The opening match brought a close escape for Sir Roger. As defending champion Federer had the honor of starting the tournament. His opponent was unseeded Colombian Alejandro Falla -- a hard-serving, hard-hitting lefty, 26, who was always a dangerous foe in early rounds but was seldom around after mid-tournament. The day was warm with mixed sunshine. The grass on Centre Court was full, the surface beautifully green, even the serving places.
The first two sets went to Alejandro, who was serving, stroking, and moving superbly, regularly out-jousting Federer in many of the rallies. In the third set the score reached 4 games all. Defeat loomed for Roger, who, serving, fell behind love-forty. Roger managed to avoid defeat, surviving five break points, and then closed out the third set.
Centre Court was now fully packed with animated watchers, who made plain that Federer was their favorite, while outside, Henman Hill too was at its capacity. Falla was beginning to show signs of groin trouble, having talked with the trainer, but he moved ahead in set four and carried his lead to score 5-4, serving. Again in deep trouble, Roger managed to survive, as Alejandro's first serve vanished and the Colombian star contributed some close misses. But there was still energy in Alejandro's machine. Roger quickly fell behind in the next game, serving, but now firing at close to his best, the champion managed to survive.
Physical and emotional fatigue now overtook Alejandro. He lost the fourth-set tiebreaker and then lost the fifth set at love. Roger, who once again produced his best when catastrophe loomed, could at last relax. The opening drama had given a prescient preview of the two weeks to follow. Federer d. Falla, 57 46 64 76 60.
The early tally of matches won by the national contingents was unusually interesting. The supposed Big Three nations for the men's honors were Spain, U.S., and France, the three that had alternated in capturing the crown at the last three Wimbledons.
Now, with all but one of the first-round singles matches completed, the clear leader was France, with nine match wins. (In the unfinished 64th singles match, France's Nicolas Mahut was entangled in a fifth set of unprecedented length against American John Isner.) Second was a high-performing German cohort, led by Kohlschreiber, Petzschner, and Florian Mayer, who upset Cilic in straight sets. Third were the Americans, with Roddick, Querrey, and Fish.
But for the Spanish male contingent, which had commanded matters at Garros a few weeks before, the first round brought disappointment, indeed disaster. Of the eight seeded players who were members of the Armada -- the largest number of any nation -- only four survived the first round. Losing to unseeded players were Verdasco, Almagro, Ferrero, and Robredo. Although Rafael Nadal won his first match comfortably and remained a leading candidate to win the singles crown, Spain's superior depth on the male side had been broken.
Here was the tally after 63 first-round singles matches.
THE MATCH: ISNER d. MAHUT, 64 36 67 76 70-68
It occupied three days on the calendar, June 22-24, and provided the longest set in pro tennis history. In the fifth set of their historic first-round meeting, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut took turns holding serve for 137 straight games.
Tall John Isner, height 6-10, served with amazing accuracy and power throughout, adding just enough skill in related areas to maintain his run of successful serving games. His opponent, the talented grass-court artist, Nicolas Mahut, 6-3 and age 28, was nearly as potent in his serving abilities, and the French star also brought an array of shot-making and net skills that were slightly superior to Isner's. When the fifth set reached 59-games-all late in the second day, both men were approaching full exhaustion, especially Isner, so that the stoppage because of declining daylight seemed to the advantage of the American.
With both men refreshed, the previous script resumed on the third day. Most of the points were short. Mahut seemed the stronger in resisting his opponent's serving pressure. For the full fifth set, Mahut had a marked edge in total points won -- 365 vs. 346 -- along with the clear advantage in points-won-percentage when serving -- 82% vs. 77%. (The average among top players at Wimbledon is 67%.) Nicolas had the added pressure of starting each new serving game in the face of immediate elimination, though it was he who had the short rest during the changeovers just before his own serving games. The crowd's energy steadily built up as the score mounted.
To this contrarian, it seemed that it would have been better to have settled things in a fifth-set tiebreak game, as would have been done at U.S. Open. I thought that stamina was becoming too large a factor in deciding the verdict, in effect altering the character of the sport. I thought of the enormous popularity of the tiebreakers when they were first introduced. Still, I had to admit that the crowd interest at Wimbledon did not decline but indeed built up as the score mounted.
