Sunday, July 05, 2009

Mr. European Cool vs. Yankee Doodle Dandy (or, "An English Classic, Pt.II")

Apparently, there's a new tennis law that says that anytime Roger Federer plays in a slam final, one of the competitors has to shed tears when it's all over.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The 2009 Wimbledon Gentlemen's singles final was expected to be something of a coronation ceremony, with a revamped and reinvigorated Andy Roddick quite possibly providing enough decent competition to not be considered a pushover. But no one was expecting what actually happened on Centre Court today. One year after "The Greatest Match Ever Played," Federer and Roddick conspired to cobble together a fitting sequel. The end product might not have been QUITE as groundbreaking as the duel between Federer and Nadal of 2008, but it was more than special is so many ways all its own.

Ironically, the opening shot of NBC's coverage of the final today didn't exactly inspire anyone to think big.

There was the fidgety Roddick, waiting impatiently while dressed in his familiar cap and on-court short-sleeved shirt and shorts attire. He looked just so... well, for lack of a better term, "American," a virtual Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court who resembled an unknown kid who might have just been pulled off a neighborhood tennis court and given the chance of a lifetime -- to face the kingly gentleman champion of a more stately age on the sport's grandest stage.

It was like they were of two entirely different ages.

Standing behind Roddick, Federer was oozing European "cool"... or maybe it was something akin to a royal air. Dressed in impeccable cream slacks and tailored military style long-sleeved jacket, he sported a countenance as calm as still water. Hands casually, but regally, resting in his pockets, he appeared to be waiting for the call to civilized battle. Of course, when you reach seven consecutive Wimbledon finals, and the final of sixteen of the last seventeen slams, you tend to have an unbreakable routine that makes even the impending moment during which you are expected to be officially "crowned" seem like a walk into the kitchen to grab a drink of water.

Then again, while this day wasn't supposed to be easy, it would have been hard to imagine that Federer's path to his record-breaking fifteenth slam title would be as hard to traverse as it was versus a player against which he had an 18-2 career head-to-head advantage heading into the match. But that's exactly what it was.

Once play began, it took three games for the true reason this match had an historical angle to become sufficiently apparent. When all-time slam champ Pete Sampras arrived -- fashionably late -- to the Royal Box and took his seat alongside the likes of Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg to complete tennis' version of an Elder's Council, there was no question how serious this would-be coronation was supposed to be.

Thing is, Roddick wasn't playing along with the ceremonial aspects of this final. He believed this was HIS day to shine. At 5-5, he denied Federer four break point opportunities. What we didn't know at the time was that it would be nearly four hours before Federer would have as good a chance to break Roddick's serve, and that his inability to get one here would very nearly cost him the championship. Then again, maybe he DID know, for one game later, after having previously lost only three points on serve, Federer lost four as Roddick converted a break to take the 1st set 7-5.

The 2nd set was about Federer holding on for dear life. Roddick's backhands down the line and deep, penetrating shots kept Federer off balance in the back of the court, unable to get into an aggressive position (somewhat similar to how Maria Sharapova took down Serena Williams in the '04 Ladies' Final). In the set's concluding tie-break, Roddick jumped to a 6-2 lead and held four set points for a two sets to none lead, but Federer survived by outplaying him on five of the next six points (the American's miss at a high backhand volley at 6-5, while a difficult shot, was all on him) to steal away the breaker 8-6.

Roddick rightly believed he could win, but Federer was not ready to lose. Not on Centre Court. Not again.

Federer won the 3rd set in another tie-break at 7-5, while Roddick seized control of the 4th and won it outright 6-3. But both sets were just a prelude to an epic 5th set that lasted more than an hour-and-a-half and is destined to go down in grand slam history.

Truthfully, the final set wasn't filled with a handful of great, thrilling, heart-stopping moments ala the Rafa/Roger final of a year ago. Both Federer and Roddick were largely routinely holding serve. It was tennis' version of a marathon race, and everyone was waiting to see which player would suffer the single unfortunate stumble down the final stretch that would lead them to be beaten out while "leaning for the tape." One of them HAD to do so, because otherwise the match would NEVER end. They played on, and on. 7-7, the same point at which Nadal broke Federer's serve before serving out the 9-7 final set in '08, went by without either player grabbing an advantage.

