A new edition, few new champions but the same old nagging questions surrounding the best of the generation - catch the full discussion on the latest episode of Sportstar Podcast.
Nihit Sachdeva and N Sudarshan look back at the Wimbledon that was, new champions - Carlos Alcaraz and Marketa Vondrousova, a foiled bid for a massive milestone for Novak Djokovic and more.
Nihit Sachdeva and N Sudarshan look back at the Wimbledon that was, new champions - Carlos Alcaraz and Marketa Vondrousova, a foiled bid for a massive milestone for Novak Djokovic and more.
N - Hello and welcome to Sportstar Podcast. My name is Nihit Sachdeva and today I’m joined by my colleague - N Sudarshan - from The Hindu. Today we’re going to talk about Wimbledon 2023 – what all happened at this year’s edition of the grass Major, major storylines and what to look forward to for the rest of the season
Beginning with the biggest talking point of the tournament - the men’s singles final - where Carlos Alcaraz defeated Novak Djokovic in a five-set thriller, ending his incredible 10-year unbeaten streak on Center Court and possibly ending his final bid for Calendar Slam. We don’t know how he will be next year. Sudarshan, how was this year’s final and do you think this was one of the best men’s grand slam finals we have had in recent years?
S - Thanks Nihit. Thanks for having me here. Like you said, it was one of the most memorable finals we have had in recent times. After the 2019 final, this was probably the best men’s final because everything else were four-set affairs. The Alcaraz-Djokovic match had a lot of shifts of momentum and change in fortunes. There were times when we thought either person could win and it was like that until the last sets. It was one of the most memorable finals in recent times, and we were all pretty lucky to have witnessed it.
N - It almost felt like Djokovic was facing a mirror image of himself because not many players have been able to stand against the kind of game he has and it was like Alcaraz was just a younger version of Djokovic because he was making him hit that one extra shot. After the first set’s drubbing - like he said in the post-match on court interview - he was like “Alcaraz, you need to improve your performance, others will be disappointed” and he did that in the rest of the match. He lifted his game and Djokovic also said in the post-match press conference that he has never played a player like that. When you saw this happening to Djokovic, how was that experience. Did you expect Alcaraz to be this good considering what happened at French Open semifinals?
S - I would have given Alcaraz an even chance if he had sorted out his mental hurdles because in French Open, he said he suffered full body cramps, which was stress induced. He is a player with a lot of options, a lot of variety and he is a much more attacking player than Djokovic is. So, he can literally take things into his own hands and force his way through. The biggest chance for him would have been if he had sorted those mental hurdles from the French Open and for a set, it didn’t seem like he had because he was pretty nervous. He lost the first set but after that, the turnaround was pretty remarkable for somebody so young to actually believe that he can beat somebody who has literally been a constant at Wimbledon for close to a decade on center court. The belief that he had that he could win was more important for him because he always had the game. He has had the game and he showed that he was much more attacking. I think there was a point in the third set when he had hit 14 winners by the time Djokovic even managed one. He is probably the most attacking player Djokovic would have faced since facing Federer in the 2019 final. The ammunition was always there. It was a question of belief but it was absolutely superb to watch that somebody so young believed that he could beat someone like Djokovic, who has been a colossus in men’s tennis and in Wimbledon, in particular.
N - You mentioned third set. There was one big moment before the third set. That was the second set tiebreaker where Djokovic mentioned he missed two backhands which he shouldn’t have. But in the third set, there was this incredible 26-minute game and if I remember correctly, Djokovic just couldn’t land first serves regularly. He was struggling to land two consecutive good first serves. Credit to Alcaraz also for the kind of pressure he was putting on but that 26-minute game seemed to be a match within a match. What are your memories of that game and do you think that boosted the morale of Alcaraz even more?
S- I would say yes. I think more than that one particular game, the end of second set is what got Alcaraz back in the game because for somebody to finish on the right side of such a slugfest for the first two sets and be even-stevens at the end of two sets. And also, duel so hard in the game that you mentioned with Djokovic in a Grand Slam final is in itself a big victory. The end of the third set and the start of the third set is what actually made Alcaraz believe that he could beat Djokovic. Those are the two momentum shifts and coming to your point about the end of the second set when at 5-5 in the tie break, or if I’m not wrong, Djokovic had a set point and then he netted two backhands. That’s what pressure does to you. Djokovic has always had these close matches turn his way. Some way or the other, he always believed he could win it, but I think Alcaraz’s biggest victory in this match was that he actually forced Djokovic into trying something that he was not required to do in a lot of matches in the recent past. It’s what pressure does to you. It’s what a prodigiously talented guy can actually force you into doing and Djokovic has had too many close shaves in the past at Wimbledon, so I can also say that maybe the law of averages just caught up.
