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.

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17 responses to “Matt’s Wrap: The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same”

  1. mattzemek says :

    I will be unable to comment on the Olympics, so this will be my last post before the U.S. Open (if I post anything on the U.S. Open at all). As always, I serve at the pleasure of the president of the Fucccheine Yeeeaaaacht Sweats of Excellence Blogging Empire. Thanks, Doots, for allowing me the privilege of guest Woger-blogging the past fortnight. It’s always a treat to push some tennis writing out of my brain.

  2. Marcoiac says :

    I love your ending of this post, celebrating a fabulous champion like Pistol Pete. I have been saying for years that Fed should chip less his return and be more aggressive. You bring up, however, a key factor. Muzz second serve was highly readable. I wonder if Fed will be able to repeat the aggressiveness of his return when he plays guys with a less predictable second serve. I think that against the other top player a key strategic factor for Fed is to take control of the rally early. When he’s returning, chipping it won’t do it. He needs to either hit an aggressive BH return or go around the serve and hit the FH. I think Fed can win long rallies against all the other top players, as long as he keeps the upper hand in the rally. Obviously, he doesn’t want to be caught up in long rallies, but he can certainly manage them, as long as he is in control.

    • dootsiez says :

      Murray’s second serve has always been highly readable. This pattern of play is not new. In the first set and a half though, Federer was slicing too many second serve returns back at Murray. When he came out of the rain delay, he hit over his backhand (or jumped around for a forehand) each time. Huge difference, because from then on, Murray started going for more and more on first serves and missing more.

      Pete Sampras is a champion who should be celebrated of course, but I don’t think I agree with Matt on this point. I *do* think #17 put greater distance between Sampras and Federer. As far as the all time greats go, there are 2 men in conversation with Fed, 1) is Nadal, simply because his career is far from done. 2) Rod Laver, for his true “Grand Slams” and the even spread of his domination across all 4 slams. (Admittedly, he played most on grass, but it still suggests a level of consistency in a season from end to end.)

      • Vishal says :

        I feel that for Nadal to be in the GOAT conversation with Federer, he needs to diversify his slam wins a bit. Nearly 70% of his slams and titles on a surface that is not even the most dominant surface on tour (30-35% of ATP tournaments are on clay, I believe?) only underline that he is incredibly prolific on clay (and therefore clay GOAT) but GOAT? I don’t think so.

        • mattzemek says :

          Yes, indeed. This is hardly a knock on Nadal; it’s merely the roadmap he must follow if he wants to enhance his place in the historical conversation.

          Fascinating little stat about Rafa: His number of Wimbledon finals (5) exceeds his combined number of Australian and U.S. Open finals (4).

          2010 was his time to finally win the U.S. Open and complete the career Grand Slam, but this (2012) will be his most important summer hardcourt season. Points are there for the taking in Toronto and Cincinnati as well as New York. Let’s say that Djokovic loses in the US Open semifinals; he’d lose another 1,280 rankings points. If Nadal can either win the Open or make the finals of both Masters events in Canada and Ohio followed by a finals appearance in New York, he could overtake Djokovic for #2 in September. It would be just like old times at the top of the rankings again….

          The Olympics-US Open stretch will be quite exciting, to say the very least.

  3. CWATC says :

    Nice write-up and I agree with many if not all of your points. I do think the Annacone link, while valid, is far from the only thing uniting Fed and Sampras; ever since Pete reached out to Fed after the 2006 USO and they played that 2007 exo series there’s been a friendship and connection which makes them seem more like mates than competitors.

    I do take issue w/ your comments about Fed’s presser statements over the years re Andy Murray. I don’t think Fed ever disrespected or resented Murray. He made some unfortunate comments after the Dubai 2008 loss which probably had more to do with his not-yet-revealing the mono than anything else, and his criticisms that Murray has the talent to play more aggressively than he does have pretty much become conventional wisdom.