Throughout the ordeal, both players were totally engaged in the moment, determined to hold serve, determined not to be wasteful of precious energy when opponent served unless opportunity was strong. Both players stayed strong of resolve and judgment.
The end came when Isner managed to return a sequence of Mahut serves, generally keeping the ball low as the French player moved forward toward net. Mahut handled the difficult volleys well, but not well enough to deny John passing-shot chances. The last two points came on firm passes by the American, one off John's forehand and the last off the backhand, both directed down-the-line. Except for an unsound drop-shot try by Mahut in the final game, the longest match ended not on double-faults or inept play by the loser.
The authorities honored those who took part in the extraordinary contest in a unique post-match ceremony. John Isner proved helpless the next day in his second-round singles match. His seemingly inevitable fate rekindled my opinion in favor of using the fifth-set tiebreaker. But the Match will be recalled as long as the game is played.
The second round unfolded largely according to expectations. Davydenko, who had just returned from injury, became the second of the seeded top eight to depart, after Verdasco, while both Nadal and Tsonga were carried to five sets by unseeded foes. Roddick was at first outplayed by French star Llodra but turned things around after the first set.
Roddick's win helped the U.S. stay in contention among the nations, but France strengthened its lead atop the tally, its stars collecting wins in seven of their nine second-round matches. The four non-seeded Yanks all lost their second-rounders, though Querrey and Roddick still survived in singles and there were good prospects in doubles. But the withdrawal of the pair Querrey-Isner following Isner's singles marathon seriously dimmed American hopes.
The third round of singles concluded on Saturday, completing the first six dates of main-draw play, all without a drop of rain. Rafael Nadal split the first two sets with German player Philipp Petzschner, whose blistering serve and forehand, severely sliced backhand, and excellent close-in game forced Rafa to produce his best. Philipp won the third-set tiebreaker, as both players were calling for visits from the tournament trainer. But after that it was Rafa who summoned his higher talent, overcoming his knee and arm problems and winning the fourth and fifth sets, once again showing his usual relentless pressure mixed with occasional moments of stunning brilliance. Petzschner resembles former British star Tim Henman in appearance and court manner though with superior serving and forehand power. For Rafa, it was the second-straight five-setter, he having dueled past heavy-serving Netherlander Haase two days before.
After three rounds of singles and two of doubles, the French margin was beginning to look convincing. Mathieu, Benneteau, and Tsonga were still alive in singles, and Benneteau-Llodra in doubles with good prospects just ahead because of the unexpected elimination of top-seeded Nestor-Zimonjic. The French 21.0 match-victories through Saturday evening would have been enough in most years to produce a first-place finish.
Slender hopes lingered for the U.S., whose Andy Roddick still survived in singles and the Bryans in doubles. For Spain, Nadal and Ferrer also showed late-round scoring potential in singles. Petzschner's loss to Nadal probably doomed German chances.
WOMEN'S MIDDLE ROUNDS
The tournament's first week had been dominated by the men -- in The Match and in the difficulties of Federer and Nadal. The females claimed higher attention in heavy action on Monday and Tuesday, June 28 and 29, when the survivors were reduced in number from 16 to four.
Just as among the men, six of the top eight female seeds made it safely through the first three rounds. As it happened, the two early losers among the women's favorites were Francesca Schiavone and Samatha Stosur -- the winner and runner-up at Roland Garros two weeks earlier. But whereas the two male megastars -- Federer and Nadal -- had both narrowly avoided defeat, the two top females -- Serena and Venus Williams -- advanced without loss of a set.
Octo-final action began on Monday between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, who had beaten Serena in the Wimby final of 2004. Conditions were warm and dry -- i.e., fast -- bringing forth the kind of power serving and stroking that led to short points, where Maria might hope to equalize matters against the more athletic, more mobile American. It was dazzling tennis, power answering power, with little room for finesse or variety.
The first set was close, settled in a tiebreak game lasting twenty points, including three set points in favor of Maria, all won by Serena. It came down to the superiority of the Serena serve. Maria's second serve had been delivered aggressively the entire set, but it led to several double-faults including one in the nineteenth point of the tiebreaker. Serena answered with an ace on the twentieth. Set two became comfortable for the defending champion. Behind 17 aces, Serena d. Sharapova, 76 64.
