“You can find out anything you want to know about a person by putting him on Centre Court.”
— John Newcombe, three-time singles and five-time doubles champion at Wimbledon
“Is Djokovic the perfect player?” is the intriguing question posed by 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash in The Times (UK) after the Serbian superstar won his fourth straight major at the French Open. “Well in this era of the slow courts, he’s about as close as you can get,” Cash concluded.
As grass and hard courts became slower this century, serving and volleying became nearly extinct. Hard-hitting groundstrokes became de rigeur. “Everyone plays aggressive baseline tennis and plays closer to the baseline than 10 years ago,” Roger Federer told Tennis.com. Djokovic perfected this playing style while steadily improving his serve, volley, stamina, and mental toughness. And as grass, hard, and clay courts became closer in speed, it has concomitantly become easier for one style, exemplified by The Djokovic Game, to flourish on every surface.
But how close to perfection is Djokovic? His technique on every stroke is virtually perfect, even though he under-hits some overheads. His tactics, though, are occasionally flawed. He drop shots too much and from too deep on the court. He gets snookered into backhand slice exchanges against opponents with inferior backhands. And he doesn’t rush net often enough when short balls give him golden opportunities.
His temperament is a mixed blessing. The competitive fire that drives Djokovic to win gruelling matches and capture the most prestigious tournaments can also explode in anger. He has been known to smash a racket or two when furious at his errors or at questionable officiating decisions. But throwing his racket during the French Open quarterfinals was no laughing matter for The Djoker. The racket ricocheted backward off the ground and nearly struck a line judge. Had it hit him, Djokovic could have been disqualified. In the Rome Masters final two weeks earlier, Djokovic also received a code violation when he bounced his racket on the clay and it landed in the stands.
Nevertheless, Wimbledon has often brought out the best in the 29-year-old Serb. He captured three of his 12 Grand Slam titles there, and his 2014 triumph marked a pivotal point in his career. Djokovic had lost five of his previous six major finals when he faced Federer, the seven-time Wimbledon king. Federer saved a championship point in the fourth set before Djokovic reversed the momentum to prevail 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4.
“My convictions were greater than my doubts,” Djokovic said afterwards. “That’s why this win has a special importance to me. Because I managed to win not just against my opponent but against myself. I needed this win a lot.” Since that turning point, Djokovic racked up five of the next seven Grand Slam titles and 10 of the next 18 Masters 1000 titles.
Can Andy Murray, who hasn’t claimed a major since the 2013 Wimbledon, similarly resurrect his career at the biggest tournaments?
The 29-year-old Brit has lost his last three major finals, including two this year, all to his boyhood rival and pro nemesis, Djokovic. Murray is saddled with the worst record in history of any player reaching 10 or more major singles finals: 2-8. “I think I persevered. That’s really been it, the story of my career, probably,” a philosophical Murray said. “I had a lot of tough losses, but the one thing I would say is I think every year I always improved a little bit. They weren’t major improvements, massive changes, but every year my ranking was going in the right direction.”
Just as Djokovic has left no stone unturned in his quest to make history — his latest training method is anti-gravity stretching — Murray re-united recently with Ivan Lendl. When the astute, eight-time major winner coached Murray from January 2012 to March 2014, Murray enjoyed his greatest success, winning Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and an Olympic gold medal. Importantly, two of those triumphs came on the grass at the All England Club.
“He (Lendl) is single-minded and knows what it takes to win the big events,” Murray said. “I know what he can offer. The experiences he had psychologically helped me in the major competitions, and they’re obviously the events I’m trying to win. I hope he can bring that same experience and those same benefits that he did last time.”
How much difference will the Lendl Connection make this time?
Besides the psychological edge Djokovic holds over No. 2 Murray, the lithe Serb boasts a physical edge. He can play all day without running out of energy as his marathon victories over Rafael Nadal and Federer showed. No surprise then that Sports Illustrated ranked Djokovic No. 9 on its list of “Fittest 50” athletes in sports.
Despite his rigorous training, Murray shouted, “My legs have gone,” to coach Jamie Delgado and the others in his support team early in the third set of the French final. If Murray struggles to last three sets, let alone four or even five, he’ll never again, at a major, defeat Djokovic who pushes opponents to their physical limits.
