Monday, July 07, 2008

Wimbledon Notes: The Passing of an Age

The 2008 Championships were a solid affair made transcendent by Sunday's men's final. A few thoughts:

* I keep waiting for Richard Gasquet to become the great player he's meant to be, but his quarterfinal meltdown against Andy Murray suggests it may never happen. Gasquet has as much natural talent as anyone in the game other than Federer. He's as pretty to watch as Federer; everything about him is smooth as glass. But as soon as Murray broke him to stay in the third set (remember, Gasquet was up two sets to none, and a break, and was serving for the match), he looked like he wanted to be anywhere else in the world but on court. All of a sudden he looked like Eli Manning. Galley Friend S.H. calls that "loser face."

* Andy Murray is an animal. But he may not have the tools to win a major.

* It's frightening how fast things fall apart. Last September, Federer had just finished his third consecutive year with three major wins. With 12 slams in the bank we were wondering how much he'd pass Sampras by.

Ten months later, Federer hasn't won another slam. If he doesn't win the U.S. Open, I suspect he can't finish the year #1 in the rankings. Since January, Santino has been telling me that he thought Federer was done, that 26 is the wall in tennis, and that Federer would be lucky to tie Sampras's 14 slam wins. I scoffed, but now that seems about right.

The age of Federer is over. He'll hang around near the top for the next 18 months. He'll be a regular in the semis and finals of the slams, but absent him getting some help (injuries to other players, a draw with lots of upsets) I don't think it's certain he will win another big one. It's hard to imagine how he could win three more. Nadal and others are still on the upswing and Federer has nowhere to grow but old.

This is not a shot at Nadal--I like him a lot. He's a special player, a sweet guy, and a deserving champion. Yesterday's epic final was super-high-level tennis. Some of the best I've ever seen. But Federer lost the match by clutching up on most of his break chances. I forget how he finished the match--was he 1 for 15 on break points?--but it wasn't like Rafa was fighting them off brilliantly. Federer dumped backhand after backhand (some of them off of second serves, even) into the net on break points. The old Federer doesn't miss those.

I suppose I should just be glad to have had the chance to see him play at his peak. But I can't help being a little sad at the prospect of his diminishing.

* One of the aggravating aspects of tennis coverage is that the tennis community has all of the cliquishness of the ballroom dance world. Commentators and former players will go to any pains to excuse boorish behavior or even just foolish decision-making on the parts of players and their entourages. It's a criticism-free zone. (Unless, of course, you're some poor schlub ranked 235th in the world, in which case Pam Shriver will feel free to criticize your outfit, your body, your fitness level, and your lack of a second serve. Qualifiers don't get the same courtesies.)

But for the first time last night, I was grateful for the closed-shop tennis mentality. McEnroe was interviewing Federer just outside the locker room a few moments after the presentation ceremony. Federer, having held it together on court, was a mess. He looked like a man who understood that all of a sudden, his powers had been stripped from him, that his career was now a dead-end. After a minute or so of interview, it looked as though Federer might break down. And McEnroe, bless his heart, simply cut the interview short and gave Federer an awkward hug--the purpose of which seemed less to comfort him, than to get between Federer and the camera.

If a regular NBC reporter had been conducting that interview, they would have strung Federer along as far as possible, eager to get emotion out of him. For the first time, I was happy to see tennis protecting its own.


Anonymous said...

"All of a sudden he looked like Eli Manning."

I guess you've officially blocked all memory of February 3, 2008.

Anonymous said...

As a huge fan of Federer, I was really sad to see the loss. Like him, it's difficult for me to see this as the greatest match ever played.

But I do take issue with one thing. I thought that when Mac was talking to Federer and hugged him that Federer was annoyed, not at the edge of a breakdown. This isn't to say that he wasn't sad, which he was; just that I think his attitude toward Mac was more like "give me a break."

Anonymous said...