Monday also brought the match-up of the returning Belgians -- Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters. The two were deadlocked in their past meetings, 12-wins-each. Justine held command early, relentlessly pressing Kim, whose shot control was absent. But after losing the first set, Clijsters found her strong game, delivering superior power with seeming lesser effort. Frequently resulting were forced errors or errors in risk-taking by her countrywomen. Clijsters d. Henin, 26 62 63.
There was interesting competition among several rising players. Prime candidates in the second quarter of the draw were Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka. Both were eliminated in turn by Czech player Petra Kvitova, who defeated both in straight sets including both second sets won at love.
Kvitova is a hard-hitting lefty, age 20, 6-0 in height. Her Tuesday opponent was Kaia Kanepi of Estonia, 24, the player who had eliminated Stosur. Listed at 5-11 and 163 pounds, Kanepi generates extreme power at seeming little effort, especially off the forehand. Kvitova is an inch or two taller and a lithe ten pounds lighter but with nearly equal delivery power. Kvitova and Kanepi exemplify the host of rising players from eastern Europe who have threatened the game's upper levels in recent years.
It became a meeting of considerable drama. Kanepi took the first set, Kvitova the second in a tiebreaker after surviving three match points. Kanepi calmly captured the first four games of set three, but things then unraveled for the Estonian as unforced errors began to arise. Kanepi played well in spells, indeed attaining two match points to win at 7-5. But Kanepi failed to return serve in both match points, and the meltdown thereafter became complete. Kvitova refused to let the tide change, sustaining points while showing her best court mobility of the affair. When the crisis came the Kanepi feet would not behave, nor would the forehand and backhand. Kvitova d. Kanepi, 46 76 86.
Tuesday brought another breakdown of form. Slender Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria, 22, neutralized the heavier hitting of Venus Williams with a mixture of excellent court movement, medium-paced and consistent placement of the ball to the sides, occasional slice off both forehand and backhand, and -- rarely -- aggressive use of pace to create openings and net-approaches. Losing confidence as her power shots often produced errors, a distraught Venus tried to temper her risky hitting but without much success, while Pironkova showed her steadiness in long rallies. In a shocking outcome, Pironkova d. V. Williams, 62 63.
Serena faced an even more dangerous foe. Li Na showed plenty of energy along with whip-like ground strokes, forehand and backhand, that routinely carried as much velocity as Serena's offerings. The only service break of the first set came in game eleven, when Na contributed several double-faults after leading by 40-love. Indeed, it was the difference in their serving abilities that spelled out the final verdict. Although the match featured countless extended rallies of breathtaking power and placement, Serena was never threatened in her serving games. S. Williams d. Li Na, 75 63.
After difficulties in the first two rounds, Roger Federer had seemed to regain his best. His quarter-final opponent, Tomas Berdych was ranked seventh in our pre-tournament computerized assessment of player chances at Wimbledon 2010, considerably higher than his seeded place at #12. Tomas, age 24 at an athletic and muscular 6-5 in height, brought extreme potency in serving and stroking. His career had risen slower than some expected, but already in 2010 he had beaten Federer and Soderling at Miami and reached the final four at Garros.
For four sets they battled in crushing tennis -- brute hitting by the younger player, mostly the same from the champion. Both sought to maximize their first-serve strengths, serving close to full velocity in hope of a quick point or else the chance for a first-strike winner off the forehand. Berdych's first serve averaged 11 mph faster than Roger's. But if Tomas's weaponry was the mightier, both knew there was no time for probing, for feeling out ones opponent. The full power seen in the long exchanges was exhilarating to the watchers. The most frequent variant was Roger's backhand -- struck often with overspin at full power or, alternatively, with maximum underspin, kept low to secure low bounce and deny Tomas safe margin for heavy attack.
Tomas's four-set win seemed an announcement that the new generation of taller and stronger athletes is finally ready to surpass Roger. Federer afterwards made known that the back and leg troubles he incurred during the tournament were more significant than most people realized. Berdych d. Federer, 64 36 61 64.
