The first week of Wimbledon 2016 was plagued by rain. To this extent, The Championships bore a strong resemblance to the always-soaked French Open a month earlier.
The French Open, however, involved an historically rare once-in-a-century flood which swamped Paris. Even near the end of the tournament, Parisians had more important things to do than attend singles semifinals. Protecting one’s home matters just a little more than taking in a pair of tennis matches, even if those matches are supposed to represent one of the high points of a signature event on the calendar.
The French Open was dreadful, partly because of the weather, but also because 2016 — a year in which both global sport and global politics have been hard to stomach — has ravaged the tennis tour with injuries.
Roger Federer didn’t play the French, snapping his consecutive major appearance streak at 65.
Rafael Nadal withdrew from Roland Garros, denying the world a semifinal showdown with Novak Djokovic.
Victoria Azarenka, already injured earlier in the spring, suffered another injury in her first-round match in Paris. Her wins in Indian Wells and Miami were supposed to herald the return of a rivalry with Serena Williams. Instead, the injury bug overtook her yet again.
Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga couldn’t leave Roland Garros intact. Serena Williams got hurt. Her semifinal opponent, Kiki Bertens, injured her calf. Both players limped around the court in that semifinal on a gray, miserable day in the City of (no) Light. That’s just a partial list of all that went wrong in Paris.
The tennis world needed a high-quality Wimbledon, a tournament which married stirring drama with elegant action. The tennis world — on the heels of Roland Garros in the busiest, most consequential seven-week period of the season — needed The Championships to be at their best.
When rain swept through Wimbledon Village during the first week of the tournament, creating play on Middle Sunday in a backlogged schedule, hopes were not high for a riveting second week. Too many players seemed likely to get buried in an attritional avalanche. Playing day after day was likely to catch up with them, much as it did with Stan Wawrinka in 2014. (Wawrinka might have beaten Federer in the quarterfinals that year, but the daily, weather-influenced schedule caught up with his legs.)
However, just when it seemed Wimbledon would join most of 2016 as another frustrating episode in this injury-struck season, the oldest and most famous tournament in tennis provided a rich storehouse of memories that won’t soon fade away.
There’s so much to talk about at Wimbledon. Before tackling three larger stories, let’s briefly handle a bunch of smaller items which can’t be addressed at length, but require at least some mention as we say goodbye to SW19.
Novak Djokovic’s streaks of four straight majors and 30 straight major-tournament matches won were snapped by Sam Querrey in a supremely shocking third-round clash. Querrey — the Roberta Vinci to Djokovic’s Serena Williams — represented an unlikely conqueror for the reigning king of men’s tennis. The result magnified what Djokovic has done over the past 13 months. The ability to escape a bad day at the office — think of Kevin Anderson in the 2015 fourth round, or Gilles Simon in the fourth round of the 2016 Australian Open — defines Djokovic’s legendary consistency almost as centrally as his enduring superiority over Roger Federer and Andy Murray in major finals.
This upset counterintuitively enlarged Djokovic’s place in tennis history. That said, this surprising turn of events is also notable because a large dose of controversy visited the proceedings, pointing out the need for tennis reform.
Djokovic, serving for the fourth set (upon which he would have been the clear favorite in the fifth), lacked challenges for the Hawkeye replay system. Two linescalls went against him in that game. Tennis must either give players five challenges per set instead of three or (better yet) institute automatic review of close calls in the ninth game of a set, continuing through the remainder of the set. Players should not be forced to ask for reviews of calls as though they are poker chips. Replay review is supposed to be a service for players, not a burden they have to manage. This is a simple but important fix tennis needs to make before the 2017 season.
Elena Vesnina, 29 years old, found springtime in the autumn of her career during an English summer. The veteran, who entered Wimbledon ranked 50th in the world, reached her first major singles semifinal, dazzling a No. 1 Court audience in an aesthetically pleasing quarterfinal demolition of Dominika Cibulkova. Both Vesnina and Cibulkova had won their fourth-round matches by capturing a 9-7 third set. Vesnina, though, also played a doubles match in the 30 hours preceding that quarterfinal. Ostensibly, she should have been the more tired player, but Cibulkova — following her exhausting win over Agnieszka Radwanska in one of the matches of the tournament — felt the weight of fatigue to a greater extent. Vesnina left SW19 with much to be happy about.
So many “firsts” occurred at this tournament.
