Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Sweet Taste of Success

The 2011 version of Wimbledon turned out to be all about players managing to live out their dreams. On Saturday, it was 21-year old Czech Petra Kvitova becoming the Ladies champion and a first-time slam winner. On Sunday, it was all about Serbia's Novak Djokovic.

Two days after advancing to his first SW19 final to assure himself of becoming the twenty-fifth man to reach #1 in the ATP singles rankings, the 24-year old still had some unfinished business to take care. Sure, he stepped onto Centre Court to play the Gentleman's final while sporting the best record in tennis (47-1), more titles (7) than anyone, and a ridiculously brilliant season mark (9-1) against his fellow members of the Top 4 players in the world. But he still had something more to prove. That one loss on his '11 ledger came in the semis in Paris against Roger Federer, a loss which prevented him from tying John McEnroe's record 42-match season-opening winning streak and, more importantly, face off with Rafael Nadal in the Roland Garros final. Djokovic came into today's Wimbledon final with a 4-0 record against the Spaniard in finals this year but, coupled with the loss to Federer, his 0-5 record against Nadal in slams continued to leave an impression that maybe the Serb STILL wasn't quite ready to be declared "the best in the world." Not if he couldn't get the job done in best-of-five battles decided by stamina and grit on the game's grandest stages. While ten-time slam champ Nadal was fated to fall to #2 in the rankings on Monday no matter the outcome of the final, the fact remained that if he won his twenty-first straight Wimbledon match to defend his title he would be able to say he'd claimed five of the last six slams... and it what universe would THAT not make HIM the world's best?

Djokovic wanted his first Wimbledon title to erase those lingering doubts. And he wanted it badly.

Plus, he'd been dreaming about this moment since he was 4. And, numbers aside, in the end, that was the most important thing. Tennis has changed his and his family's life, and the memory of watching his first tournament as a child -- naturally, it took place on the lawns of the All-England Club -- will forever hold a special place in Djokovic's heart. It was the seed that was planted that made him start down the road to what he's become. It's been a hard journey, and all the work is making the success he's experiencing now all the more delicious.

Right from the start today, Djokovic was ready. In Game #1, he defied Nadal's 15/30 lead to hold, and the pair spent the rest of the set routinely locking away their service games. Through nine games, neither had faced a break point. But with Nadal serving down 5-4, with a better than 90% 1st Serve percentage (and he was winning around 80% of those serves), the Spaniard suddenly found himself down set point when Djokovic got the first break point chance of the match. When Nadal sent a forehand wide, Djokovic had managed to jump in and strike with rattler-like quickness, seizing the set at 6-4. As the Serb punched the air and shouted toward his family in the stands, Nadal must have realized what Federer has so often felt when the Spaniard has done similar things to the former Swiss #1 in recent slam finals.

Of course, Djokovic has been doing this sort of thing for more than seven months. Ask Jo-Wilfried Tsonga about the 1st set of this Wimbledon's semifinal, or Andy Murray about that deciding set in the Rome semi. Aside from that match against Federer in Paris, no player has been as mentally tough in 2011 as Djokovic has been each and every time he's stepped onto the court since he bolstered his fitness with a gluten-free diet and his confidence while leading Serbia to it's first Davis Cup title last December, which served as a prelude to his Australian Open crown in January. He carried that confidence in the 2nd set against Nadal, using his tremendous foot speed to get to the Spaniard's drop shot, he hit behind Nadal at the net to garner a break for a 2-0 lead. Racing through the stanza without facing a break point, while converting both of his own on Nadal's serve, he won 6-1 in thirty-three minutes.

A letdown came in the 3rd, though. In the second game, Djokovic had his first double-fault, and soon Nadal held his first break point of the match. A Djokovic error put him behind 2-0, and he was never able to climb out of the hole in what remained of the set. As the pressure seemed to be getting to the Serb, the Spaniard was suddenly invigorated. Djokovic double-faulted on break point to fall behind 5-1, and lost the set 6-1.