N- Yes, he mentioned that in his on-court interview that he has won too many close matches. Just before we move on to women’s side of the draw, one more thing. There’s this narrative that’s now going on and it was pretty much expected after the final - the changing of the guard. Do you believe in that or do you think we need to see a little bit more to confirm that this victory was the changing of the guard?
S - There should be no question as to who the next big player in men’s tennis is going to be and that’s going to be Alcaraz but it has happened in recent times in men’s tennis that the old guard and the new guard can actually coexist for a while. When Nadal beat Federer in 2008, it just showed that there was not just one preeminent champion, there was going to be two. And when Djokovic managed to beat Federer and Nadal, we accepted the fact that there’s not just going to be two preeminent champions but three. So, I think Alcaraz’s victory should be seen in the same light where there is no clear break between the past champion. He fades away and the new champion takes over. For at least a year or a year and a half, Djokovic and Alcaraz can actually coexist. They may split slams between them. They may split the masters series between them. I expect there to be at least a year or a year and a half before Alcaraz takes this clear mantle of being the leading player. It is both a change of guard in some sense, and it’s also that we can actually see both these guys coexist for a while before Djokovic retires, and Alcaraz becomes the number one player.
N - Yeah, provided Alcaraz stays fit because even in his young career, he’s had a few injury issues.
S - What you say is true, he needs to take care of his physical fitness but despite being so young, he seems to have a very mature head and he also has surrounded himself with good people. If you remember, last time after Madrid, he took a break at Rome because he didn’t feel that he was fit enough to play. When you’re actually very young, you sort of push through your body. You feel like you can do everything you feel like. You can play three masters back-to-back and also a Grand Slam. He seems to have a very mature head in that he feels that his chance will come. So, he doesn’t need to rush through tournaments just because he’s young, just because he’s 20. So, I feel that he already is pretty calculative about what he plays, where he plays and when he plays. That should really stand him in good stead.
N - You’re talking about last year’s Rome, right? Because this year he did play at Rome.
S – Yes, last year’s Rome. After Madrid, he didn’t play Rome.
N - This year he lost to her qualifier. Lastly, on the men’s side, I think I need to eat humble pie because when we were previewing Wimbledon, I was of the opinion that the Russians and Belarusians are back but on the men’s side, it shouldn’t make much of a difference. As it turned out, three Russian men made it to the quarterfinals and one of them, Daniel Medvedev, reached the semifinals. I don’t think anyone saw this coming but strange things happen in tennis.
S - I think they hadn’t made a single fourth round which is very curious because even the Russian-origin players had not made a single quarterfinal. Here I’m talking about Tsitsipas and Zverev who also have some bits of Russian nationalities in them. So, I think it was a first for everyone and that’s an interesting trivia.
N - Moving on to the women’s side where I think even the champion didn’t expect that she would be the champion – Marketa Vondrousova. She won the women’s title, beating last year’s runner-up Ons Jabeur in the final. The draw held till the quarterfinals and I think most of the people watching were expecting one of the top four seeds to take the title but from the quarterfinals, just how the tables turned. That was really interesting thing to see Vondrousova winning the title despite having just four main draw wins on grass in her entire career and she was a tourist last year. She had this surgery and to win the title this year after having gone through such a hard time was really incredible. What do you think Vondrousova did right at this year’s tournament?
S - I just feel that Vondrousova actually made Jabeur play more balls than she is probably used to considering the kind of opponents Jabeur faced in the previous three rounds – Andreescu, Kvitova, Sabalenka. All three are incredible power hitters, and there was a stat against Sabalenka where Jabeur had significantly increased her return pace on those huge serves that Sabalenka was serving. She was used to one kind of player. Vondrousova just got everything back and on top of it, she’s also crafty. She can hit her own shots as well. So, it’s not just like she’s playing an entirely defensive game and hoping that Jabeur just keeps doing those unforced errors. She’s a good mix of craftiness as well as counter-punching. She actually made Jabeur hit way more shots than she would have liked to considering if you have to hit two or three winners to win every point, that puts tremendous pressure on you. Even for someone like Jabeur who can literally summon a winner whenever she needs, so I felt that was the difference which actually forced Jabeur to go for a bit more. We got those errors because she broke three times in the match and every time she couldn’t hold on to the break. It’s not like she was not able to do her stuff. It’s just that Vondrousova made her hit way more than what she would have liked. That, I felt, was the clincher in the final.
N – Also, she didn’t provide the sort of pace on her shots that Jabeur got used to in her previous two matches - like Rybakina and Sabalenka, they put so much power on their shots but Vondrousova wasn’t doing that. She was hitting more of those loopy returns and not allowing Jabeur to utilize that.
