18 Things We Learned from Wimbledon

Wimbledon 2018 surprised one and all with sensational career comebacks by champions Novak Djokovic and Angelique Kerber. Here are 18 things we learned from the grass courts of London.

Novak Djokovic celebrates beating Rafael Nadal in the semi-final of Wimbledon   -  Getty Images

The Old Guard staved off the Next Gen in yet another major, but Wimbledon still surprised us with sensational career comebacks by champions Novak Djokovic and Angelique Kerber.

Serena Williams, by reaching the final, showed she can juggle motherhood with big-time tennis. Marathon men’s matches created suspense but also controversy. The top ten women were upset in record numbers. And a few young, aspiring stars displayed flashes of brilliance.

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Let’s review the highlights and lowlights of the fortnight and what they portend for the rest of the tennis season.

1) Never count out a great champion like Djokovic. You may remember how Pete Sampras won his last Grand Slam title at the 2002 US Open after a 26-month drought at the majors. This time, Djokovic, also 31, finally snapped out of his often-mystifying, 25-month slump. After capturing 11 of 20 major titles from 2011 to 2016, he suddenly and shockingly went Slam-less for eight straight majors.

Whatever his past problems — a sore elbow, unspecified personal problems, and tennis burnout — he steadily regained his form and confidence on the European clay-court circuit with the only detour being an angst-causing loss to journeyman Marco Cecchinato in Paris.

RELATED| Djokovic made 'improvised Wimbledon trophies' as a boy

Djokovic proved he’s all the way back by conquering a tough draw at Wimbledon. Outlasting arch rival Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 10-8 in an epic semifinal evoked memories of the rock-solid strokes, blazing speed, and fighting spirit of his halcyon years.

A 14th major title at the US Open would tie Djokovic with Sampras for third place behind only Roger Federer with 20 and Nadal with 17. It would also likely earn him the No. 1 ranking.

2) Angelique Kerber, underestimated and under-appreciated, also proved a few things. First, her super 2016 would not resemble Amelie Mauresmo’s stellar 2006 — two-late career major titles and nothing thereafter. Second, her relentlessly high-percentage but seldom flashy counter-punching could prevail on fast grass. Third, she can beat Serena Williams on the big stage, which she did for the second time in a major final.

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Without dropping a set, the 30-year-old German disposed of hard hitters Naomi Osaka, Belinda Bencic, Jelena Ostapenko, and ultimately, Serena 6-3, 6-3. Interestingly, though Kerber’s consistent game, brilliant defense, and mental toughness should fare best on clay, the French Open is the only major she hasn’t won.

3) Kevin Anderson, another late-bloomer, had long been written off as a thunderous server with not much else to complement it. The 6'8" South African had never reached a major semifinal, until making the 2017 US Open final. The steadily improving Anderson advanced to the Wimbledon final with two remarkable victories. Showing better poise than No. 1 Roger Federer on pressure points, including a match point he escaped, Anderson prevailed 13-11 in the fifth set. Then, showing greater stamina than No. 9 John Isner, he came through in a 26-24 fifth set.

“I don’t know what got me through today’s match other than just a will to try to succeed, keep pushing myself,” said Anderson. “I tried as much as I could to just keep fighting.”

RELATED| I belong at the top, says Anderson

Whether his admirable on-court fighting and dedicated off-court training can carry him to a major title is questionable. But it’s hard not to like the unassuming, civic-minded Anderson. Besides serving as the ATP Player Council vice president, he’s an environmental advocate who wants to end the use of plastic bags covering rackets.

4) Serena’s performance at Wimbledon elicited two almost opposite views. Some marveled that just 10 and a half months after giving birth to her first child and in only her fourth tournament in her comeback, she reached the  the final. Others pointed out that Serena lucked out with an extremely weak draw; she played only one top 50-ranked opponent, and No. 13 Julia Georges had lost in the first round in her five previous Wimbledons.

RELATED| Serena an inspiration for new Wimbledon champion Kerber

Going into the fortnight, analysts focused on Serena’s declining foot speed and serving speed. Those areas gradually improved, but the 36-year-old American still suffered from erratic groundstrokes and inept volleying. Kerber capitalised fully on Serena’s weaknesses. In the past, Serena counted heavily on her awesome serve to bail her out of trouble. That formula likely won’t work anymore.

