Matt’s Wrap: The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same
My wrap-up of the 2012 Wimbledon gentlemen’s singles tournament won’t be a soaring ode to Roger Federer’s enduring greatness, captured in what ranks as his second-greatest achievement on a tennis court (the 2009 French Open being the permanent No. 1 for him). After all, you’ve likely scoured the internet the past 48 hours reading as many articles as you can find, plenty of them from the same pundits who openly doubted Federer’s ability to win No. 17 and get back to No. 1 in the world. There’s no need to pile on.
This final blog post on Wimbledon will try shed light on some of the details that Fed fans should not forget in the aftermath of this defining tournament. As you begin a tennis break and recharge for the Olympic Games in three weeks, be sure that the following points do not get left behind (in honor of Fed’s seventh Wimbledon, I’ll offer you seven items to consider):
1) There has always been a part of Roger Federer which expects players to rise to a certain standard of professionalism. It’s clear that Andy Murray has attained such a standard. This is a potentially thorny discussion topic, but it really shouldn’t be as controversial as it is. In the past, Murray received levels of buzz consistent with a top-tier contender for a major title, but he rarely if ever validated the hype. Before this Wimbledon, Murray’s best major tournament was the 2008 U.S. Open. It marked the only occasion in Murray beat a member of The Big Three in a major semifinal or final, and the Brit was only 21 years old at the time. In 2010 and 2011, when Murray reached the Australian Open final, Rafael Nadal’s health issues played an assisting role, so when Murray got crushed in each of those finals (straight sets both times), he didn’t turn heads or transform his reputation.
Moreover, it’s worth noting that in those tournaments, Murray was (more) prone to public displays of a swagger he had not yet earned (at least within the philosophical framework or worldview of some tennis fans; mileage, remember, may vary). Murray would sometimes flex his muscles and point to them after winning a particularly long or physical point. He wasn’t just known for grabbing his lower back or displaying any of several odd habits on the court; he carried too much anger, showing not the defiance that comes from honest determination, but the stubbornness of a player who had not yet learned how to master his emotions. This is the Murray whom Federer acknowledged as a prime talent, but it was also the Murray who did not yet deserve to be placed in Fed’s or Rafa’s category when major tournaments arrived. Federer could have been more generous and sympathetic to Murray — there’s no denying that point — but the Swiss’s many statements about the Brit were not exactly lies, either.
So many of Federer’s most memorable and biting remarks about Murray in the past owned a strong core quantity of truth. Moreover, you can be sure about this: Just as much as Federer did indeed play mind games with Murray in the past (I won’t dispute that point), he was also striking back at the fact that Murray was the recipient of the kinds of accolades he had not yet earned. In this sense, Federer was bristling and defensive not in reaction to Murray as a person, but to the media who built Murray into something more than the Brit actually was. (There’s a TON of irony there, tennis fans. Think about that for a bit.)
After Sunday’s big duel at Wimbledon, however, this reality has changed. Bruce Jenkins of Sports Illustrated said the following in his write-up of the gentlemen’s singles final:
There have been times in the past when Federer was a bit resentful of Murray, feeling perhaps he’d never be worthy of the big stage, but that all changed Sunday. “I think he’s done so well, to be quite honest,” Federer said. “I really do believe, deep down in me, that he will win Grand Slams — not just one. This is genuine. He’s as professional as he can be. Things just didn’t quite turn out for him, but I believe and hope for him that he’s going to win one soon.”
Skeptics would say that Federer was making nice to Murray because this match was played in the United Kingdom, or that Federer was placing pressure on Murray in a tone-deaf kind of way. There is, of course, an alternative explanation: Federer was simply telling the truth as he saw and felt it. It’s quite reasonable to concur with the newly-minted seven-time champion of Wimbledon.
Murray didn’t grab his back during Sunday’s final. Unlike the recent French Open, he didn’t play possum or create the (hard-to-verify) impression that he was suffering. He went about his business. He ran the court like a demon. His emotions didn’t fluctuate that wildly. Through it all, he played high-quality tennis (I’d grade him an A-minus), produced his best major final, and very nearly beat Federer; had he converted one of two break points at 4-all in the second set, he would have had a chance to serve for a two-set lead.
Murray was a different man from the one who lost his first three major finals without putting up much resistance. Federer saw this and paid Murray some rich compliments in return. Federer remained on top, but Murray substantially transformed his public perception.