    The only other negativitiy I can remember is sometimes if he felt as you say Murray was maybe being overhyped by the media or bookies as a favorite for sth, but that’s just Fed’s competativeness and frankness talking, nothing personal about Murray nor would I call it “mind games.”

    He has said many, many very positive things over the years about Murray but they have been quickly forgotten by the media as they don’t fit the preferred narrative.

    Few remember how annoyed Fed got in 2005 AO when asked by a reporter whether he was playing at a high enough level to beat Agassi. Fed’s response “even on my day when I’m not playing my best I can beat him” was arguably disrespectful but no one thinks he had anything against Agassi, it was just annoyance at feeling dissed by the reporter.

  4. Kyle Johansen (@KJOttawa) says :

    You are right about one thing Matt – Murray lost the match on his serve. In the first two sets, he tried to bomb big flat serves, and the majority of the time he missed, Roger went on to win the point off the 2nd serve. When Murray started mixing things up on his first serve and took pace off the ball, he succeeded in not giving Fed a comfort zone upon the return and thus, he won more points.

    In the third and fourth sets, Murray abandoned the successful tactic and went for the big bombs nearly every single time. Sure, he won a cheap point here and there, but the majority of the time Fed got a look at a 2nd serve, he attacked it. This was especially prevalent in that marathon game at 3-2 in the 3rd set when Roger stepped around the backhand on the deuce return nearly every single time, and it paid great dividends.

    The only thing I shall disagree with is that the final two sets were played on Andy’s terms. I believe they were not. Roger was so aggressive from the baseline and he put Andy under relentless pressure on every chance he got, and that took the match out of Andy’s hands (there is no beating Roger when he plays like that). Murray also stopped playing aggressively and did not go after his forehand like he did in the first two sets (first in particular).

    He tried that bad tactic of trying to push his backhand to Roger’s, but he failed to realize that Fed was basically setting up a foot or two left of the centre line, so he was already prepared to step around it and crack a forehand, which he did numerous times in the final two sets. Coupled with that, Fed’s forehand on the run was lethal, so Andy could no longer go to their alternate route of going to Fed’s forehand because Roger was moving so brilliantly to that side also, and most of those on-the-run forehands Fed was hitting very well either cross-court or down the line.

    • Kyle Johansen (@KJOttawa) says :

      Another thing I forgot to mention. Chipping the return back was not an unsuccessful play for Fed throughout the match. The combination of being aggressive and being neutral likely gave Andy headaches. When Fed did slice or chip the return back, he was usually the one in control of the point already, because he chipped it deep and created an attackable next ball, or he caught Andy off-guard by doing the ol’ Annacone chip and charge play.

    • mattzemek says :

      Kyle,

      I know what you mean, and I agree with what you say. It’s a bit of semantics, then.

      The larger framework of the battles waged in the third and fourth sets was still one of extended, physical rallies more than two- or three-stroke points seen against Djokovic. The difference between the third and fourth sets and the first two sets was that Federer was able to play with supreme comfort and consistency.

      One could aim for two alternate phrasings here:

      1) If Federer played sets three and four on his terms, Murray should not have felt that he was making a bad deal.

      OR:

      2) If Federer played sets three and four on Murray’s terms, he obviously felt comfortable about his ability to sign the document Murray handed to him.

      Federer made rallies and physical tennis work for him. In this sense, he beat an opponent by playing to that opponent’s strength. This is an old, familiar virtue of his, and it resurfaced in all its glory on Sunday. Federer, in his peak years, would often wait to see if an opponent could produce a high level of tennis. As an astute (non-Federer-fan) tennis analyst on Twitter has said, Federer thrives “from the flow of play, not from the mandate” to play well. In other words, Federer does not impose his game on opponents so much as he absorbs the opponent’s pace and learns to play within it.