But just as Kvitova had risen to the occasion in the most important section of the women's final against Maria Sharapova, Djokovic did so here. He broke Nadal to go up 2-0. After Nadal got the break back in the next game, courtesy of a chip return that dribbled over the net cord, Djokovic seized upon the next big opportunity given to him five games later. Down 3-4, Nadal hit his first double-fault of the match on the first point. Two points later, Djokovic had triple break point. He broke the defending champion at the end of a long rally to take a 5-3 lead and get the chance to serve for the championship. Two points from the match, Djokovic served-and-volleyed his way to a match point. After Nadal's backhand sailed long, Djokovic dropped his racket and immediately collapsed onto his back with a 6-4/6-1/1-6/6-3 victory.

On his way back to his chair, Djokovic paused to pick a few blades of grass from the Centre Court turf, then stuffed them into his mouth and chewed. Whether such an item fits into his new diet is questionable... but I'm betting his nutritionist won't get on him too much about it. After twenty years of effort, it must have tasted like icing on the cake.

Or maybe it just tasted like sweet success.

While they CAN put a roof on Centre Court, they apparently STILL can't get a microphone (or two) that works for a post-match interview, as the BBC's Sue Barker had a difficult time finding a working instrument that would relay the new Wimbledon champion's words to both the people watching on television AND the fans in the stands. But it didn't really matter... Djokovic, after a "couple of good days in the office," shows that just about anything is possible. Even managing to rise above not one, but two, players in the Greatest of All Time" debate.

But if Nadal and Federer are THAT, what is Djokovic? The "Trivalry" between the trio has developed an odd dynamic: Nadal dominates Federer, who manages to trip up Djokovic, who has now come to dominate Nadal this season. It's that last part of the equation that truly puts what the Serb has been doing into tremendous focus, though. So far in '11, against the player generally acknowledged as the best in the world just a few months ago, he's 2-0 on hard court, 2-0 on clay and now 1-0 on grass. After today's match, Nadal made a comment about Djokovic being the best player "at the moment." I don't think he was attempting to send any sort of veiled message, but just the notion that he might have been sets up the next obstacle that the Serb has to hurdle: that his domination can extend over the course of an entire season.

After Djokovic is through celebrating long and heartily with his Serbian cohorts, it'll be time to get back to serious business. Essentially, he's half-way to putting together the best, non-Grand Slam winning, season in men's tennis history. He's got two slams in hand, and he was already arguably the best hard court player in the world even before this year. Winning the Open in September would take his reputation to an even higher level. With eight titles, he's half-way to matching Guillermo Vilas' '77 mark of sixteen. With a 27-match hard court winning streak dating back to last season, he's nearly half-way to Federer's 2005-06 record of 56 in a row, as well. At 48-1 for the season, he's currently on pace to better McEnroe's modern day record for best winning percentage over the course on an ATP season (.965 in his 82-3 1984 campaign). All of that is still quite a ways away, but Djokovic has done nothing this year to make anyone think he CAN'T pull off at least a few, if not all, of those accomplishments. And just that it can even be a topic of debate proves that the Serb has managed to lift himself into the rarified air that was formerly only breathed by a two-man contingent.

No longer categorized as the "Third Man," Djokovic is now the ATP's LEADING man... and his "career role" might still be in his future.

=DAY 13 NOTES='s another "generational milestone" for Petra Kvitova: she's the first slam singles champion born in the 1990's.

...the Czech rush continued today. After Kvitova and Kveta Peschke picked up Wimbledon titles yesterday, their countrywoman Iveta Benesova won HER first career slam crown today, taking the Mixed title with Jurgen Melzer over Elena Vesnina & Mahesh Bhupathi.

Martina Navratilova and Jana Novotna came up short in the Legends Doubles, though, losing to Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis.