Angelique Kerber reached her first Wimbledon final, doing so without losing a set in her first six matches at the All-England Club. This marked the seventh straight year in which the Wimbledon women’s singles final contained at least one first-time Wimbledon finalist. The last final to not own such a distinction: 2009, when Serena and Venus Williams met.
More firsts: Marin Cilic lost a two-set lead for the first time in his career when he fell to Federer in a memorable quarterfinal. He had been 51-0 in such situations.
Milos Raonic had never authored a two-set comeback until the fourth round, when he escaped David Goffin. Raonic had lost all 10 of his previous matches in which he fell behind by two sets. If his run to the final serves as a catapult for his career, he will recall the Goffin comeback just as much as his five-set win over Federer in the semifinals.
Speaking of that result, Federer lost a Wimbledon semifinal for the first time in 11 tries (10-1). Also, a Canadian man (Raonic) made a major singles final for the first time.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova made her first Wimbledon quarterfinal.
Lucas Pouille made his first major quarterfinal.
Juan Martin del Potro scored his first top-10 win after his recent rash of wrist injuries, beating Stan Wawrinka in the second round.
Petra Kvitova failed to reach the second week of Wimbledon (the fourth round) in consecutive years for the first time since her initial 2011 championship.
One first that didn’t happen: Serena and Venus Williams didn’t lose a major doubles final. They’re 14-0 after beating Yaroslava Shvedova (a singles quarterfinalist this year) and Timea Babos on Saturday.
Serena Williams’s combined record in women’s singles and women’s doubles major-tournament finals: 36-6. She’s 22-6 in singles after her win over Kerber this past weekend, and she’s 14-0 with Venus. The legacy of the Williams Sisters — not just Serena after SW22 and SW19 — was substantially enhanced this fortnight in England. Doubles not only didn’t hijack the singles performance of either sister; it coincided with deep singles runs for both Serena and Venus.
Those stories all flowed from a Wimbledon in which Serena Williams (whose championship victory over Kerber was reviewed here) was a one-woman entertainment factory. Her doubles wins with Venus — over Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova in Thursday’s quarterfinals, and then in the final on Saturday — were terrifically fun to watch. Her semifinal win over Vesnina and (even more so) her title-match victory over Kerber featured the 22-time major champion at her best.
Serena won her singles semifinal in 48 minutes, her championship singles match in 81. Can we PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE get past the notion that a short match is somehow not as good as a longer match? If Serena Williams plays her absolute best tennis, greatness has been produced and witnessed. A match can’t be viewed or thought of in a negative light.
Some short matches are atrocious and the product of the losing player tanking. Other matches are short because the winning player plays the sport as well as humanly possible. This is what happened with Serena over the past week. One hopes human beings will cease to use match duration as a reflexive way to minimize legendary achievements.
That’s a review of a bundle of stories. Now, to the three specific big-picture reflections I wanted to offer on Wimbledon 2016:
- Venus Williams
- How hard it is to win a first major tennis title
- Andy Murray and luck
VENUS WILLIAMS: MORE THAN MERELY INSPIRING
The very notion that a person can be more than “merely inspiring” seems a bit odd. To be an inspiring individual — someone who fills other minds and hearts with new life and vibrance — is a very special quality. Would that we call could be inspiring to others; Venus is and has been on a larger scale.
Where, then, does this notion of being “more than merely inspiring” come from? The source is simpler than you might think.
Very plainly yet powerfully, Venus Ebony Starr Williams made her first major singles semifinal since she announced that she had Sjogren’s Syndrome in 2011. (Her last major semifinal was in 2010, at the U.S. Open.) It is enough of an obstacle to play cutthroat tennis at age 36, but Venus has had to learn to live with and manage Sjogren’s over an extended period of time. From 2011 through 2014, Venus didn’t make the quarterfinals of a single major. She got past the third round only once.
It was inspiring to see Venus continue to fight on the court, to continue to play for love of the game, but the idea that she could make a deep run became less likely.
Then came 2015, when Venus reached two major quarterfinals.
Then came this draw, in which Garbine Muguruza’s early-round loss opened a door for Venus to make history.
What will resonate about Venus’s achievements this Wimbledon — the first major semi in six years, the first major doubles title with Serena in four years (2012) — is that they occurred within a context of struggle, not ease.