Rafael Nadal's strengths do not match up very well against Robin Soderling's, especially on grass. Rafa's relentless overspin loses some of its effect on the slippery surface, bouncing low, while the extreme power of Soderling both in serving and stroking largely retains its energy in the bounce. Rafa on this day responded by stepping up his velocities in both serving and stroking, reducing the overspin, playing more aggressively than usually. Soderling was the heavier hitter and riskier attacker but showed excellent defensive mobility in answering Rafa's pace, including in generating plenty of both weight and accuracy of reply when under heavy pressure. Their attacking exchanges led to breathtaking tennis.
Robin won the first five games and soon afterwards took the first set. Rafa, responding in the manner just described, took the second. It seemed that the verdict rested with Robin's ability to continue delivering his thunder while holding down his own errors. Rafa obtained the early break to start set three. But with Rafa needing only to serve out the set in game ten, during the changeover Robin removed his shoe and obtained attention to his foot. Following the delay Nadal promptly double-faulted, then did so again later in what became that lost serving game. The set ended in another tense tiebreaker, where Rafa won by the margin of a single serving break.
Tired, with a hurting foot, and now behind two sets to one, Soderling scarcely resisted the inevitable after losing serve yet again. Nadal d. Soderling, 36 63 76 61.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's extreme power in serving and stroking along with his attacking tendencies, including frequent serve-and-volley excursions, stood up well against Andy Murray's sometimes passive style. The first set went to Tsonga, who finished the tight tiebreaker with a fine volley off Murray's return of serve. The second-set tiebreaker, also evenly contested, went to Murray after Jo-Wilfried, stepping forward, mistakenly let a serve-return drop on the baseline. Murray was now at his best -- serving and striking with authority, returning serve well, defending superbly. Jo-Wilfried's increasing errors decided matters. Murray d. Tsonga, 67 76 62 62.
WOMEN'S FINAL FOUR
Tsvetana Pironkova, again showing excellent variety, forceful serving, and occasional excellent power, kept Vera Zvonareva off her top game to capture the first set fairly comfortably. But as Vera gradually adjusted to her opponent's varied shot-making, which included an unusual forehand slice, the heavy artillery of the Russian began to find its range. Vera also played extremely well at net, coming forward behind deep ground strokes, winning 29 of 35 net points for the match. It was Zvonareva composed and at her best as the match proceeded, while Pironkova's errors, initially few, began to increase. Vera's nerves held, and her bigger game, played at the highest level at which the Russian was capable, ruled. Zvonareva d. Pironkova, 36 63 62.
Petra Kvitova, like Sharapova earlier, tried to overmatch Serena in power from the outset. Serving and stroking from both sides with full force, flattening out her deliveries to obtain high velocities, Petra moved ahead of the defending champion by breaking Serena's serve in the fifth game with a stretch of fine hitting and net play. Serena equalized by breaking back in the eighth behind excellent defensive work and some previously rare unforced gifts by the 20-year-old. In the set-ending tiebreak game, Kvitova fell behind with several very close misses, and Serena thereupon closed out the first set with her strongest serving of the day.
The tall Czech player continued to produce more than a few dazzling and powerful rockets. But her own errors had now become frequent, even as Serena's serving had found its zone of perfection. Serena closed out resolutely, winning the last five games. The post-match applause for both players was hearty, as the gallery understood that Kvitova is among the brighter talents for the future.
So far, it had been a wondrous two weeks for Vera Zvonareva, 25, who scored wins over Jankovic, Clijsters, and the unexpected semi-finalist Pironkova. Early in her final-round match with Serena Williams, July 3, matters went encouragingly for the Moscow-born star. As the score advanced to reach three games all, Vera's strokes were often matching and sometimes exceeding Serena's in forcefulness and accuracy. Although the edge seemed to favor Serena slightly, there was little to suggest the carnage that was coming, where the American would sweep nine of the next eleven games, ending the affair.