“Murray wastes a lot of energy when he gets overheated and loses his focus,” pointed out Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo. His peculiar penchant for ranting at his Player’s Box when his frustrations boiled over not only hurt him but encouraged his opponents. ( The Daily Mail, a UK newspaper, publishes “The Murrayometer” which measures his match moods from “Ice Cool” to “Bubbling Under” to “Raging Like Rab C Nesbitt.”)
The tantrums eventually induced two-year coach Amelie Mauresmo, who called them “unsettling,” to quit in May. Murray held such respect for the no-nonsense Lendl that he rarely antagonised Lendl with on-court outbursts in his earlier coaching stint.
The only statistic in Murray’s favor in their so-called “rivalry” is that he’s beaten Djokovic the only two times they played on grass — the 2012 London Olympics and the 2013 Wimbledon. Since then, Djokovic has gone from near-great to great and whipped Murray in 13 of their 15 matches.
Lendl’s wisdom and inspiration may help Murray again, but when the fortnight ends, Djokovic will hoist his fourth Wimbledon trophy. And the conversation will quickly switch to whether Djokovic will complete the first Grand Slam since 1969 at the U.S. Open and also whether he’ll eventually surpass Federer’s record 17 major titles.
The semifinals will likely prove more entertaining than the predictable Djokovic-Murray final with Federer and Dominic Thiem displaying extraordinary shot-making flair. The Mighty Fed, who underwent knee surgery in February and has also been hampered by an aching back, revealed he’s played only one tournament injury-free this season. Besides Federer’s shortage of matches, his one-handed backhand remains vulnerable, particularly on serve returns. That weakness costs him dearly on break-point chances. At nearly 35, Federer can defy time no longer. It would take a miracle for him to win his eighth Wimbledon.
The mild-mannered Thiem started the year ranked No. 20 and shot up to a career-high No. 8 following his semifinal showing at the French Open. Djokovic overpowered Thiem’s one-handed backhand there and trounced the 22-year-old Austrian 6-2, 6-1, 6-4. But Thiem’s strong serving, heavy topspin forehand, and all-court athleticism produced big wins this year over Federer (twice), Nadal, and David Ferrer, along with countless admirers. “There’s no doubt in my mind Thiem is a future No. 1,” enthused Tracy Austin, a Tennis Channel analyst. “He’s getting better hourly.” Thiem isn’t concerned that his extremely heavy schedule —he’s played 30 tournaments in the past 12 months, far more than any other top 15 player — will burn him out. With the exuberance and energy of youth, he says it has “exhilarated,” rather than exhausted, him.
Two veterans and two promising newcomers will make the quarterfinals. Stan Wawrinka, who moves up to the No. 4 seed because of the injured Nadal’s withdrawal, has the versatility and power to fare well on grass. That Wawrinka ranks only No. 33 in the serve return category is the main reason he hasn’t advanced past the quarterfinals in 11 Wimbledon appearances. Nicknamed “Stanimal” by Federer, his good friend and Swiss compatriot, Wawrinka seems to have levelled off after peaking to capture the 2014 Australian Open and 2015 French Open. He hasn’t beaten a top 10 player this year. But, on sheer talent, power, and experience, plus the input of a new advisor, 1996 Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek, he’ll make the quarterfinals.
Alexander Zverev, a rail-thin 6’ 6”, 189-pound German made a smart move in hiring Jez Green, Murray’s former fitness trainer. Jez and Sascha embarked on a five-year plan to build up the 19-year-old’s strength and agility. The steadily improving Zverev finished 2015 ranked No. 83 to become the youngest player in the ATP top 100. He has ascended to No. 38. He boasts more power than Borna Coric, more talent than Thanasi Kokkinakis, and better strokes than Hyeon Chung, the other top 100-ranked teenagers. The Big Z’s 7-6, 5-7, 6-3 semifinal upset over eight-time champ Federer at the Halle tune-up tournament showed the new kid on the block is ready to take down seeded players at Wimbledon.
Milos Raonic, a Wimbledon semifinalist in 2014, started fast this season, knocking off Federer to win Brisbane and then reaching the Australian Open semis. But his 6’ 5”, 212-pound body tends to break down in the later stages of majors, as it did against Murray in their five-set Australian semifinal. The cerebral Canadian recently hired three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe, a brilliant serve-volleyer, as a consultant to complement current coaches Carlos Moya and Riccardo Piatti.