Throughout the set, there were brief moments of truth. The first came at 8-8. Roddick went up 40/15 on Federer's serve, but the five-time Wimbledon champ hit a service winner, then used a wide serve to set up an easy put-away volley. He held for 9-8. At 9-9 a new Wimbledon final 5th set record was achieved. 10-10. 11-11, as the grand slam final 5th set record was surpassed after Roddick held serve despite Federer having pushed him to a deuce point. 12-12, as Federer climbed out of a 15/30 hole on his own serve. 13-13, as Roddick again was forced to play a deuce game. 14-14.

And then it happened. Roddick stumbled ever so slightly, and Federer pounced.

Down love/30 on his serve, Roddick scrambled to stay ahead, but Federer could smell the finish line and his calling to history. At deuce, Federer's short return led to a Roddick shot that Federer promptly pushed into an open court. After 4:16, behind only last year's match in terms of lengths of a Wimbledon final, 76 games, and 435 points, Federer reached match point.

When Roddick framed a bad-bouncing Federer shot off the chopped up earth on the baseline, Federer exploded with the joy he'd missed out on a year ago in the fading light at the All-England Club. For the first time all day, after failing to convert his first six opportunities, Federer broke Roddick's serve on his seventh break chance. For his reward he received the match, 5-7/7-6/7-6/3-6/16-14, and the honor of being the new all-time slam king.


In the end, for all the greatness of Roddick's serve, Federer put away 50 aces (to the American's 27) and had a remarkable 89% 1st serve win percentage (to Roddick's 83%).

For as good as it was, Federer/Roddick is destined to somewhat live in the shadow of the '08 match, which had all the intangible elements of two players in an epic struggle to possibly become not just the Wimbledon champion but also the best of their generation, and maybe all-time. It provided a tangible changing of the guard moment in near-darkness in the final match at a roofless Centre Court, with Federer's long-held position at the top of the game suddenly being questioned while Nadal's greatness was simultaneously being recognized.

None of that can be said about the '09 final, but one gets the feeling that the legend of THIS final will grow over time (some might even attempt to maintain that it was quite possibly superior to the Rafa/Roger classic, just to be contrary). It won't have an entire book written about it like the '08 match, but it WILL provide a rather snappy chapter in the careers of both Federer and Roddick... not to mention some beaming smiles from all those who watched it. THIS match was just plain fun, pure and simple, even if Roddick (who shed tears on the court, then was his usual blunt self after the match when it came to drawing the stark line between winning and losing a slam final, fully believing at least for this one day that he's never been more hurt by a single loss in his entire career) might not be capable of seeing it right now.

Recognizing in Roddick the same hurt that he'd felt on Centre Court a year ago, Federer tried to console him at he took the microphone during the trophy presentaton, saying essentially that one match lost doesn't make a career. I'm not sure that Roddick totally bought it, considering one slam that slipped away means far more to a one-time winner than it might a fifteen-time champ, but at least at that moment, the two players who'd seemed from such different worlds not five hours before had at least found some common ground. Sort of.

In the light of this latest Wimbledon five-set final, the third straight at SW19, could Federer's position be more different than it was twelve months ago? Last July, his "reign" seemed to be over. Now, he's the reigning champ (again) at three of the four slams, will be looking to win a third straight in New York with a sixth consecutive Open crown and, of course, is once again the subject of "Is He the Greatest Ever?" discussions in all corners of the sport.

After the post-match ceremony, Federer exited the court and entered the All-England Club with the champion's cup. He proceeded to shake hands with the entire Elder's Council (with three-time Wimbledon champ John McEnroe standing nearby, microphone in hand, as well) awaiting him there. It was a quite a meeting of tennis greats, and everyone was careful not to slight another while pondering Federer's place in the game's historical hierarchy, of which each person in that room was himself a powerful member. But, interestingly, if you looked closely, you could see the sunlight peeking through a window and shining directly on Federer in that gathering of greats. And ONLY him.