The superiority of Serena in her own serving games was complete. Getting 66% of her first serves into court, Serena won 31 of 33 first-serve points. Serving into the deuce court, Serena seemingly at will launched slices into the forehand corner that Vera, lunging, could barely touch with her racket. Serena never faced a break point throughout the match. Meanwhile Serena broke Vera's serve three times in Vera's eight serving games. Critical points in these games often turned upon some fresh example of Serena's extraordinary athleticism. As the unraveling grew, Vera's mental fragility seemed to approach its familiar edge. S. Williams d. Zvonareva, 63 62.
It was Serena's fourth Wimbledon crown, her second Slam triumph of 2010 and the thirteenth of her career. There had been no wrapped knee or thigh at Wimbledon. In winning, she became only the third top-seeded entrant to win the singles crown in 13 years. It was hard to identify a current rival who might some day become her eventual successor.
By winning Wimbledon Serena continued to lead in the rolling-12-month rankings. She also moved upward to take over first place in the year-to-date race. The latter is shown here:
1. S. Williams, 5,355
2. V. Williams, 4,085
3. Jankovic, 3,717
4. Stosur, 3,627
Here were the tournament's female over-achievers. We identify them by comparing each player's level of achievement in the tournament with pre-tournament expectations, as seen in her level of seeding:
1. Zvonareva, achieved final round, was seeded in top 32 = +4 levels
1. Pironkova, achieved semis, was unseeded = +4 levels
1. Kvitova, achieved semis, was unseeded = +4 levels
1. Kanepi, achieved quarters, won qualifiers, and was unseeded = +4 levels
5. Groth, achieved final 16, was unseeded = +2 levels
5. Zakopalova, achieved final 16, was unseeded = +2 levels
5. Arn, achieved final 32, won qualifiers, and was unseeded = +2 levels
(Winning three qualifying matches counts as a level.)
MEN'S FINAL FOUR
The career paths of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have moved in parallel. both were born in May 1987, and both came to the pro game as teenagers. They alternated in achieving their various triumphs and jumps in the rankings. Both are 6-3 in height, both around 180 pounds, Murray slightly the heavier. Now, at Wimbledon 10, both met defeat in semi-final battles of almost identical score and complexion.
Seldom is a straight-set match at a Slam so fiercely contested, so full of drama. Both Nadal and Murray are renowned for their defensive and their serve-returing abilities. But even as these skills were on full display, both antagonists on this day played all-out offensive tennis, striking with all their strength for fullest velocity and spin, meanwhile adding aggressive placement and determined net-attacking. With the gallery favoring the home-countryman but greatly admiring of his Spanish opponent, it made for riveting tennis, point after point filled with stunning greatness.
The first set was close -- decided by a single break of serve in a quick game in which Murray twice served aces to reach 30-all, then faltered though only slightly. In set two it was Murray who held serve more easily for most of the going. Then in the critical tiebreak game, Murray achieved set point, serving, upon a Rafa double-fault. It was probably the critical juncture of the match, where Andy might have equalized the match. In the next point, fine attacking play by Rafa including a point-ending volley denied Andy's bid, bringing the tiebreak score to six points all. Now at his highest level of concentration and effort, Rafa collected the next two points with a chip to Andy's feet at net and then a determined assault on the Murray backhand.
With Rafa now ahead by two sets, the issue seemed settled. But Rafa lost serve at love to start the third set, and then remained behind as the score reached 42. Rafa's break-back in an extended seventh game was difficult, but with Andy's late revival now erased, Andy departed quietly thereafter.
It was a worthy semi-final in its quality and ferocity -- an enormous credit to both warriors as well as to Wimbledon itself. Murray led in aces, 15-4, although his average serving velocities were only slightly faster than Rafa's. Perhaps most significant were Rafa's winning 23 points of 26 at net and his balance of 27 winners against 7 unforced errors (excluding serves).
In the earlier semi-final, Tomas Berdych outhammered and outlasted Novak Djokovic. Djokovic had narrowly survived his first match against Olivier Rochus but after that lost only one more set enroute to the semis. But on this Friday afternoon, command of the court belonged to Berdych with his imposing size, easy power in serving and stroking, and excellent body control in movement and close-in play. Djokovic scored many well-played points but, still occasionally showing slowness in getting his breath, was unable to break out ahead in any of the three sets. He reached tiebreaker in the second set and then recovered in the tiebreak game to save four set points. But the overall weight of Berdych's game compelled that Tomas would prevail, in that set as in the final verdict. It was impressive evidence of Berdych's readiness to win the tournament. Berdych d. Djokovic, 63 76 63.