S - Since you mentioned, I missed Rybakina. So, it was Andreescu, Kvitova, Rybakina and Sabalenka. All linear power hitting people, players she might have been used to it but still, it’s not like she wouldn’t have thought about it. She just couldn’t execute it in the final.
N – Now, the Venus Rosewater Dish is there in Prague with Vondrousova’s cat Frankie, who got quite a bit famous during the tournament. And there was this question about whether her husband will be able to come to watch the final? And she finally said, before the final, that they’ve got a cat-sitter. That was a really heartwarming moment. I am more interested in knowing whether her coach has got that tattoo that he had promised her if she won a Grand Slam. If you saw the bit on social media where they show his face when she mentions that her coach had told her that if she won a Grand Slam, he would also get a tattoo. When you see this guy’s face and I think he was just regretting it at that point.
S – Frankly, I didn’t follow the social media chatter after the final but I did come across this quote of Vondrousova where she said, “I’m going to hire a cat-sitter so that my husband can come and watch the match. That I found very funny.
N – I’ve been getting to read a lot in recent times whether women’s tennis should also have best-of-five sets in the latter stages of the tournament, maybe from the fourth round or the quarterfinals, or maybe both men and women should play best-of-three sets for first three rounds and then maybe best-of-five for the remaining four rounds. Do you see any merit in this?
S - I frankly don’t know why this debate is even being Had because both sets of categories - men’s and women’s - are as good as they are and they are pretty much in a very good place. The only problem I had with the women’s thing is when Wimbledon actually introduced the 10-point tiebreaker at 6-6 in the final set. I just felt they shouldn’t have done it for the women’s game because one of the primary reasons for doing it was to stop the men’s matches from getting insanely long. I think they should have allowed the third set in the women’s game to just play out rather than bringing it to an abrupt end with a tie break, but three sets or five sets, I have absolutely no problems with how things are.
The root of this debate is the equal pay for equal work thing but I don’t quite agree with it because there are a lot of women’s matches which last longer than a straight-sets men’s match. So, where do you draw the line? Are you going to then pay people based on the number of sets they play? I think it’s a very futile debate. The time for this debate is gone and it has been settled.
N - One more time related thing that was in conversation during this Wimbledon was the scheduling on the Center Court. They were start starting the matches at 1:30 PM local time and with the night curfew in place, even Djokovic said they could maybe schedule the matches a bit earlier but why does Wimbledon keep doing this year after year when they know that the matches will go to the next day and possibly ruin a player’s chances.
S - They are quite finicky, right? They would not start the Centre Court proceedings till 1:30. I think it’s a tradition that they just want to maintain, but they have to reconcile with the fact that matches are getting longer by the day. The rallies are getting longer, players are stronger. It’s not the kind of slam bang tennis we used to have. It’s maybe high time they change - advancing the start of the play by at least an hour would do good. But let me tell you having covered the tournament, it’s one of the best tournaments to cover because you don’t have to wake up early and you don’t have to go to bed late. Everything happens in those six manic hours. You get done with it, then you enjoy the British summer where the light is there till around 10:00 and 10:30. You don’t have to get up in the morning and run to a stadium because the matches will start early, so from a journalist’s point of view, TV crew covering for whoever, even for a fan it’s just great, but ultimately players are the people who should be most prioritized, and I do hope that Wimbledon at least advances the start of the matches by an hour.
N - I mean, would it be right to call it British summer because it keeps raining all the time. This Wimbledon, the rain was such a big pain for the organizers. There were people who went through to the third round and there were people who hadn’t even played their first-round match.
S - There is a fundamental issue with having roofs only for two courts. The thing is, you can always say that the top players earn the right to play under the roof but the guy who gets drawn against the top player, he’s not there by merit. He’s just there because of the luck of the draw. Are you going to tell me that somebody who is ranked 91 just because he gets to play Djokovic can play under the roof and progress to the second round normally while the guy who is ranked 90 draws somebody on the outside court and he has to wait for four days. It is a bit of a problem there because if you’re going to have the same playing conditions for 128 players, ideally you should not be using the roof till the quarterfinals so that everybody has to go through the same kind of settings, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how things are going to work. People will want to watch some tennis, so I think there is an issue there that they have to sort out.
N - Moving on to some positives from the tournament this year. There were some major stories that stood out. One was the Ukrainian wild card – Elina Svitolina - who came back from maternity leave and had a great run at French Open. But then, she bettered that performance at this year’s Wimbledon and beating World No. 1 Iga Swiatek on her way to the semifinals. The other was the American, Christopher Eubanks, who didn’t even like grass prior to this season and was very close to calling his tennis career off because he wasn’t breaking the Top 100 and of course, the Russian qualifier – teenager Mirra Andreeva who is now in the Top 70 in the world. When you see such stories coming at Wimbledon, how is the experience as a journalist?