Venus won first sets in her first five matches by scores of 7-6, 7-5, 7-5, 7-6, 7-6. The doubles quarterfinal with Serena — against Vesnina and Makarova — was a fierce three-setter with ample quantities of complicated points.
If Venus was going to make the semis in singles and win doubles at age 36, the easy inclination would have been to assume that Venus would have been able to cruise through a few of the early rounds, saving her strength for later-stage (fourth-round and quarterfinal) matches. That’s not what happened at this tournament. Venus had to push her way through the door. She had to wait out a rain delay on match point in the third round against Daria Kasatkina; lose that point and the subsequent game; and prevail 10-8 in the final set.
Venus beat three players no older than 20. She played multiple three-setters, one of them an extended-length set. She went 3-0 in first-set tiebreakers, all of which felt like match-defining moments when they occurred. Venus didn’t cruise through Wimbledon’s early rounds; she fought through it… and still answered every challenge until Kerber, in supreme form, stopped her in the semifinals.
Venus, like Roger Federer, is royalty at Wimbledon in terms of results and longevity (which is why her non-Centre Court placements are so appalling and outrageous). Yet, Venus hasn’t spent the past five years as an annual contender for the title the way Federer has. Venus turned back the clock this fortnight, but more than that, she showed that she can still achieve, not merely strive. She can overcome in terms of winning, not merely preventing Sjogren’s from sidelining her.
Venus was more than merely inspiring. One can now see what that statement really means.
TENNIS IS HARD
The men’s final on Sunday was an entirely unremarkable match. Andy Murray outplayed Milos Raonic from start to finish. Raonic competed well on a day when he looked physically depleted, as you’d expect of a man who played five-setters in two of his previous three matches and had never before played seven best-of-five-set matches at the same tournament. Murray knew how to manage his body and emotions. Yes, he committed several errors which prolonged the second set and briefly complicated his afternoon, but Murray dominated the second-set tiebreaker so thoroughly that his mistakes became quickly forgotten.
Fan Rag Sports colleague Trenton Jocz reviewed the men’s final here, and I’ll have more to say on Murray in a bit, but for now, consider Raonic within the larger sweep of recent men’s tennis history.
Since 2003, only five men have won a set in a Wimbledon final. From 2005 to the present day, only six men have won a set in the French Open final. Going back to 2004, only six men have won more than one set in the Australian Open final and the U.S. Open final. If you then raised the minimum thresholds for inclusion on those lists to four sets won — not merely one — all four lists would shrink.
More precisely, they would shrink to the point at in three of the four majors since 2005, only three men have won at least four sets in championship matches. At Wimbledon, those three men are joined by Andy Murray.
You can guess the names of the three individuals.
The staggering reality of the past 12 years at the majors (on the ATP side) is not necessarily that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have been so great, but that everyone else has been so consistently locked out.
Milos Raonic made his first major final. Everyone will wonder if this is the start of something big for the Canadian, and it could well be. However, simply know that first-time major finalists often fail to become second-time major finalists in this Golden Era of men’s tennis.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga made his first major final in 2008… and never reached a second one in the next eight years.
Juan Martin del Potro has made only one major because of injuries more than deficient tennis, but he did get a few bites at major semifinals and quarterfinals since his 2009 U.S. Open championship, and members of the Big Three (Djokovic and Federer) stopped him short of another final.
Tomas Berdych made his first major final in 2010. He still hasn’t reached his second.
David Ferrer is more a case of a player who didn’t make a major final from 2010 through 2012 — that represented his big missed period before he reached the 2013 Roland Garros final, his only major-tournament championship match.
Kei Nishikori — partly due to injuries, partly due to some disappointing showings at majors — hasn’t built on his 2014 U.S. Open final appearance.
Marin Cilic should have beaten Roger Federer in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, giving himself a great chance to make a second major final. However, his shaky mental game reared its ugly (and fragile) head.
All of the players mentioned above — Raonic down to Cilic — are hugely talented. That not one of them has made a second major final underscored how thoroughly difficult it is to win a first tennis major. Delpo and Cilic both broke through, but Cilic had the added benefit of playing a non-Big Four opponent in his final (the 2014 U.S. Open). This is what makes Stan Wawrinka — twice able to make a major final and twice able to beat a Big Four opponent — a unique figure in this era of men’s tennis.
One can see that while Roger Federer will turn 35 before the U.S. Open, and while Rafael Nadal’s career faces a steep uphill climb in its latter stages, there’s no guarantee that Milos Raonic will make a second major final in the next two years. I would bet that it will happen, but then again, I would have bet that Tsonga and Berdych and Delpo had second major finals in their futures once they broke through.
