintain a certain level of form over the course of seven matches. Williams and Federer both survived those tricky third and fourth-round matches, then found their respective forms. Williams took out defending champion Kvitova, 6-3, 7-5, in the quarterfinals, then dictated play in a 6-3, 7-6, win over Azarenka. She went up 6-1, 4-2, against new world No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska before getting nervous and faltering (she lost the second set, 7-5); but then she resumed her dominance and took the final stanza, 6-2.
On the men's side, Federer hit the accelerator at the exact same time. He dropped just five games to tennis' ultimate late-round jobber, Mikhail Youzhny, in the quarterfinals; then he won a combined six of eight sets versus defending champion (and now-former world No. 1) Novak Djokovic and No. 4 Andy Murray. He made Djokovic look slow and indecisive, and he took a couple of major uppercuts from Murray before calmly putting the match away. It was like 2006 all over again.
"Survive and advance." That is the mantra during March Madness. It doesn't matter how good or bad you look in winning; just win, and worry about looking better two days later. Well, to win the NCAA Basketball Tournament, you need to take just six contests (unless you are a First Four team, anyway); to win a slam, you must survive seven matches. It is really, really difficult, and you probably aren't going to pull it off without a scare or two. It's why Federer and Williams, who have combined to win 31 slams in the last 13 years … have only won 31 slams in the last 13 years (an average of 1.2 per year, each).
A fortnight is a long time. Just ask Rafael Nadal. Or Maria Sharapova, whose serve suddenly abandoned her, 2009-style, in a fourth-round loss to Sabine Lisicki.
3. "I'm Getting Closer."
As his fate became ordained, I feared for Andy Murray in the fourth set of Sunday's men's finals. I really worried that the storyline would become "LOL MURRAY FAIL" instead of "Federer is incredible," simply because we tend to go negative whenever possible. But that was not the case, and thank goodness. Murray played one hell of a match on Sunday, coming out intense and focused despite a nervous, boisterous crowd. He broke Federer in the match's first game, broke again a few games later, and took the first set, 6-4. His "pin Federer in the deuce court" strategy was forcing error after error. It had been a long time since I had seen Federer's forehand in such a fragile state, at least in a match against someone other than Nadal.
That Federer was able to eventually conquer him from a tactical (and mental) standpoint is no point of shame; Federer has done that a lot in his lifetime. But there's simply no questioning that this was Murray's best performance of his four slam finals; upon cursory glance, it appears that Murray's winter hire of Ivan Lendl, who also lost his first four slam finals before winning six in the next four years (and two more later on), is beginning to pay off.
Murray still occasionally (okay, always) suffers from some pretty droopy body language, and he still struggles with emotions on the court, but as he said in his post-game interview on Centre Court, he really is getting closer. Between his finals run at Wimbledon and his incredible, tight, five-set loss to Novak Djokovic in the 2012 Australian Open semifinals, he has pretty clearly closed the gap on tennis' Big Three, and it wouldn't be that much of a surprise if it became a Big Four sometime in the next year or so. His defense is stout, and his offense is dominant when it wants to be.
The last step is to take the key games in the key matches. He blew a 40-0 lead on his serve at 2-3 in the third set and ended up losing a 20-minute marathon of a game, and he missed a wide open passing shot, down 4-2 in the fourth set, which would have given him two break points. That basically made the difference in the match.
This, by the way, was incredibly tough (and awesome) to watch. As I put it on Twitter, this was the most genuinely emotional moment ever to involve Ivan Lendl in some way.
4. Wimbledon Officials Don't Like Having A Roof On Centre Court.
For two weeks, nearly every decision the members of the All England Club made regarding rain and whether to keep the Centre Court roof open made no sense whatsoever. They would cling to their "it's an outdoor tournament" mantra and send players on the court with the roof open, even though they knew rain would come to delay the match in about 30 minutes.
Even in the finals, with rain obviously on the way, they wanted to squeeze in two sets before a 30-minute "roof closure and climatization" delay. And maybe that's fine. Maybe the integrity of playing as much of Wimbledon as it has always been played (with no roof) is worth a few extra delays. But it was a frustrating viewing experience. Luckily...
5. This Was An Incredible Tournament.
The rain delays were just about the only frustrating thing about the 2012 Wimbledon Championships. I want NBC to opt out of every tennis contract it has and cede full control of slams to ESPN. The Worldwide Leader simply did an incredible job these past two weeks. They covered every match, live and without tape delay, and they put a delightful roster of commentators together -- Chris Fowler, Hannah Storm, John & Patrick McEnroe, Darren Cahill, Chris Evert, Cliff Drysdale, Mary Joe Fernandez, Brad Gilbert.
I could take the time to complain about the occasionally schlocky poetry involved with Tom Rinaldi's Barbara Walters-esque features, but that is a matter of personal taste. For all the things we (justifiably) complain about regarding ESPN, its tennis coverage is incredibly strong. It actually has respect for the game, and it shows.