But on Sunday, July 4, the greatness of Berdych's power, shot-making ability, and physical assets were second to Rafael Nadal's superb grass-court game. Rafa never voluntarily delivered a shot without either extreme overspin or extreme underspin. He relentlessly directed short balls to his opponent's backhand with placement and spin while always following to net. He regularly rammed sliced serves to the vulnerable backhand corner. Backing up Nadal's persistent offense was his specialty -- superb defensive movement and an ability to answer opponent's attack with blistering counterpunches.
By no means did Tomas go quietly. The tall Czech star captured many of his serving games with thunderous brilliance, and he intermittently applied severe pressure when Rafa was serving. Tomas's serving velocities were much higher than Rafa's, and he led in aces 13-5. But at least once in each set, there came a serving game where Tomas's first serve would not behave, where one or two Berdych rockets missed the lines by inches, and where Rafa himself produced one or two of his miracles. Nadal d. Berdych, 63 75 64.
Both Nadal and Berdych will be looking ahead to U.S. Open. Nadal, who seemed without physical problems in the final weekend, will rest from the circuit until late summer. We expect to see Berdych again here in Washington in early August along with Soderling, Roddick, and several other top-tenners. It was Rafa's seventh Slam triumph, his second Wimbledon. Rafa's place in tennis history continues to rise.
Tomas's great run to the final round places him tied with Lu in our measure of super-achieving:
1. Berdych, achieved final round, was seeded in top 16 = +3 levels
1. Lu, achieved quarters, was unseeded = +3 levels
3. Brands, achieved final 16, was unseeded = +2 levels
3. Mathieu, achieved final 16, was unseeded = +2 levels
3. Kamke, achieved final 32, won qualifiers, and was unseeded = +2 levels
It had been another glorious Wimbledon, free of weather problems. If the men's final proved less enthralling than those of recent years, the second week featured several magnificent match-ups, and it certainly produced some of the greatest tennis of the new champion's career to date. For the third straight year, the Garros and Wimbledon back-to-back double happened on the men's side following its absence for 28 years. The women's champion, too, performed at her highest level at the finish.
For the fifth straight year the Russian women were first and the U.S. women were second atop the final tally of women's matches won. The Russkayas led convincingly from the first day. Among the men, the nation-team outcome was uncertain well into the second week. The French victory -- earned mainly by middle-round depth in singles -- was the second in the last four years.
As usual, servers were more dominant at Wimbledon that at the other Slams. Data from the last four rounds showed that the edge of servers in winning points and games almost exactly equaled the past Wimbledon average, and aces per points played were slightly more frequent than the past average. This accorded with the generally fast playing conditions accompanying this year's warm and dry weather. Once again the frequency of net approaches, counter-intuitively, was lower than at the preceding Australian Open, though higher than at Garros or U.S. Open.
We have passed the half-way point in Tennis Year 2010. Rafael Nadal seems secure atop the rolling-12-month standings and also the unofficial year-to-date race. The latter is shown here:
1. Nadal, 8,275
2. Federer, 3,785
3. Soderling, 3,305
4. Berdych, 3,250
DOES GRASS BELONG?
The troublesome question remains -- does grass belong at Wimbledon, the world's premier tournament, when grass surfaces are all but extinct elsewhere? The unusual and unpredictable grass-court bounce along with the variations that ensue as the green is scuffed away during play argue for change, even as the trend toward taller and stronger servers looms to make serve-returning even more difficult. Grass courts seem to contradict that tennis has become a people's game.
Ultimately the decision will probably rest with the sporting public, which seems content with the status quo. In my opinion, what would be deplorable would be to change to a paved surface, harsh to the human skeleton when the game is played at any level. But I would find it interesting to try clay at Wimbledon for a few years, where Wimby would join Garros as an second Slam on that surface. Will some clever soul some day invent an artificial grass court having the playing qualities of true grass but resistant to playing damage, one that could be used widely to the enjoyment of all players?