...Australia's Ashleigh Barty won the Girls title, defeating Irina Khromacheva 7-5/7-6 in the final, and putting an end to a whole heap of longstanding droughts when it comes to Aussie tennis. Barty is the first Australian to win the Wimbledon Girls title since 1980 (Debbie Freeman), and the first to win at any of the slams since Jelena Dokic won the U.S. Open Girls in 1998. With Luke Saville winning the Boys crown, the pair pulled of the first non-Australian Open sweep of the junior singles titles since 1968, when Lesley Hunt and Phil Dent (Taylor's dad) won at Roland Garros.

Eugenie Bouchard (CAN) and Grace Min (USA) won the Girls Doubles.

...the "ITF Player of the Week" is Georgian Anna Tatishvili, who won the $100K challenger in Cuneo, Italy. After notching wins over Anastasiya Yakimova, Pauline Parmentier and Stefanie Voegele, she took out Arantxa Rus 6-4/6-3 in the final.

...meanwhile, if you managed to come back around to hear the very end of NBC's six-hour Wimbledon telecast today -- and I can't imagine many did -- then you have heard Ted Robinson drop the (not exactly bombshell, but still eyebrow-raising) news that the network's 43-year association with the tournament has now officially come to an end. If it hasn't happened already, an announcement seems to be forthcoming that ESPN has bought the rights for the ENTIRE tournament, including the singles finals. Unless live coverage is moved to or simulcast on ABC (where some taped weekend action looks to be slated to air), it means starting next year the Wimbledon finals won't be on over-the-air TV for the first time since the 1960s. Of course, ESPN is so pervasion, and has swiped away so many other big-time sporting events, it really doesn't seem like the milestone change that it probably SHOULD be.

Of course, I've sort of been hoping that the Comcast purchase of NBC might lead to this moment (I haven't heard anything about the network's Roland Garros coverage, which has always been the worse of the two, treated like an ugly duckling for as long as I can remember). With the contract with the tournament up, I wondered whether Comcast migth cut its losses and move on, considering the sport's TV numbers aren't what they used to be. But, with Comcast's plan to pump up sports channel Versus, it seems as if the entire situation actually spurred competing cable/network sports entities -- ESPN and Fox -- to make a big run at Wimbledon, largely in order to prevent the soon-to-be-renamed Versus from becoming an even bigger player in sports television acquisitions than it is already expected to become according to Comcast's master plan. I'm glad Fox didn't get Wimbledon. I think that could have been a disaster. While ESPN has its "issues," it knows how to cover a big event, and make it seem even bigger. Of course, that hasn't always translated when it comes to tennis. But the network's U.S. Open coverage has been generally great, so with more at stake, maybe the sometimes-gaping holes in the Wimbledon coverage will be closed in the near future.

Hey, hope should always spring eternal, right?

The news that this tournament is leaving NBC isn't neary as jarring as when HBO stopped telecasting Wimbledon years ago, but it's surely the end of a very long tradition. "Breakfast at Wimbledon," with the first live coverage of the men's final back in 1979, revolutionized tennis-on-TV in America. Over the decades, NBC's tennis production has become shoddy (out with Bud Collins and in with Jimmy Roberts? Really?) and sometimes insulting (the tape-delayed, time-zone scrambling coverage of the SF in recent years, all designed to prevent a pre-emption of the late, worthless hours of the "Today" show), but I know I'll never forget the "good old days" when NBC helped make the sport what it used to be in the U.S. and, in truth, played a huge part in me becoming a tennis fan in the first place. The network's groundbreaking and always-anticipated (boy, did that change over the years) Wimbledon coverage is why this became my favorite slam, and probably plays a large part in why pretty much all of my "most-favored" players -- from Becker to Novotna to Dokic and, now, even Kvitova -- just so happen to have special links to SW19. As Djokovic said today about himself, Wimbledon tennis was the first tennis that I, too, ever watched.