Raonic has invited fresh questions about his career trajectory. The future of men’s tennis just got a lot more interesting.
LUCKY MAN, UNLUCKY TENNIS PLAYER: THE ANDY MURRAY STORY
I close this review of Wimbledon with the man who defeated Raonic in Sunday’s final.
Andy Murray was quite fortunate at this Wimbledon. He didn’t have to play a single member of the Big Three en route to his title. It was a brilliant coaching move by Ivan Lendl to wave his magic wand and have Djokovic lose earlier in the tournament. Murray couldn’t have captured a better set of breaks at each stage of this event.
Yet, the reality that Murray got very lucky at SW19 — and also in Australia, where Raonic got injured in the fourth set of a semifinal when leading two sets to one — only serves to magnify how unlucky Murray has been in his career. I received some pushback against this (seemingly) uncontroversial notion on Sunday. I had felt that coexisting with three of the six greatest male tennis players who have ever lived was enough to cement the argument, but for some (not a majority), that wasn’t good enough.
I’ll try to make a more complete case here.
As noted above in the section about Raonic and other players sitting on one (and only one) major final appearance, tennis is a sport in which it’s extremely hard to win a first major. In golf, it’s a lot easier to win one major — you get the breaks in a concentrated four-day sequence; your swing flows; other contenders just don’t have it — but winning lots of them is a challenge. In tennis, it’s a little different. The two-week, seven-match structure of a major tournament is such that the big dogs — once they gain confidence — are often able to replicate that belief for multiple years.
Consider golf for just a moment: Among all players who won a first major in the 1980s or later, only two — Tiger Woods (first major in 1997) and Nick Faldo (1987) — have won at least six majors. In men’s tennis, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Andre Agassi, Mats Wilander, Pete Sampras, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer — nine men — have won at least six majors.
Great players generally understand, discover and apply the foremost secrets of success in men’s tennis, to the point that they win at least six majors.
Hold that thought while we move to another specific bundle of historical stats.
Look at this link and the four lists which immediately emerge — the leaders in all-time major-tournament titles, finals, semifinals and quarterfinals.
Andy Murray currently owns 11 major finals appearances, 20 semifinals, and 27 quarterfinals. He has a very good chance of making 15 finals, and is virtually a lock to make 28 quarterfinals (his next one will put him there). This means Murray has a very reasonable chance of ending his career as a top-10 (if not better) performer in terms of major finals, semis and quarters reached.
That might seem like a modest achievement, but here’s the money line: Of all the people Murray will join if he gets to that 15-major final threshold, ALL of them have won at least seven majors, and only one of those people — John Newcombe — did not win at least eight.
Let’s rephrase that for emphasis: The top-10 all-time leaders in men’s tennis for most major finals, semifinals and quarterfinals reached ALL won at least eight majors, except for one person who won “only” seven.
Andy Murray could belong on all three of those top-10 lists by the time his career is over.
He has only three majors.
Understand this about past eras of men’s tennis. There was always a period of time in which one of two situations or dynamics existed:
A) If Player A dominated Player B at one or two majors, he didn’t do so at the third;
B) If Player A dominated for a period of time — either in a head-to-head matchup or at a given tournament — that period of time generally did not extend beyond half a decade, with rare exceptions.
Here’s some clarity on the matter:
For Statement A, Bjorn Borg dominated Wimbledon and the French Open, but never won the U.S. Open. Ivan Lendl flourished at the U.S. and French Opens, but never won Wimbledon. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors both soared at the U.S. Open but never won the French. Boris Becker surged at Wimbledon but couldn’t figure out the French. Stefan Edberg was similar, though he at least made a French Open final. Pete Sampras didn’t win the French, though he’s one of Wimbledon’s greatest champions and one of the U.S. Open’s better champions. Andre Agassi might have struggled against Sampras at Wimbledon and especially the U.S. Open, but he carved out the better career at the Australian Open.
For Statement B, Borg cut short his career after the 1981 Grand Slam season ran its course. McEnroe and Connors usually got the better of Lendl in the early 1980s, but the tide turned in the middle and latter portions of the decade. Wilander’s prime lasted from 1983 through 1988. Edberg’s prime carried through five years, 1988 through 1992. Becker won his improbable, out-of-nowhere Wimbledon title at age 17 in 1985. His prime period began in 1988, but it carried only through 1991, after which he made only two more major finals over a span of roughly six years.