“It’s not a focus for just Wimbledon,” explained No. 7 Raonic. “It’s John coming along to help me improve in general. I want to improve at coming forward, and I want to improve at putting more pressure on my opponents. If you see great volleyers, most of the time the volleys are pretty easy and it’s because of positioning. It’s those things that I want to (improve).”
Lucas Pouille, the least heralded of the Generation Next, ranks a modest No. 29 and has never won a Wimbledon match but still gets my vote. The 22-year-old Frenchman ranks a stunning No. 3 in the Under Pressure Standings — behind only Djokovic and Raonic, and ahead of Murray, Wawrinka, and Federer. This crucial statistical category measures percentage of break points converted, percentage of break points saved, percentage of tiebreakers won, and percentage of deciding sets won. Tiebreakers abound at Wimbledon and often decide close matches. Pouille leads the ATP Tour, winning an astounding 84.2% of tiebreakers.
Darkhorses: David Goffin, Taylor Fritz, Feliciano Lopez and Jiri Vesely.
“Big Babe” Tennis Dominates
The last three Grand Slam events have disproved much of the conventional wisdom about Serena Williams.
First, the widely accepted belief that “only Serena can beat Serena” was debunked in the French Open final when Garbiñe Muguruza dethroned the three-time queen 7-5, 6-4. This hyperbolic catchphrase meant that her competition lacked firepower or talent, so Serena, the force majeure, could lose only if she had a really bad day. But Muguruza overpowered Serena in Paris, more than vice versa. The most telling statistic: Serena committed 39 forced errors, compared to just 21 by Muguruza. “Garbiñe won that match, Serena didn’t lose it,” as former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport rightly put it.
Second, “to beat Serena, you have to do it in the early rounds” of a Grand Slam event before she gathers tremendous momentum and steamrolls opponents. Before the 2015 U.S. Open, where Serena suffered a shocking loss to Roberta Vinci in the semifinals, she boasted a terrific 25-3 record in semifinals at majors. And before losing to Angelique Kerber in the Australian Open final and Muguruza in the French Open final, Serena went a superb 21-4 in major finals. So much for this outdated theory.
Third, “most women are so intimidated by Serena that they lose the match before they even walk on the court.” Here’s what, on the Friday night before the French Open final, Muguruza concluded about Angelique Kerber’s Australian Open final upset over Serena. “When you see people that are winning and there’s new faces, (it) makes you think like, I can be one of those faces. I can be the one who — hey, if Kerber can, I can, or whoever is there.” Thanks to Muguruza, others will certainly draw the same conclusion and inspiration at Wimbledon.
The final article of faith is that “equalling the career Grand Slam totals of the sport’s legends takes a huge emotional toll, but that sooner or later Serena always does it.” She failed at three majors before she tied Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert at 18 at the 2014 U.S. Open. But Serena was nearly 33 then. Now she’s three months shy of 35 as she tries for the fourth time to match Steffi Graf with 22 majors.
While Serena’s aura of invincibility is gone, she’s hardly a spent force. In fact, she’s won more matches, 17, at the last three majors than any other woman or man, except for Novak Djokovic. She’s also captured six Wimbledon titles, including four of the last seven.
Just as Serena’s stock has fallen, Muguruza’s has risen. What a difference one match can make. The day before their memorable Paris final, Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena’s coach, ironically said, “I don’t know why everybody’s so impressed with Garbiñe. Did she win a Slam ever?”
In the past three years, Serena and Garbiñe have clashed five times. That every encounter has taken place at a pressure-packed major has given the 22-year-old Spaniard valuable experience. On her 6-4, 6-4 loss to Serena in last year’s Wimbledon final, she recalled, “I was tense. It was difficult for me to manage stress. I have learned a lot how to control my emotions inside the court and outside the court. It’s very important, because sometimes it’s not too good to show them.”
The new and unflappable Garbiñe closed out the French final with the poise of a veteran champion. After Serena staved off four match points to hold serve for 5-4, Garbiñe wrapped up the championship game with four straight points.
Her commanding performance drew accolades from former stars, coaches, and experts. “You don’t often see a player like Muguruza come along who has a power game, moves well, has the intensity, and can hold her nerve on big occasions,” praised Davenport, a Tennis Channel analyst. “She possesses something special.” Conchita Martinez, the 1994 Wimbledon champion from Spain, predicted, “She’s going to win many more Grand Slams. She’s a great player on any surface.”