5) Like fine wine, the elite men just keep getting improving with age, especially at Wimbledon. For the first time in the Open Era starting in 1968, a Grand Slam tournament featured all four semifinalists in their 30s. Usual suspects Nadal, 32, and Djokovic, 31, were joined by late-bloomers Isner, 33, and Anderson, 32.

The aging trend has accelerated this century. When Federer won the first of his record eight Wimbledon titles way back in 2003, he was 21, runner-up Mark Philippoussis, 26, and semifinalists Sebastien Grosjean, 25, and Andy Roddick, 20. Sheer talent, topnotch technique, superb fitness, and a passion for the sport account for longevity of Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal. Dedication and topnotch coaching help explain the stunning late-career ascents of Anderson and Isner at an age many players are either long retired or rapidly declining.

Elite women also boasted some “Golden Oldies.” Kerber and Serena contested the first 30-something women’s final since 1977. And Kveta Peschke, at 43, became the oldest player to play in the women’s doubles final in the Open Era.

6) Bob and Mike Bryan are widely considered the greatest doubles team of all-time because of their 16 major and 36 ATP Masters titles, both records, and 2012 Olympics gold medals. But the 40-year-old American twins hadn’t won a major in nearly four years. When a hip injury sidelined Bob, Mike displayed his versatility and adaptability by pairing with 25-year-old Jack Sock to capture his fourth Wimbledon. He and Sock outlasted Raven Klaasen and Michael Venus 6-3, 6-7(7), 6-3, 5-7, 7-5 in the thrilling final. It was their third dramatic, five-set victory of the fortnight.

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Sock’s vicious topspin forehand complemented the classic serve-volleying of Bryan, who tied Australian legend John Newcombe with a record 17th individual Grand Slam doubles title and became the oldest man to win a doubles major in the Open Era. “To have a guy, half of the greatest team of all time to ever play the sport, alongside you only gives you that much more confidence, that much more experience, wisdom, everything,” Sock said.

7) All-time great Pete Sampras once said that switching from a two-handed backhand to a one-hander at age 14 enabled him to go from being a grinder to a shotmaker. Sampras also declared he would never lose to a two-handed backhand player on grass. Comically, the worst loss of his career was dealt by No. 145-ranked George Bastl, a double-hander, at the 2002 Wimbledon.

If two hands are better than one, don’t tell that to eight-time Wimbledon champ Federer, or to Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 19-year-old Greek. The 31st-seeded Tsitsipas reached the Wimbledon fourth round before Isner stopped him in three close sets. The 6'4" Tsitsipas strokes a stylish backhand, while the 26th-seeded Denis Shapovalov, a 19-year-old Canadian, whacks an almost violent one-handed backhand. Shapovalov was upset by Benoit Paire in the Wimbledon second round. Seventh-seeded Dominic Thiem, who has the longest one-handed backswing of all, retired due to injury in the first round. That dropped his career Wimbledon record to a miserable 5-5.

Sampras and Federer possess preternatural talent. But can the one-handed backhands of lesser mortals Tsitsipas, Shapovalov, and Thiem work on fast surfaces, especially against powerful servers and aggressive baseliners? It’s doubtful.

8) Stunning upsets abounded in the women’s draw. For the first time since Wimbledon introduced seedings in 1927, none of the top 10 seeds reached the quarterfinals. Another startling stat: Wimbledon crowned the seventh different woman in the last seven majors.

Petra Kvitova, the odds-makers’ favorite, suffered from nerves and was bounced out by versatile Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 in the first round. Defending champion Garbine Muguruza was ambushed by red-hot, 47th-ranked Alison van Uytvanck, a red-headed Belgian, who had never before reached the second round, 5-7, 6-2, 6-1.

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No. 5 Elina Svitolina, who has yet to play her best at Grand Slam events, was upset by No. 57 Tatjana Maria 7-6, 4-6, 6-1 in a first-round shocker. Evgeniya Rodina, ranked No. 120 and one of six moms in the draw, scored by far the biggest win of her career, 7-5, 5-7, 6-4 over always-streaky, No. 10 Madison Keys.

As ESPN analyst Pam Shriver understated, “You just never know in tennis.”