I'm not saying that the Tennis Gods were making THEIR choice obvious... I'm just pointing out a little detail that I noticed.

After so many years living in the long shadows of the other, greater players of his generation, Roddick proved up to the task of standing along side the best of them all today. Well, almost.

While Roddick might have lost this final, he could still get the last laugh, or at least a satisfying smile of TOTAL redemption soon enough. His new lease on tennis life suddenly makes him a real contender at Flushing Meadows.

Remember, Nadal's health is unknown heading into the North American hard court season, and the Spaniard has yet to make a great Open run. Plus, Federer has won five straight U.S. titles, and might be due to lose (well, maybe) before lifting the trophy again. Might an Andy vs. Andy final be possible, or another Roddick shot at Federer in the American's back yard?

Could be. Could be.

Hmmm, as happened the Sunday on which Federer won Roland Garros, did anyone notice that his fellow march-toward-history comrade -- Tiger Woods -- also won a PGA tour title today (not far from Backspin HQ, actually, at Congressional Country Club in Washington, D.C.)?

Sometimes, everything just lines up perfectly. Of course, where Federer is concerned, "sometimes" happens fifteen times... and counting.

=DAY 13 NOTES= the Girls Doubles final, Noppawan Lertcheewakarn once again got the best of Pastry Kristina Mladenovic, as Thailand's Girls Singles champion and Australia's Sally Peers defeated #2-seeded Mladenovic & Croatian Silvia Njiric 6-1/6-1. Lertcheewakarn also won the Roland Garros junior doubles title, with Elena Bogdan.

...Anna-Lena Groenefeld won her first career slam title, taking the Mixed Doubles crown with Mark Knowles, defeating the top-seeded team of Cara Black and Leander Paes 7-5/6-3.

...perhaps trying to emulate Federer & Roddick, the Boys Doubles final included its own extended final set, as Pierre-Hugues Herbert & Kevin Krawietz def. Julien Obry & Adrien Puget 6-7/6-2/12-10 in the final.

...meanwhile, in the Senior Invitational final, Martina Navratilova (now a spritely 52) & Helena Sukova defeated Ilana Kloss & Ros Nideffer 6-3/6-2. Martina just continues to amaze. If she plays in the '10 Senior matches next year, she'll be actively (and, likely, successfully) competing at the All-England Club in her -- yikes -- FIFTH decade.

...and, finally, I couldn't say goodbye to the Daily Backspin for this year's Wimbledon without one final raised eyebrow directed toward NBC. Umm, what's the deal with having Ted Robinson paired with only Mary Carillo or John McEnroe for the coverage of the women's and men's finals? In the past, if I remember correctly, all three were in the booth at the same time, resulting in lively discussion throughout. Carillo's great ability to get to the heart of any match sort of led her to become the first woman used regularly to cover men's tennis, not just the women's game. And McEnroe is always entertaining, as well. Toss in the fact that the pair are longtime friends from their New York childhoods, and even won a slam Mixed Doubles title together, and the three-way booth should be a natural for NBC. But we are talking about NBC, so I guess nothing is every obvious, is it? The network probably would have had to play both of them a few additional shillings to work both finals, and that was very likely the deal-breaker for the penny-pinching peacock network.

(Here's what would have been a good solution: kick Jimmy Roberts and his worthless "wrap-up" babble to the curb, and move that ING bench into the broadcast booth, or create a little logo to put in the corner of the screen so the sponsor gets its paid-for screen time. That would have saved money on a salary, and the construction of a set.

On that note, this is the final "official" Daily Backspin for Wimbledon, but the "Decade's Best" special edition, 2009 Grass Court Awards and "Odds and Ends Between London and New York" 3Q preview are still to come in the next few days.