2) It’s what you don’t see with Federer that counts. If anything about Federer’s legacy is underappreciated to a vast extent, it’s this. One of the things that even the smartest commentators often miss in the attempt to analyze athletes and matches is the realm of the unseen. The absence of certain realities is often just as determinative of an event’s outcome as the presence of other realities (if not more so). It’s hard to keep this in the forefront of one’s mind during a commentary, but that makes it all the more important to bring the unseen to the discussion table.
If you compare Federer’s 2012 Wimbledon to any of his previous major championship wins, the 2009 French Open becomes the immediate and obvious choice. Federer watched Rafael Nadal crash out of the tournament before the quarterfinals, but in the other half of the draw. He then survived a match the very next day after trailing by two sets. Yet, whereas Federer’s escape job against Tommy Haas turned on one shot in the third set, there wasn’t a single shot burned into the public memory against Julien Benneteau or — for that matter — against Xavier Malisse in a fourth-round match complicated by back pains that almost sent the Swiss packing.
During this Wimbledon, there wasn’t a single shot that rippled through the pages of time. Federer survived the middle of this tournament — the underrated defiance of death which made his end-stage glories possible — because of what you didn’t see. You didn’t see Federer panic. You didn’t see him submit to a dark fate with resignation, an accusation that gets leveled against him so many times when the reality is that he’s simply having an off day.
You did not see Federer try to overhit or overcompensate for his back injury against Malisse. If anything, Federer used Bernard Tomic-like pace on his groundstrokes to throw his Belgian opponent a situational change-up, a tactic that saved him in a first set he probably needed in order to pull through. (Maybe he would have won in five, but within the run of play, that first set seemed really significant. Down 5-6, Federer had the look of a man who was about to be snatched by the effects of old age.)
You did not see dynamic tennis from Federer in the third or fourth rounds. You also didn’t see him crashing out of the tournament, losing the handle of two extremely different high-stress situations. The third and fourth round of Federer’s triumphant Wimbledon need to be remembered as much as the semifinals and the final.
3) What you didn’t see in the Wimbledon final was… the old-school grass-court match Federer played against Novak Djokovic in Friday’s semifinal round. This is something that really hasn’t emerged in the match analyses I’ve read from multiple writers over the past two days: The Wimbledon final was played mostly on Andy Murray’s terms.
Think about that for a moment. It’s true (or as Nadal would say, “It’s the true”).
On Friday, Federer played the lightning-quick old-style (pre-2000) grass tennis with which Pete Sampras would be happily familiar. His four-set win over Djokovic encompassed 2 hours and 19 minutes. On Sunday, he played four non-tiebreak sets with Murray (only one of which went the full 12 games) in 3 hours and 24 minutes. Federer did not get tons of cheap points on serve. Murray’s return made him work for the vast majority of his service games. The Swiss had to play a far more physical match, and he had to win a lot of 30-all points in sets three and four, even though he didn’t face many break points in that time. Federer gained leads midway through each of those sets, but Murray legitimately fought him all the way in a match that featured long rallies as opposed to two- or three-stroke points.
Federer played on Murray’s terms. This led to some wrongheaded analysis from commentators who should know better. L.Z. Granderson, a very thoughtful American essayist who has written extensively on tennis in the past, viewed Federer’s inability to ace Murray in the first two sets as solely his responsibility, thereby failing to give Murray due credit for applying match pressure to the Swiss.
It is — as has been said before on this blog — the core tension of any Federer match: If Roger’s opponent does not give him cheap points on serve, Federer can and will press. This is what happened in the first two sets. It is an extraordinary testament to Fed’s focus and overall quality that he was able to win despite the caliber of Murray’s return game and the length of the points that were crafted in the match. You might have seen commentators trumpet the amount of unforced errors Fed committed in the first two sets. What you did not see (because guys like John McEnroe failed to mention it on American TV) was any statistic showing the length of points in the first two sets. Federer was regularly having to hit three to six more balls per service point than he normally expects on grass. That he prevailed anyway shows how high he climbed against Murray. Who thought Fed would win this match with backcourt prowess combined with brilliant net play?
4) In the end, Federer might have reached the final because of his serve, but he won the final because of Murray’s serve. It was a fascinating plot twist, wasn’t it? For all the ways in which I thought the Federer serve versus the Murray return was going to be the central conflict of Sunday’s final, it turned out that Murray’s serve — first and second — became the true point of differentiation between the two players.
