Perseverance and redemption

Marion Bartoli, 28, didn’t give up on the “crazy” technique her father taught her; Andy Murray didn’t give up on himself; and Ivan Lendl, whose mask of indifference finally slipped when championship point was won, didn’t give up on Wimbledon. That then was the story of Wimbledon 2013, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

or many, this was the barmiest Wimbledon in recent memory, a return to an age when the grass was fast and unpredictable and the top seeds anxious and despairing. It certainly seemed that way in the Ladies’ section. Marion Bartoli was an appropriate champion, a delightfully quirky winner of a decidedly eccentric edition.

“Well, I believe to be a Grand Slam champion you have to be a bit different,” said the Frenchwoman, asked about the oddities of her game. “You have to be strong in your mind and your opinion. It's always been a part of my personality to be different. I really embrace it. I think being just like the other one is kind of boring.”

But over on the Gentlemen’s side, for all the novelty of both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal losing early, it wasn’t terribly different. The two men expected to make the final arrived as scheduled. And it was kind of boring.

This isn’t meant as a slight. For Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, besides being World No.1 and No. 2, are pioneers of a sort. They have lifted the level of baseline tennis, often blurring the line between defence and offence.

Nor was the boredom a result of staleness. The two might have played each other in three of the last four major finals, but by no means has the match been done to death.

The rivalry moreover has enough of a narrative hook. Born a week apart, they have known each other since they were 11 — “I remember his curly hair … and he crushed me actually,” said Djokovic of their first meeting in the juniors in southwest France.

And they don’t let this cordial relationship blunt their natural competitiveness. Last year, for instance, Djokovic holidayed in Scotland. “I was on the highway; I made a picture of the road sign of Dunblane (Murray’s hometown) and sent him that photo. He said, ‘What are you doing there?’ I said, ‘I was paying you a visit but you’re not at home’”. Not long after, they scrapped for nearly five hours in the U.S. Open final, where Murray finally ended his wait for a Grand Slam title.

On the surface, there seems to be enough for a compelling rivalry. Two men with a shared past chasing the same things, the balance of power ever shifting — who can’t get behind that? But it doesn’t translate to great matches; the Wimbledon final, but for an incandescent passage late in the third set, was distinctly underwhelming.

The apparent similarity in style doesn’t help: given their exceptional ability to cover the court and their inclination — Murray to a greater degree than Djokovic — to react rather than create, points don’t always have a driving force. Rallies tend to a scrambling neutrality, reset to a cross-court exchange even after a seemingly point-ending stroke. Although their tendencies differ, as do their stroke-technique, their movement, and their tactics when returning serve, the contrast isn’t appreciable.

While it’s impossible not to be impressed by some of the physical feats Murray and Djokovic manage, particularly when they are pushed to the point of no return, they don’t counterpoint each other often enough. It was no surprise that the final’s best moments came when one of them broke from the pattern and took the initiative; the other was able to play off this and for a few moments the subtle jostling for an opening transformed into sparkling, unreserved tennis.

But one lacklustre final decided by errors doesn’t detract from the import of Murray’s achievement. To the non-British tennis fan, the ending of a 77-year wait for a home-grown men’s singles Wimbledon champion doesn’t resonate to the same extent, but its significance isn’t lost. Breaking through at Wimbledon, slaying the demons of doubt on Centre Court, is the dream kids begin playing tennis with.

To suddenly be confronted with the possibility of its realisation, as Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki were, is unnerving. Consider Murray’s position — added to his and modern-day Britain’s expectations was the weight of history. How heavy must his racquet have felt?

Had it happened last year, it would have been even more momentous. The unknown is a terrifying place — and neither Murray nor the British fan knew in July 2012 if he had it in him to triumph at a major. This changed with the U.S. Open. The Olympic gold medal, a reversal of the Wimbledon final result against Federer at the same venue weeks later, proved he could win the match that mattered on Centre Court.

But the last step at the Championships was still unknown — Murray, in his post-final press-conference, offered a glimpse of what breaking through felt like. “I mean, the last sort of 30 minutes have been a bit of a blur really,” he said after his 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 defeat of Djokovic. “And the end mentally, that last game will be the toughest game I’ll play in my career, ever. I didn’t always feel it was going to happen. It’s incredibly difficult to win these events. I don’t think that’s that well understood sometimes. It takes so much hard work, mental toughness, yeah, to win these sorts of tournaments. I think I persevered. That’s really been it, the story of my career probably.”

That then was the story of the 2013 Championships — perseverance and redemption, not madness. Bartoli, 28, didn’t give up on the “crazy” technique her father taught her; Murray didn’t give up on himself; and Ivan Lendl, whose mask of indifference finally slipped when championship point was won, didn’t give up on Wimbledon.