#2 Serena Williams def. #3 Venus Williams/USA 7-6/6-2

#2 Roger Federer def. #6 Andy Roddick/USA 5-7/7-6/7-6/3-6/16-14

#4 Williams/Williams (USA/USA def. #3 Stosur/Stubbs (AUS/AUS) 7-6/6-4

#2 Nestor/Zimonjic (CAN/SRB) def. #1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) 7-6/6-7/7-6/6-3

#9 Groenefeld/Knowles (GER/BAH) def. #1 Black/Paes (ZIM/IND) 7-5/6-3

#4 Noppawan Lertcheewakarn/THA def. #1 Kristina Mladeovic/FRA 3-6/6-3/6-1

Andrey Kuznetsov/RUS def. Jordan Cox/USA 4-6/6-2/6-2

Lertcheewakarn/Peer (THA/AUS) def. #2 Mladenovic/Njiric (FRA/CRO) 6-1/6-1

Herbert/Krawietz (FRA/GER) def. Obry/Puget (FRA/FRA) 6-7/6-2/12-10

14...Pete Sampras, USA
12...Roy Emerson, USA
11...Bjorn Borg, SWE
11...Rod Laver, AUS
10...Bill Tilden, USA

7...Pete Sampars
7...William Renshaw
5...Bjorn Borg
5...Laurence Doherty
[Open Era]
7...Pete Sampras
5...Bjorn Borg
3...Boris Becker
3...John McEnroe

4:48 - 2008: Nadal def. Federer
4:16 - 2009: FEDERER def. RODDICK
4:16 - 1982: Connors def. McEnroe

20...ROGER FEDERER (15-5)
8...Rafael Nadal (6-2)
5...ANDY RODDICK (1-4)
4...Lleyton Hewitt (2-2)
4...Marat Safin (2-2)

109...Jimmy Connors
94...Ivan Lendl
77...John McEnroe
64...Pete Sampras
62...Bjorn Borg
62...Guillermo Vilas
60...Andre Agassi

7...Rafael Nadal (5-2)
6...Novak Djokovic (2-4)
5...Andy Murray (4-1)
3...Radek Stepanek (2-1)
3...ANDY RODDICK (1-2)

7...Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal
5...Andre Agassi vs. Pete Sampras
5...Ivan Lendl vs. Mats Wilander
4...Bjorn Borg vs. Jimmy Connors
4...Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe

10...Roger Federer (2005-07)
7...Jack Crawford (1932-34)

[vs. Federer, 0-4]
2004 lost Wimbledon final
2005 lost Wimbledon final
2006 lost U.S. Open final
2009 lost Wimbledon final
[vs. anyone else, 1-0]
2003 won U.S. Open over Juan Carlos Ferrero

TOP QUALIFIER: #1q Victoriya Kutuzova/UKR
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): #3 Venus Williams/USA
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #2 Serena Williams/USA
TOP LATE ROUND (SF-F): #2 Serena Williams/USA
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q1: Vesna Manasieva/RUS d. Noppawan Lertcheewakarn/THA 6-7/6-4/6-1
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st Rd. - Ana Ivanovic/SRB d. Lucie Hradecka/CZE 5-7/6-2/8-6 (saved 2 MP)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th Rd. - Melanie Oudin/USA d. Jelena Jankovic/SRB 6-7/7-5/6-2
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): SF - Serena Williams d. Elena Dementieva 6-7/7-5/8-6
FIRST SEED OUT: #23 Aleksandra Wozniak/CAN (1st Rd.-Schiavone/ITA)
IT GIRL: Sabine Lisicki/GER
MS. OPPORTUNITY: Elena Dementieva/RUS
CRASH & BURN: Maria Sharapova/RUS - lost to Gisela Dulko/ARG in 2nd Rd.
ZOMBIE QUEEN: Dinara Safina/RUS - in 4th Rd., down set and a break, then 3-0 in 3rd to Amelie Mauresmo/FRA; advanced to first Wimbledon SF
LAST BRIT STANDING: Elena Baltacha/GBR (2nd Rd.)
DOUBLES STARS Serena & Venus Williams/USA
JUNIOR BREAKOUT: Timea Babos/HUN & Miyabi Inoue/JPN

All for now.


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