With the finals now in its grasp, ESPN2 will at least be able to call the shots for North American coverage. Allowing NBC to essentially direct ESPN2's broadcast by "embargoing" matches has done nothing but help erode the sport's potential U.S. fan base in recent years. Hopefully, John McEnroe will make the jump from NBC to ESPN2 next year (he's already on board for U.S. Open duties). As with Mary Carillo, American tennis coverage just isn't quite the same without him in the mix. Now, if the network can just get a few more of its studio highlight show hosts to not act as if they should be patted on the back for actually pronouncing a women's tennis player's name correctly and/or adequately feigning interest in or knowledge of the sport they're talking about, maybe it'll be a "good" beginning for a new era in Wimbledon coverage.

Oh, well. Times change, and this is a long-overdue course correction, at that. But, still. One can't help but have a bit of a heavy heart when something that you associated with your youth is suddenly gone. "Breakfast" might ultimately be better at this time next year, but it'll never be the same, either. There's just something sad about that.

...and, finally...

BASTAD, SWEDEN (Int'l $220K/hard outdoor)
10 Final: Rezai d. Dulko
11 Top Seeds: Wozniacki/Pennetta
10 Doubles Champions: Dulko/Pennetta (2009-10)

#1 Wozniacki d. Larsson
#2 Pennetta d. #8 Hercog
#1 Wozniacki d. #2 Pennetta

...take an extra week off? "Week off?" What's that? As it is, Wozniacki will probably win yet again, but it's getting harder and harder to come up with excuses for how winning all these regular titles -- and all the travel and the general no-time-to-take-a-breath quality of it all -- ISN'T actually doing more harm than good when it comes to keeping an eye on what is supposed the be the true coveted prize(s) for a player ranked #1 in the world. Well, at least she's not playing a clay event or actively seeking out a grass court one in some small, remote corner of the globe to better prepare her for the Open. Thank goodness for Petra. At least now I won't have to revisit the whole Caroline/slam subject so often anymore, unless the Dane actually does something to make it worthwhile.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (Int'l $220K/red clay outdoor)
10 Final: Szavay d. Schnyder
11 Top Seeds: Vinci/Errani
10 Doubles Champions: Bacsinszky/Garbin

#1 Vinci d. K.Bondarenko
#4 Hradecka d. #5 Medina-Garrigues
#4 Hradecka d. #1 Vinci

...hey, she's about due to win a singles title. Plus, she's Czech, and that's been a pretty good characteristic recently.

#8 Petra Kvitova/CZE def. #5 Maria Sharapova/RUS 6-3/6-4

#2 Novak Djokovic/SRB def. #1 Rafael Nadal/ESP 6-4/6-1/1-6/6-3

#2 Peschke/Srebotnik (CZE/SLO) def. Lisicki/Stosur (GER/AUS) 6-3/6-1

#1 Bryan/Bryan (USA/USA) def. #8 Lindstedt/Tecau (SWE/ROU) 6-3/6-4/7-6

#9 Benesova/Melzer (CZE/AUT) def. #5 Vesnina/Bhupathi (RUS/IND) 6-3/6-2

#12 Ashleigh Barty/AUS def. #3 Irina Khromacheva/RUS 7-5/7-6

#16 Luke Saville/AUS def. #15 Liam Broady/GBR 2-6/6-4/6-2

#2 Bouchard/Min (CAN/USA) def. Schuurs/Tang (NED/CHN) 5-7/6-2/7-5

#2 Mason/Pavic (GBR/CRO) def. #1 Golding/Vesely (GBR/CZE) 3-6/6-4/7-5

2007 Urszula Radwanska, POL
2008 Laura Robson, GBR
2009 Timea Babos, HUN & Miyabi Inoue, JPN
2010 Kristyna Pliskova, CZE
2011 Ashleigh Barty, AUS

18...BOB BRYAN [0/18]
16...Roger Federer [16/0]
14...Leander Paes [0/14]
13...MIKE BRYAN [0/13]
10...Rafael Nadal [10/0]
8...Max Mirnyi [0/8]
8...Daniel Nestor [0/8]
7...Nenad Zimonjic [0/7]

