Well, it has certainly been a highly entertaining tournament so far. We’re heading into the finals over the next two days, and here’s a list of names that will not be around: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, David Ferrer (a finalist at this year’s French open, losing to Nadal), Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, and Petra Kvitova (winner two years ago). On the men’s side, we’ve still got our number one and number two seeds—Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray (although Murray certainly appeared to be heading for an exit as well in his quarter final the other day against Fernando Verdasco.)
The Ladies Final will see a match between the Number 15 seed—Marion Bartoli from France—and the number 23 seed—Sabine Lisicki, from Germany. And for all the early carnage in the tournament—Nadal was out on day one, Federer and Sharapova on day two—I have to say it was kind of fun watching a Ladies quarterfinals where the highest ranked player left was a number four seed– Agnieszka Radwanska, who was a finalist last year and lost to Serena, and who helped give us a spankingly good match yesterday. A quarterfinal which included the Belgian player Kirsten Flipkens, who was ranked so low last year she wasn’t even eligible for the Wimbledon qualifying matches—how could you not cheer for someone named Flipkens with that sort of year?
So this has all been very entertaining for those of us who aren’t particular fans of anyone. The level of the tennis has been generally pretty high overall, and there seems to be a bit more parity. Of course, we’ve had lots of parity on the Ladies side for a number of years now, especially when Serena is off her game from injury, which has happened a couple of times. How many Number Ones have there been the past several years? Quite a few, including one, Caroline Wozniacki, who still hasn’t won a Grand Slam tournament yet. So it’s not a complete surprise that the Ladies final here will include two players no one would have expected. But they’re both playing very well. Bartoli is a little fireplug, always bouncing around, and she doesn’t actually look like she should win anything. But she’s been a finalist here before, six years ago, when she lost to Venus Williams. And she thoroughly dominated Flipkens in their semi-final, 6-1, 6-2. So she’ll be a handful.
Lisicki, on the other hand, has become the darling of the crowd. This is partly because she wasn’t even seeded in the top 20 before the tournament, always something the crowd ooohs at. But it’s also the way she plays. In the match against Serena, which she was on her way to losing before turning it around, and in the match against Radwanska, where she also seemed to collapse part way through, she displayed a stirring “go for broke” style on every single shot. The crowd loves this. She runs around like crazy, and whacks everything. And it produced nearly as many disasters as it did winners. She had seven double faults against Radwanska, versus one, and 46 unforced errors, versus Radwanska’s ten. How can you win a Wimbledon semi-final with those kinds of stats?
Well, by hitting winners the rest of the time, and here her dominance was clear, with a 60-21 edge. Radwanska is a tactical player—she doesn’t have the power that many of the women have, including Lisicki, so she relies on tactics and smart shot-making. And she almost made it to her second straight Wimbledon final on the back of it. But it wasn’t quite enough. This was a cracker of a match—probably the best match of the tournament so far, at least before the Djokovic/Del Potro match today, which Djokovic himself, not usually prone to exaggeration, called “epic.” The third set, which Lisicki finally pulled out at 9-7, had enough drama for anyone. The final should be a treat as well, mainly because with Lisicki, you never quite know what the next shot will bring.
So far as the men go, Djokovic had a big scare today, dropping his first sets of the tournament before finally prevailing in what was a fairly even and exciting match—the third and fourth sets were both decided by tie-breaks. This was the longest semi-final in Wimbledon history.It was actually a fantastic match—one where it was a shame someone had to lose. Del Potro has been playing extremely well—and, don’t forget, he’s the only man outside of the top four to have won a grand slam title since 2004, winning the US Open over Roger Federer in 2009—the same tournament he beat Nadal in on his way to the finals. This, as it happens, is the exact number of Grand Slam titles won by Andy Murray, who will play Djokovic in the final.
The Djokovic/Del Potro match was also a very long match, four hours and 43 minutes, played under a very hot sun—very un-Wimbledon-like conditions, it has to be said, and I have to wonder how much it may have taken out of Djokovic. He is playing as well as he has ever played—he hadn’t lost a set up to today—and is in superb shape, but still. We’ll see. This match, by the way, and Murray/Janowicz later in the day, was a superb instantiation of the Wufnik rule of first serves. Which is, always get the damn things in. Lisicki could learn a thing or two by adopting this rule as well. But Del Potro, for all his brilliance in other aspects of his game, was a bit remiss here, and the lower first serve percentage can be telling in a match this close-Del Potro had 60% of his first serves in, but Djokovic had 69% (and aces were even more lopsided–Djokovic had 22 of those, to Del Potro’s four.) These are all players who practice for thousands and thousands of hours to get to this level—why not spend just a little more time perfecting the one and only shot that’s absolutely under your control?
And Murray? He had a real scare in his quarter final match against Verdaso, and a smaller one today when he lost the first set against Jerzy Janowicz. He dropped the first two sets against Verdasco, and looked like the old Murray. By old Murray, I mean the Murray that used to be around until about a year ago, when he teamed up with Laura Robson for the Olympics mixed doubles, and won a gold medal on his own for Britain, against Federer, before going on to finally win his first Grand Slam at the US Open. He had played with Robson previously over the years, but this time he actually seems to have softened up a bit. Murray was just a grump. Great talent, yes, and phenomenal hand speed. But still, a grump, and not wildly popular.
The new Murray is much less of a grump, and is actually quite a lot of fun to watch. He actually appears sometimes to be enjoying himself when he plays. I think this was Robson’s influence—she so obviously is having a fine time, even when she’s losing, that it’s infectious. Plus, the effect of his best friend being diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma last year has to be a factor as well. But it looked like old Murray was back. But new Murray emerged, and staged a very nice recovery to take the last three sets. It was quite a good match too. But this is what people who win grand slam championships are supposed to do—come back like this. And he has to be feeling pretty good that he did this. As well as today’s match, where he lost the first set, but came roaring back and dominated the last two set against a player who is young (22), tall (6’8”), and fast.
Because the alternative was just too horrible to contemplate—I can just see the headlines that would have emerged the following day if Murray hadn’t been able to come back. It’s unfair that he’s got all these expectations weighing on him, but he’s not the first one to have them—they followed Tim Henman around for years. But Henman never made it past the semi-finals at Wimbledon, or anywhere else, for that matter, whereas Murray has been to grand slams finals six times, and the runner-up in five—including last year at Wimbledon. So he knows how to win at championships—he will just need to carry the hysterical expectations of a nation until he actually does win at Wimbledon.
And he might, too. He continues to play well, and we now know that Djokovic isn’t playing perfectly—or, at least, that very good play will give him trouble. Murray had a very good semifinal against Janowicz, who was supposed to give him a lot of trouble, and didn’t, really. Djokovic has an 11-7 record against Murray—although the only time the two met on grass, Murray won. (Murray actually has a winning lifetime record against Federer, by the way.) And Murray has to take some heart from the way del Potro was running Djokovic around the court today—you don’t see that very often, true, but it can be done. Whether Murray can actually do this as well remains to be seen. It partly depends on which Murray shows, up I guess.
The above stamp is from Paraguay, of all places, picturing Steffi Graf, the last German woman to reach a Wimbledon final, in 1999. She lost to Lindsay Davenport. Still, Graf won Wimbledon seven times, and 22 Grand Slam titles overall. She deserves all the stamps she can get.