Tennis legend Billie Jean King explained why Muguruza is spearheading the changing of the guard in women’s tennis: “The kid’s got such power, and she wants it. Her backhand’s just phenomenal, and her forehand, too. The best players in the world hit down the line off a crosscourt (shot) better than the others, and what does she do exceptionally well? She hits down the line off the crosscourt.”
Unlike some maiden Grand Slam champions, Garbiñe embraces her new status. “I prefer to be hunted than to be the other way around,” she said. “Now all the other players are going to be looking to beat me and that’s normal. But I like my new position.”
Ranked No. 2, Garbiñe will land on the other half of the Wimbledon draw from No. 1 and defending champion Serena. If they meet, and that is highly likely, they’ll battle for the most coveted title in tennis. The fluctuating final will go three thrilling sets, and once again Queen Serena will be dethroned.
While all eyes will be riveted on the rising star and the fading star, other competitors in the tennis galaxy will also shine. Sabine Lisicki, a topnotch grass court player and the 2013 Big W finalist, has also reached the semifinals once and quarterfinals thrice there. The owner of the fastest serve, 131 mph, in WTA history, Lisicki has racked up seven of her 13 wins over top 10 players at Wimbledon. The 26-year-old German describes herself as “happy,” and her Yorkshire Terrier is named Happy. Her semifinal result will make her happy, at least after she wins her quarterfinal match.
Petra Kvitova, another heavy hitter who describes herself as “happy,” will flourish, like Lisicki, where she’s happiest. The 6’ Czech lefty overpowered Maria Sharapova 6-3, 6-4 to capture Wimbledon in 2011 and overwhelmed Eugenie Bouchard 6-3, 6-0 to grab her second Wimbledon title in 2014. Kvitova broke up with longtime coach David Kotyza in February and hired former Czech doubles specialist František Èermák in April. She and hockey player Radek Meidl, who were engaged, split in May. Benefitting from the changes, Kvitova will harness her explosive, if sometimes erratic, game and make the semis.
The quarterfinals will showcase some new faces and exciting games. The media will start saying “Osaki from Osaki” as irrepressible, 18-year-old Naomi Osaki, from Osaki, Japan, wins fans with her bold shot-making and quick quips. She also doesn’t lack confidence. Osaki reached the third round at the last two majors. After extending sixth-seeded Simona Halep to 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 at the French Open, No. 93-ranked Osaki crowed, “At the risk of sounding really arrogant, I kind of think that I can play like the Top 10 players. I feel like I can play with anybody. I just have to be consistent and not freak out all the time.”
Another memorable name, CoCo Vandeweghe, a Wimbledon quarterfinalist a year ago, also has plenty of game. Her booming serve drives opponents loco. If the grass plays fast, the 6’ 1” American proponent of “first-strike tennis” will get on a roll as she did at ‘s-Hertogenbosch in The Netherlands two weeks ago when she won the tournament without dropping a set. A week later, CoCo upset world No. 3 and 2012 Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 at the Aegon Classic where she reached the semifinal.
Karolina Pliskova, who whacked a tour-leading 517 aces last year and already has 314 this year, has powerful, flat shots that are rewarded heavily on grass. The 6’ 1” Czech has never gotten past the second round in four Wimbledon appearances. So she’s overdue for a Big W breakthrough, and should capitalise on the momentum from winning the grass-court tournament in Nottingham.
The last quarterfinal spot will go to late-blooming Kiki Bertens. The 24-year-old Dutchwoman started the season ranked outside the top 100 and is currently ranked No. 27, thanks to a breakthrough month in May. Bertens, a solidly built 6-footer, enjoyed a dream run to the French Open semifinals after winning her second career title in Nürnberg as a qualifier. Fighting off a calf injury in Paris, she upset No. 3 Angelique Kerber, No. 9 Timea Bacsinszky, No. 17 Madison Keys, and No. 32 Daria Kasatkina before pushing Serena to 7-6, 6-4. This giant-killer will slay seeded players again at Wimbledon.
Darkhorses: Jelena Ostapenko, Tsvetana Pironkova, Madison Keys and Daria Kasatkina.
Doubles: The overshadowed but prestigious Wimbledon doubles titles will go to all-time greats Bob and Mike Bryan, another sibling duo, Chinese Taipei’s Chan Yung-Jan and Chan Hao-Ching, and the clever combo of Martina Hingis and Leander Paes.