9) Style match-ups and tactics matter. In the biggest women’s upset, No. 1 Simona Halep, the reigning French Open champion, was eliminated by 32-year-old Su-Wei Hsieh 3-6, 6-4, 7-5 in the third round. Halep galloped gracefully and walloped the ball beautifully but often aimlessly against the 48th-ranked Taiwanese trickster who confounded Halep with every shot, spin, and angle in the book and then some she invented.

“Hsieh used so much variety,” said ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez. “It’s hard to read where she’s going with her shots — whether or not she was going to drop shot, slice or hit flat. She had great depth and accuracy. Halep had a match point and still could have won despite playing the wrong way. She could have come to net and hit some drop shots. But she hit hard when she could have mixed up her shots.”

10) Camila Giorgi finally put it all together. No one hits the ball harder than Giorgi, as Madison Keys, a heavy hitter herself, once remarked. But in the past, her unforced errors typically exceeded her winners. As ESPN analyst and renowned coach Darren Cahill said, “You never know what you’re going to get with Camila Giorgi. She’s one of the big underachievers in women’s tennis.”

At Wimbledon, we got a Giorgi who never temporised yet controlled her tremendous power as never before. The 26-year-old Italian notched good wins over 21st-seeded Anastasija Sevastova, Katerina Siniakova, and Ekaterina Makarova (who upset No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki). Then Giorgi extended Serena in an anything-can-happen 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 quarterfinal. Amazingly, her first serve averaged 112 mph, much faster than Serena’s 105 mph average. This breakthrough tournament could turn Giorgi’s underachieving career around.

11) Wimbledon, the last Grand Slam tournament to grant equal prize money for men and women, continues to discriminate against the fairer sex. Not one ladies’ doubles match was played on Centre Court during the entire tournament. The ladies’ singles qualifying event has only 96 players in its draw, compared to 128 for the gentlemen’s singles qualifying event. It behooves Wimbledon to redress both injustices in 2019.

12) Money talks. So Federer walked. You may have noticed The Mighty Fed sported a new look when he walked on Centre Court on the opening Monday. After wearing Nike attire since 1994, he switched to Uniqlo apparel. Federer’s 10-year contract as a global brand ambassador for the Japanese company will give him at least $30 million a year, an estimated $12 million more than Nike paid him.

RELATED| Federer sports new look at Wimbledon after ending Nike association

Uniqlo doesn’t sell shoes, so it will be interesting to see if Federer sticks with Nike for his footwear or makes a lucrative deal elsewhere. After all, Roger raked in $65 million in endorsements last year to lead both Tours. Let’s hope the iconic RF logo lives on with Uniqlo.

13) What’s Wimbledon without some controversy — real or fake — for the British tabloids to sensationalise? The first bone of contention involved whether and where to seed Serena, ranked No. 181 only because she’d played just three tournaments since returning from having a baby.

The All England Club seeded the seven-time champ No. 25. That infuriated feisty Dominika Cibulkova, who was demoted from No. 32 to a non-seed. Nearly everyone else believed Serena should be seeded somewhere. After all, she won the last two Wimbledons she played and ranked No. 1 when she left the Tour.

This observer, who has been a sectional ranking committee chair and also a tournament seeder, would have seeded Serena at No. 16. That would have rewarded her outstanding record and prevented a top 15 player from facing her until the fourth round.

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What about adopting a tiebreaker to decide the fifth set? Of the four majors, only the US Open does it. After the sadistic and monotonous 70-68 set between Isner and Nicolas Mahut at the 2010 Wimbledon, the ITF’s Grand Slam Committee inexplicably failed to change the rule. The 26-24 fifth set that finally ended the Anderson-Isner marathon, lasting an ungodly 6 hours and 36 minutes, should force even hidebound traditionalists to do the sensible thing. A tiebreaker at 6-all would protect the health of players, provide a thrill-packed, definite climax for fans, and prevent subsequent matches, like the Saturday women’s final, from being delayed.

The Wimbledon website provided a source of optimism when it conceded: “The time may have come for a tie-break in the final set.”

14) For champions Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, their 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 final triumph over Nicole Melichar and Kveta Peschke was especially poignant. The Czech duo became the first Wimbledon team in history to win both the girls’ doubles title (in 2013) and the ladies’ title. Amazingly, neither team won a point at net, which might be another record.