2002 Vera Dushevina/RUS def. Maria Sharapova/RUS
2003 Kirsten Flipkens/BEL def. Anna Chakvetadze/RUS
2004 Kateryna Bondarenko/UKR def. Ana Ivanovic/SRB
2005 Agnieszka Radwanska/POL def. Tamira Paszek/AUT
2006 Caroline Wozniacki/DEN def. Magdalena Rybarikova/SVK
2007 Urszula Radwanska/POL def. Madison Brengle/USA
2008 Laura Robson/GBR def. Noppawan Lertcheewakarn/THA
2009 Noppawan Lertcheewakarn/THA def. Kristina Mladenovic/FRA
2010 Kristyna Pliskova/CZE def. Sachie Ishizu/JPN
2011 Ashleigh Barty/AUS def. Irina Khromacheva/RUS

1968 Lesley Hunt
1969 Lesley Hunt
1970 Evonne Goolagong
1971 Pat Coleman
1972 Pat Coleman
1973 Chris O'Neil
1976 Sue Saliba
1977 Pamela Bailey & Amanda Tobin (held twice)
1978 Elizabeth Little
1979 Anne Minter
1980 Anne Minter
1981 Anne Minter
1985 Jenny Byrne
1987 Michelle Jaggard
1988 Joanne Faull
1991 Nicole Pratt
1992 Joanne Limmer
1994 Trudi Musgrave
1995 Siobhan Drake-Brockman
1968 Lesley Hunt
1980 Debbie Freeman
2011 Ashleigh Barty
1983 Elizabeth Minter
1998 Jelena Dokic

23...Roger Federer *
19...Ivan Lendl
18...Pete Sampras
17...Rod Laver
16...Bjorn Borg
16...Ken Rosewall
15...Andre Agassi
15...Jimmy Connors
15...Roy Emerson
14...Bill Tilden
13...Rafael Nadal *
* - active

2004 Lindsay Davenport, USA
2005 Kim Cljisters, BEL *
2006 Ana Ivanovic, SRB
2007 Maria Sharapova, RUS
2008 Dinara Safina, RUS
2009 Elena Dementieva, RUS
2010 Caroline Wozniacki, DEN
2004 Lleyton Hewitt, AUS
2005 Andy Roddick, USA
2006 Andy Roddick, USA
2007 Roger Federer, SUI *
2008 Rafael Nadal, ESP
2009 Sam Querrey, USA
2010 Andy Murray, GBR
* - won U.S. Open singles title

TOP EARLY-ROUND (1r-2r): #8 Petra Kvitova/CZE
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): #5 Maria Sharapova/RUS
TOP LATE-ROUND (SF-F): #8 Petra Kvitova/CZE
TOP QUALIFYING MATCH: Q3: Alexa Glatch/USA def. Galina Voskoboeva/KAZ 3-6/7-6/12-10
TOP EARLY-RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 2nd Rd. - #23 Venus Williams/USA def. Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN 6-7/6-3/8-6 (2:55)
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 3rd Rd. - #9 Marion Bartoli/FRA def. #21 Flavia Pennetta/ITA 5-7/6-4/9-7 (3:09)
TOP LATE-RD. MATCH (SF-F/Jr.): Doubles SF - Lisicki/Stosur (GER/AUS) def. (LL) Erakovic/Tanasguarn (NZL/THA) 6-3/4-6/8-6
TOP UNDER-THE-ROOF MATCH: 2nd Rd. - #23 Venus Williams def. Kimiko Date-Krumm 6-7/6-3/8-6 (2:55)
FIRST WIN: Kimiko Date-Krumm/JPN (def. O'Brien/GBR)
FIRST SEED OUT: #22 Shahar Peer (1st Rd. - lost to Pervak/RUS)
NATION OF POOR SOULS: Australia (1-3 in 1st Rd., losses by Stosur & Dokic)
LAST BRITS STANDING: Elena Baltacha, Anne Keothavong & Laura Robson (2nd Rd.)
IT WOMAN: (WC) Sabine Lisicki/GER
MS. OPPORTUNITY: #8 Petra Kvitova/CZE
COMEBACK PLAYER: #5 Maria Sharapova/RUS
CRASH & BURN: #15 Jelena Jankovic/SRB (1st Rd. loss to Martinez-Sanchez/ESP, worst slam result since '05 RG)
ZOMBIE QUEEN: #9 Marion Bartoli/FRA - down 3 MP vs. Dominguez-Lino in 2nd Rd., won 9-7 3rd set vs. Pennetta in 3rd Rd., saved 3 MP vs. Lisicki to force 3rd set in QF