Agassi’s career acquired the form of three different acts divided by periods of burnout or poor results or both. Sampras, despite winning 14 majors, never made the semis or better at a major tournament for more than three tournaments in succession.
Long-term, high-level consistency — the kind which lasts eight or more years and features few lapses in high-stakes competition — is an elusive thing.
Andy Murray — if not quite able to be placed in that select category of tennis players who demonstrates long-term, high-level consistency — is certainly very close. He has demonstrated a steadiness and staying power which eclipse all but three of his conteporaries… and many of his predecessors in the sport.
Yet, Murray has achieved all he’s achieved when the limitations of past eras — Borg having a U.S. Open weakness; Lendl having a Wimbledon block; Sampras a French Open Achilles Heel; McEnroe burning out; Edberg and Becker maxing out for five-year periods at most — have not existed.
Federer made 36 straight quarterfinals, Djokovic 28. Federer made 23 straight semifinals, Djokovic 14. Federer made 10 and 8 straight finals (separate streaks), Djokovic 6. Nadal made nine French Open finals in 10 years. Djokovic became the first man in the Open Era to hold all four major titles on three separate surfaces, something Rod Laver never did. Federer and Djokovic have both made all four major finals in the same year, and they’ve also both won three majors in a year twice. Nadal has won the French and U.S. Opens in the same year twice, something neither Federer nor Djokovic have done even once. McEnroe, Borg, Connors, Becker, Edberg and Sampras never pulled off that feat even once, either.
Djokovic, Federer and Nadal haven’t merely been dominant in short, powerful bursts or at specific tournaments; they’ve been consistently dominant at or close to that eight-year threshold few elite pros have been able to match in tennis history, spread across all four major tournaments. The Big Three have hoarded so many records and streaks to an extent that no other trio ever has in men’s tennis history.
By most if not all historical measurements, Andy Murray would have had at least six — and likely eight — major titles by now. He has figured out tennis, based on his historical achievements at the major tournaments. He is not a David Nalbandian or a Tomas Berdych, someone continuously stumped by tough situations or thwarted by his own mental game. Moreover, now that Murray has become a complete, all-surface player — doing as well on clay as he does on hardcourts, if not better (a significant contribution made by former coach Amelie Mauresmo, who deserves credit for Murray’s rebound from back surgery a few years ago) — he is likely to reach even more milestones over the next three years. Assuming that happens, Murray’s standing on various all-time leaderboards will easily surpass the past 40 years of his predecessors…
… except for that one category: major championships won.
Andy Roddick was singlehandedly deprived of three Wimbledons and several additional major titles by Roger Federer. Yet, that was merely an example of one player not figuring out one matchup, mostly on one surface. Murray has been deprived of majors more than Roddick was, by more than one player. He lost eight major finals to Djokovic and Federer combined. His win over Raonic marked the first time in 11 major finals that he was the higher seed… and that a Big Three opponent didn’t stand in his way.
Let’s try to make the cross-era comparison here:
Consider what it would have been like if Borg won the U.S. Open occasionally and played into the late 1980s, AND if Lendl won two Wimbledons, AND if McEnroe didn’t burn out.
Consider what it would have been like if Agassi didn’t go through two-year wilderness journeys during his career AND if Sampras was a better, steadier clay-court player, all while Becker and Edberg remained their best selves in 1994 and 1995.
Those environments never emerged, but they approximate (at least somewhat) the past 12 years of men’s tennis.
Before the Open Era began in 1968, the unluckiest players were the Rod Lavers and Ken Rosewalls of the world, who lost several prime years at the majors because they had to turn professional and make some money. That’s one separate group of unlucky tennis players.
In the Open Era, two “Andes Mountains” — Roddick and Murray — lost at least five majors if not more because they shared the landscape with the giants of the Golden Era.
Andy Murray is a very lucky man — great wife, a young child, ample money, supportive parents, two Wimbledon titles, a Davis Cup, a special place in British tennis history, and more. At home, he’ll be remembered very fondly. Yet, in the larger scope of men’s tennis history in the Open Era, has there been a less fortunate elite player?
I dare you to find one.
That is as powerful and important a storyline as any which has emerged from Wimbledon, now finally able to be tucked into the history books.