That exclusively baseline style, however, has proved a winning strategy for the 22-year-olds. Five weeks earlier, they captured the French Open, making Krejcikova and Siniakova the first team to capture the “European double” since Kim Clijsters and Ai Sugiyama 15 years ago.

While the Czechs were thrilled to make history, they had to be disappointed in the outrageously little prize money they made. The ladies’ and gentlemen’s doubles champions each pocketed £450,000, while the mixed doubles champions took home a measly £110,000. Both are a pittance compared to £2.25 million awarded to the singles champions.

15) The “Big 3”— Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic — dominate as commandingly as ever. They have now captured 14 of the past 16 Wimbledons. Even more astounding, they’ve seized the last seven Grand Slam titles and 46 of the last 54.

Like most champions in other sports, they also keep finding ways to improve. For example, Djokovic switched to a slightly longer and lighter racket with a different string pattern. Nadal served faster, came to the net more often, and peppered tiring opponents with merciless drop shots.

RELATED| No joke – the Djoker is back!

On hitting a half-volley serve return during a routine third-round win against Jan-Lennard Struff, Federer explained the return of his SABR (sneak attack): “That's always the idea for me in practice or matches, keep it entertaining, keep things going. I always look for new ways to win the point.”

16) Chivalry is alive and well. In his five-set semifinal against Del Potro, tough-as-nails competitor Nadal sprinted toward the stands to try to retrieve a faraway smash. Rafa wound up vaulting the courtside barrier and landing on a lady in the first row. The Spanish gentleman gallantly kissed her hand, and she gazed up at him with adoring eyes. Shades of flamboyant French star Jean Borotra. In the 1920s, “The Bounding Basque” was renowned for intentionally doing the same thing.

17) Wimbledon also had several unsung heroes, including two umpires. James Keothavong, a veteran Brit, tutored volatile Nick Kyrgios on foot faulting during his disappointing 6-1, 7-6, 6-4 loss to Kei Nishikori. After a foot fault was called against Kyrgios, he protested, “What? After I hit it? How’s that possible?” Keothavong explained, “That’s what he [the linesman] has to do. He can’t call it before you hit it.”

Marija Kicak may have set a record for umpires in any sport. She defied urological odds by sitting in the umpire’s chair throughout the Anderson-Isner marathon.

Anderson was praised for getting up fast and improvising with a left-handed forehand after falling on the grass on a pivotal fifth-set point that he eventually won against Isner. That recovery, however, couldn’t match what Sweden’s Stefan Olsson did in the men’s wheelchair doubles final.

RELATED| Kerber puts Wimbledon triumph down to 2017 hardships

The 31-year-old Olsson, born with arthrogryposis, a disability which prevents him from using his body from the waist down, fell out of his chair when chasing a ball. He managed to drag himself back into his chair and then wheeled around the court to smack a winner. Though Olsson and Joachim Gerard lost the final, the next day Olsson captured his second straight gentlemen’s wheelchair singles title, beating his longtime rival Gustavo Fernandez, 6-2, 0-6, 6-3.

18) Tennis players have always ranked among the most candid and articulate athletes. Here are some juicy Wimbledon quotes.

After Anderson upset him in a grueling five-setter, Federer revealed his thoughts about press conferences following a defeat. “It motivates me to do extremely well here because I don’t want to sit here and explain my loss,” he said. “That’s the worst feeling you can have as a tennis player.”

 

On the prospect of facing Federer in the Wimbledon final, Nadal confided, “If you ask me if I prefer another [opponent], I say yes. I’m not stupid.”

 

Calling the last two slump-ridden years “a roller coaster ride,” Djokovic revealed, “I had many moments of doubt.”

 

“Anybody can play when they have a good day, when they’re happy to be on court,” Daria Kasatkina pointed out after losing to Kerber. “[But] you have to be able to compete even if you are dead, you don’t want to be there, you’re throwing up from tennis.”

 

“I’d love to have Trump come watch me,” said Isner. “Maybe I’ll tweet at him if I win on Wednesday. I know a lot of people won’t like that, but I don’t care.”

 

Can you figure out the superstar who said this? “That’s what makes me great: I always play everyone at their greatest, so I have to be greater.”