      In recent years, this virtue was not as prevalent or readily visible. The reality of older legs has made it more necessary for Fed to start fast. Against Nadal and Djokovic, though, this became a problem as soon as Fed’s level would drop. This past weekend, in the semis and finals, Federer’s level got better as the match went on as opposed to regressing. In this sense, the old Federer returned to life against Murray. Versus Djokovic, Federer played the match unambiguously on his terms, getting the kinds of (quick, cheap) points he wanted. Against Murray, you could say that Fed played the match on his terms if you like (it’s a perfectly valid interpretation), as long as one acknowledges that the terms were set by the 25-year-old version of Fed, not the almost-31-year-old version.

      To address your follow-up comment, Kyle, I noted in a parenthetical reference that Fed did chip the return in the first two sets. I failed to note that he sometimes got results with the approach. Your comment properly frames the larger context: Chipping still has its value on good, hard second serves, especially the loaded kicker to the backhand on the ad side. Annacone and Luthi were right to tell Roger during the rain delay that if Murray was not offering a strong kick serve, Fed needed to go after it.

      • Kyle Johansen (@KJOttawa) says :

        You are very right.

        Also, even though the rallies were longer throughout the match, I never got the sense like Fed was struggling with them. Especially in the last two sets (but also at times throughout the first two), Roger was dictating those long rallies with his forehand and had Murray on the defensive a lot. Of course, Andy defends so well that he got more balls back in play than the average player, but Roger wasn’t panicking; he just kept the pressure on and knew that at one point or another, Murray would have to attack in order to win, which in the end, he was not able to do at the right times.

    • dootsiez says :

      I agree with Kyle here. I’m not sure that the match was played on Mandy’s terms.

      Federer knew he was never going to serve his way through a match against Mandy. The guy stands so far behind the baseline to return serves, he might as well be returning from Dunblane. A point raised by LJ privately the other day – Fed opted for percentage play, trying to dictate the rallies until he got the opening to be lethal. Good tactic.

      In other news, the Murray/Federer H2H right now is probably the most deceiving H2H among the top 4.

  5. Flo says :

    As a Sampras fan, I do not see why there should be any hard feelings. They are friends and not even the people who question the other high profile supposed friendships would question this one. They both have that simple approach to and love for tennis, unlike the complex love-hate situation with Agassi. They are the eat breath sleep tennis type, and from my recollection, probably two of the most knowledgeable among the top guys about the history of tennis champions. I do not Federer is going to be putting his trophies in some storage unit or be a questionable tipper but you can bet they would be the last guys to engage in on court gamesmanship or throw off an opponent be Spirleaing them. Did Pete even call an MTO when he threw up against Corretja at USO? Or try to slow things down to recover from breaking down over the news of Gullickson passing?

    I would not say Sampras has been eclipsed by Federer. There has yet to be anyone better at his hold games than Sampras or tiebreaks. No one was better at nursing a lead and getting to the finish line. The scorelie would be close but you would watch the match and know that he had it under control the whole time.

    • Kyle Johansen (@KJOttawa) says :

      It’s apples and oranges, really. Pete’s serve is the most effective ever, and Fed’s all-round game is the most effective ever. And just like Pete could hold a lead impeccably well, Fed can turn a tight match into a blowout in the blink of an eye, which also makes him such an elite front-runner.

  6. jandemom says :

    Always enjoy reading your posts & analysis, Matt. I love tennis, understand it pretty well & discuss it with Husband & some friends, but I don’t think about it as deeply/historically as you (& doots) seem to, and I like taking that extra step on the Fence as it adds to my enjoyment of the sport. (And the Federporn’s pretty great, too, but I digress…) Sorry that college football will be pulling you away from us (hope it’s an exciting season, for your sake) & I hope you’ll be able to enjoy the USOpen.

  7. Deborah Taylor (@shackle52) says :

    Of all the stuff I’ve read since Sunday, and believe me, it’s been two tons, this has been right up there with the best in its analysis of what I watched (when I wasn’t praying), including the comments. Good stuff. Matt, where do you write about college football? I’d love to follow.

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