S - It is pretty heartwarming and Wimbledon has had a recent history of having such players. I think 2019, we had Coco Goff breaking through when she was still 15-year-old, playing Venus Williams and then I think it was 2021 when Emma Raducanu broke through as a wild card. I think she reached the fourth round and then she went on to win the US Open. And now we have Andreeva. Wimbledon has always provided that space for such stories to emerge and it’s also pretty heartwarming to feel that even in a sport where you do feel that the top stars always hog the limelight, deservedly so because they win so much, there is also space for these stories to emerge. Svitolina coming back and doing as well as she did was another very heartwarming thing, and it’s not easy to be back playing tennis within months of giving birth. So, credit to her and she also beat the world No. 1, so that is a great achievement. It’s actually good when so much of it you feel is certain in tennis - like these players are going to win come what may - to find such surprise stories is always great.
N – Definitely. As far as the Indian interest was concerned, this Wimbledon, we had Ankita Raina in the singles qualifiers but she lost in the opening round. We had two all-Indian doubles pairs and one Indo-Australian doubles pair. And Rohan Bopanna, the 43-year-old from Coorg, reached the men’s doubles semis while Yuki-Saketh and Jeevan-Balaji got into the draw as alternates but they couldn’t go past the first round. When you look at Bopanna playing at this stage and still playing so well - he’s back in the top 10 (world number seven) and then you look at the rest of the state of Indian tennis, what do you have to say about this scenario? Like how much more can Bopanna take the mantle since Sania retired earlier this year and he is the main guy right now. How long do we have to wait for another person to shine in Indian tennis?
S - I think the way it looks, it might be a very long time because like you said, Sania has retired and with Bopanna, who is closer to the end rather than to the start and once he’s gone as well, I think we won’t even have representation. At least until now, we had some Indian interest in doubles, mixed doubles, whatever it may be, I think it’s going to take years, the way things are now.
N – In doubles, I think we’ll hopefully continue to have representation because these guys are performing well, Saketh and others but they were essentially singles players. So, yes. I’m talking about singles.
S - That’s true. Doubles representation – while it’s good to have some interest, that there are also Indians participating. More than doubles being an option for them to further their professional careers. I don’t see doubles being a catalyst for producing singles players now. If Leander, Mahesh and Bopanna couldn’t trigger that change or even Sania couldn’t trigger that change - they are four world class doubles players who have been performing at the top of their games for close to two decades - if they couldn’t trigger a change in the Indian tennis ecosystem, like help in players emerge, I don’t think anybody else can do it. Using double success as trigger for singles, it’s not going to happen because until and unless they put in a system for Indian singles payer specifically to emerge, I think this story state is going to continue.
N – Yes. AITA has to take a lot of responsibility for this, but I don’t think that’s happening anytime soon. But now, looking forward to the rest of the season, are you excited for this Alcaraz versus Djokovic rivalry till the end of this year?
S - I am. I’m also interested to see how much this takes out of Djokovic because it’s also mentally draining for him and he’s not young anymore. He’s close to 37 now. I think he’s 36. He’ll turn 37 next year. I’ll be very eager to see how Djokovic reacts. In the last two years, he has not been able to play the US Open lead-up for hardcourt swing because of his vaccination status. So, I’ll be very eager to see what he does. Whether he plays more than his usual share of tournaments and how he reacts. But then again, hard courts are where he’s at his best and he might have been superb on grass – seven-time champion - but there have always been vulnerable moments for him on the natural surfaces like he got into a pickle against Sinner. He barely won against Federer in 2019. We would have been having an entirely different conversation if one of those two match points had been taken by Federer and in 2018, when he won that epic semifinal against Nadal, in which I personally thought Nadal was a better player and last year again if somehow fully fit Nadal had reached the final. But on hard, regardless of who he plays, even if he plays Medvedev, I do feel Djokovic is the genuine favorite. So, on his home turf, how would he react will be very interesting to see. It’s very weird because he has lost the most number of finals at the US Open. I think he has lost six finals at U.S. Open.
N - Six, yes.
S- So that is another thing that he has to set the record right. So, I’ll be very interested seeing Djokovic in particular, rather than the rivalry, because this is a part of the season where you have a lot more players than just these two. Now, Zverev can be dangerous because he’s not defending any points. Whatever he has, he’ll only go up. Tsitsipas is decent on hard courts and Medvedev.
N - Even Berrettini found some form at Wimbledon.
S – Berrettini is coming back and Sinner is good. So, there are a lot more players, at least from now until the ATP Tour finals. Things will look a lot more crowded rather than just these two players.
N - We will talk more about tennis later this year, closer to the US Open, but that’s the time we have for today. Thank you for joining Sudarshan.
S – Thank you so much, Nihit. Thank you very much for having me here.
N - We will be back with a new episode of Sportstar Podcast shortly.
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