I think the end of the Federer era stuff is overblown. Remember, when healthy, only Nadal beats him. And as you point out, if Fed just plays those break points a bit better in the first two sets, he wins yesterday. And I'm not sure one can point to age as the reason. I'd bet he wins at least one more Austalian, Wimbledon, and US Open. Nadal has yet to prove he can grind on the hard courts. I think the drop-off after Nadal and Fed is enormous. Still, it will be interesting to see how Fed responds to Sunday's loss. Maybe a little anger will be good for him. During his incredible run, he always seemed a bit suprised how easy it was. It won't ever be like that again, but I think it is much too early to count him out. We'll see how Nadal's knees hold up too. Thanks for the Wimbledon thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I was going to leave a comment, but the comment wound up being a post over at my joint. The relevant portion:

"But why now? Why this year? I really think age is a large part of it. With a few exceptions, the shelf-life of a top-level tennis player is exceedingly short. Sampras hit his wall at 26: though he’d go on to win four more majors after hitting the big 2-5, three of those were at Wimbledon (on the surface he and he alone dominated for almost the entirety of the ’90s), and the last, at the U.S. Open, came after a two year stretch of early exits and in a tournament where only 3 of the top 16 seeds made it into the quarterfinals. His dominant years were at the age of 21-25. Bjorn Borg’s dominant years: 22-25. John McEnroe’s best years: 22-25. Etc."

Anonymous said...

To paraphrase John McEnroe “You cannot be serious”

There are quite a few people that are writing Federer’s obituary – I’d like to add prematurely. You say done means he will probably win two or three more majors. I guess Roger’s biggest fault is that he has set himself a very high standard that even a slight slip is magnified as a huge fall.

Agreed that this year’s Wimbledon loss was huge, but considering the way that he bounced back from two sets down and almost (I bet that Borg is happy that his name is still in the record books) won his sixth consecutive title, I think Roger’s far from being done. Roger’s too classy to attribute his slip to the glandular fever that he suffered at the beginning of this year, but as someone who has followed his career for a long time, I could clearly see that he was a step slower. Roger can afford to be a step slower against most people and still beat them, but to beat Nadal, he has to be at his very best, and he has been at his very best at Wimbledon until this year. I have at the same time seen the fact that he has only gotten better as this year has gone by, and I would look for him to bounce back and win the Olympic gold and the U.S. Open.

Slice it and dice it any which way you want, even at his “advanced” age of 26, Roger’s ONLY threat is Nadal. Novak would like to believe that he is in the mix, but his second round defeat to Marat revealed a lot about his mental state - 10 double faults in one match (Roger had 6 the entire tournament). I can even explain why Nadal appears more of a threat than he really is. Go with me here… Roger’s “fault” is that he has been the second best clay courter the last four years. Unfortunately for Roger, this means he is going to run into Nadal every time they play on clay, and almost every time his game is bound to come up short. While Roger has the game to beat Nadal on any other surface as evidenced by his 5-3 record on surfaces that are not clay, his record against Nadal on clay has got to weigh on his mind every time they go head to head, especially after a clay court season where he has lost every final to his Spanish opponent. From Nadal’s perspective, this should give him more confidence and belief that he can beat Roger on other surfaces. If on the other hand, Roger had not been a very good player on clay (like Sampras) his aura of invincibility on other surfaces would be still there. Does that make sense?

You write about how you could see fear in Roger’s eyes. Let’s think about this… He has been the world’s number one for the last 4+ years with Nadal and the rest of the field breathing down his neck. I cannot imagine the pressure that he has faced day in and day out. It is simply astounding to think that he has swatted away most pretenders who have nothing to lose when facing him. I speak from experience when I say playing “up” is a lot easier… no pressure, just go out and play. My game is great when I know I am playing someone who is better than me, and I have nothing to lose. Conversely, it isn’t that great when I know I “have” to beat someone who I know doesn’t play as well as I do. If nothing, the Wimbledon final really revealed Roger’s famed mental edge. How many championship points did he have to save? And no, he didn’t win them because his opponent donated it to him… he had to hit winners to save them and all of this with the pressure of having to defend his Wimbledon streak. Agreed he did come up short – has happened to every great one so far. Roger without a doubt is the best big point player in the game, and that alone is going to be enough for the next few years.

Now, let’s get to how the futures are going to play out for Federer and Nadal… There is a HUGE difference in the effort that goes into either of their matches. While Roger is effortlessly efficient, Rafa’s bludgeoning, bruising approach means more wear and tear over the next few years. Don’t get me wrong, I like Rafa for the great player that he is and the great person that he is, but I don’t think he can sustain this level too long. His second half of the season every season is evidence enough as to the toll his body takes. Look at what happened when Leyton’s wheels (his incredible speed on the court) came off. As I mentioned before, Roger can afford to be a step slower and still win a few more slams. Write him off at your own peril. Question a great champion’s heart at your own risk.