All for now. Grass Court Awards this week.


Blogger DRP said...

Congrats to Novak; he, Rafa, and Roger have dominated tennis for the last six years. I am fairly new to tennis; I've only been watching for six years now. Has anyone ever seen such sustained dominance by three players? BTW, I feel for Andy Murray; it doesn't seem like he'll ever crack the top three.

Mon Jul 04, 07:00:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Well, Borg, McEnroe & Connors were a big three-headed monster over a short stretch. Of course, it would have been longer had Borg not retired at 25. But no trio has put up the numbers Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have recently.

Here's a little note I forgot to add: from 2005-06, Federer and Nadal set an ATP record by combining to win eleven straight slams titles. Over the entire Open era back to 1968, the next-longest streaks by two players were five (Borg & Connors, 1974-75) and six (Sampras and, of all people, multiple RG champ Sergi Bruguera). With Djokovic's Wimbledon win, he and Nadal now have won six slams in a row (Nadal 4, Djokovic 2). If one of them wins in New York, they'll have the second-longest men's two-player streak ever.

Tue Jul 05, 11:08:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

Did you see that commentary--I think it was on ESPN, maybe not--yesterday about people in the USA not watching or caring about tennis? I went along with it until the commmentator said "Djokovic won Wimbledon but we don't know anything about him." Whose fault is that?! There have been pages and pages published about Djokovic--his childhood, his quirks, his serving, his personality, his ill-behaving parents, his illness...perhaps "We don't care to know anything about him" would have been the appropriate thing to say.

Tue Jul 05, 11:17:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

I didn't see it, but I can imagine it. It's the sort of thing that generally permeates ESPN's airwaves when it comes to tennis other than, well, you know, when tennis is actually airing. If I'm watching SportsCenter or ESPNEWS and tennis highlights come up, I will usually turn the channel because it infuriates me how so many of the announcers go through the motions, mangle names, pat themselves on the back when they actually get one right and generally show as much seriousness about the whole matter as they do while covering the July 4th Hot Dog Eating Contest. Ironic, then, that the channel will now show ALL of Wimbledon for the next 12 years.

But you have to take the good with the bad when it comes to the "worldwide leader in sports."

You know, I generally don't really care if an American player is a contender, but since that's what it seems to take for the sport to get the attention it should, I guess you have to hope that one comes along. Ryan Harrison maybe? Or maybe Milos Raonic will do, since Canada is deemed "close enough" in many cases. Surely, Andy Murray gets a bit TOO much extra match coverage in the U.S., I think, simply because he represents Great Britain. Tennis is more of a niche sport than it used to be, but the people in charge of talking about it on television, I think, just like to cover up their own ignorance on certain subjects by saying that no one else "knows" or "cares" about it.

Also, I guess the thought is that American fans won't care as much if an athlete's first language isn't English. You know, the way NO U.S. sports fans pay attention to all the Latin American baseball players, or European basketball players, or Russian/Czech/Swedish hockey players, etc. :\

If it's true on such a large scale as some think, when it comes to tennis, I think it's just a case of it being a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wed Jul 06, 08:45:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Diane said...

It made me cringe. I learned, also that, "Roger Federer is nice and polite," but that "we don't know anything about him, either." I wish I could get paid a lot of money to display all of my ignorance on television. I'm sure I could do it.

Thu Jul 07, 12:29:00 AM EDT  

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