There’s an extremely important point to be made here in reference to Sunday’s match: Murray’s serve is the very thing which makes it hard to view the roof as a decisive factor in the outcome. Some commentators — prominently the astute and terrific Yesh Ginsburg; follow him at @yesh222TSHQ (and find him a tennis blogging job if you know of one; he’s that good…) — made the fair point that the roof gave Federer an undeniable comfort zone, thereby altering the competitive balance of the match. I am willing to acknowledge that Federer’s groundstrokes were polished and accentuated by the indoor conditions. Everyone knew that an indoor match favored Federer, and Sunday affirmed Ginsburg’s basic outlook.
However, Ginsburg overstepped by opining that Murray would have won the match had the event remained outdoors. It’s a legitimate opinion, but it’s one that places a little too much weight on factors beyond the quality of tennis being played.
Federer was certainly able to hit through the court with more success in sets three and four, but what gets missed (again, it’s what you don’t see as much as what you see that counts…) is that Murray had his own chances to hit through the court… especially on serve… and didn’t do enough.
If the indoor environment added to Federer’s serve, Murray had that same opportunity. In the 20-minute sixth game of the third set — the game that generally shifted the weight and flow of momentum in the contest — Murray hit an occasional ace or service winner at deuce or break point down, but he could never stack together two bombs to win the game. Murray owns the skill set needed to win majors, but in order to finish the job against any of the Big Three, he must find a way to make his first serve more consistent and his second serve a harder puzzle to solve. Murray’s losses to Djokovic, Nadal and Federer in major-tournament semifinals and finals regularly involve the inability to serve on clutch points with the same consistency as the Big Three. Said losses also expose Murray’s inability to hit second serves to all parts of the service box; his reluctance to go wide from the deuce side and down the T from the ad side make his second ball an attackable one.
What you didn’t see under the roof — Murray aces and service winners — magnifies the larger point: Murray had every opportunity to make the faster conditions work in his favor on his service games, but he didn’t. If the indoor environment was such an advantage for Federer, sets three and four should have blown by in record time, but they didn’t. The first two sets — encompassing 22 games — lasted 1 hour and 51 minutes. The third and fourth sets — encompassing 19 games, 16 of which were played under the roof — lasted roughly 1 hour and 30 minutes. The pace of play was not transformed by the conditions. Murray was still engaging Federer in rallies, still getting most of the Swiss’s returns back, still getting to 30 in most of Fed’s service games. In short, he was still playing the match on his terms… just as he would have done if the match had remained an outdoor event.
He still lost.
5) He overcame back problems in the fourth round. He beat a favored opponent in the semifinals. He withstood a great deal of pressure to come through in the final on Sunday. Yes, this was a great Wimbledon for Roger Federer… in 2003, not just 2012.
6) For so many years, Federer was well served by his tactic of chipping back returns. The play reduced strain on both body and mind. It gave him a comfort zone and prevented him from overextending. Federer’s chip return drew the opponent into net and set up a backhand pass. (Federer did this at times in the first two sets against Murray.) Yet, at this stage in his career, it’s clear that with Federer’s body still able to produce considerable quality, it will become more necessary for him to attack returns instead of just chipping them. Yet, let’s not lose sight of the reminder that tennis is a dialogue, not a monologue. The quality of the opponent’s second serve has a lot to do with the receiver’s ability to go after a return. Federer exploited Murray in sets three and four (credit the coaching staff, Annacone and Luthi), but if Murray beefs up his second serve, Roger won’t be able to hit out with that level of freedom in the future. Keep an eye on that storyline going forward…
7) To anyone and everyone who thinks that Federer’s win diminishes the legacy of Pete Sampras, I understand completely. Yet, the fact that Paul Annacone (along with the rest of Federer’s full team, which earned every ounce of Swiss payment this past fortnight) was on hand for this moment only underscores Sampras’s place in the sport. Federer stands on the shoulders of a giant today, the giant Fed regards as his foremost tennis hero. Had Annacone not inspired Sampras, Federer would not have hired Annacone. Had Sampras not flourished late in his career, Federer might not have received the essential insights that have kept him mentally replenished one month short of his 31st birthday. Everything that Roger does at Wimbledon in this stage of his career — like most of what he does in any tennis venue at this point in life — is linked to Sampras through Annacone’s presence. Federer’s achievements magnify the centrality of Sampras in the story of tennis, as opposed to creating distance between the two men.