July 5, 2012

The Reversal

We've become somewhat accustomed the last few years in tennis to seeing two things: almost sickening consistency in the men's performances at the Slams and complete unpredictability from the ladies. While three men have won all but one of the titles since 2005, we've had six different women take the crowns at the last six Majors -- four of those were first-time champions.

But things just might be about to change.

Technically, I suppose, we did have some new faces hanging around the late stages of the women's draw. In the early semifinal contested today, Agnieszka Radwanska and Angelique Kerber were both battling to make their first career Slam final. Kerber made her breakthrough late last year with a run to the U.S. Open semis, and Radwanska, despite the higher seeding and a longer stint in the sport's elite, was making her Final Four debut. But the two have been some of the steadiest players on Tour this year, combining for five titles already and taking two of the top four spots in the race to the WTA Championships. The majority of their four previous meetings went three sets, so this had the potential to be a real battle. But the Pole took control quickly -- after losing serve early she capitalized on weak second serves by her opponent and stayed tougher in the multi-shot rallies. Things stayed close in the second set, but Radwanska was able to hold onto an early lead and after just over an hour had secured her final berth.

The second semi featured players a little more used to the "big stage". Former #1s Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams, whose Major trophy case is admittedly more full with thirteen to Vika's one, have also been staples in the latter stages of tournaments all year. The Belarusian kicked off 2012 with a 26-1 record and, despite a shockingly early exit at Roland Garros, Serena had put together an impressive seventeen-match, two-title streak of her own on clay. The two had presented some stunning battles early on in their history but more recently, even with Azarenka's higher rank, Williams had dominated their meetings. And though she lost a break lead in the second set and was forced into a tight tiebreak, she eventually kept her streak alive and made her eighteenth Slam final.

There will, of course, be a number of factors, both physical and mental, favoring Serena in Saturday's final: experience, brute strength, a 2-0 record against her opponent in which she's only lost four games a match, the motivation to end a two-year Major drought. It could very well be a blowout, but I hope Aggie's able to put up a fight -- she seems to play her best tennis when facing superpower. Whatever the case, it's nice to see these ladies continue to deliver, rather fade off into the sunset.

The men have yet to decide their final two players, but things are not entirely what we've come to expect from these boys. Defending champion Novak Djokovic and six-time winner Roger Federer battle in the first semi tomorrow, somewhat ironic since they're by far the most accomplished of the four still standing. Neither have been playing at their best -- Nole is far lower on the radar than he was this time last year, sporting just two titles instead of seven, and Roger has endured some close come-from-behind victories, nearly losing in the third round to twenty-ninth seed Julien Benneteau. The Serb has won four of the last five meetings they've had at Majors, and may have been slightly more on point this fortnight. But if Roger, going after a record-tying seventh Wimbledon trophy, can harness that motivation, he could end his losing streak to the world #1.

Somewhat surprisingly, though, either of their efforts might be for naught. In the "featured" semi Friday hometown hero Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, my New Year's pick to win the title, will each try to reach his first Wimbledon final. Each losers at previous Major championship matches, these days they might actually be the favorites -- both were plagued by injury coming to the All England Club, both have lost a set here and there, and both look stronger than their top-half challengers. But Tsonga, looking to become the first Frenchman to win a Major since Yannick Noah did it in 1983, may be thwarted -- he's only beaten the Brit/Scot once, on his way to the Australian Open final in 2008, and will certainly have the crowds rooting against him. And while Murray has seemed to bend under the pressure in the past, this time he might just be able to shock us all.

It's not that I think the old favorites on the men's side have completely fallen by the wayside, or that we won't continue to see a rotation of women claiming the Major crowns for a few more years. But it certainly shows that more ladies can consistently put up a fight against top players and that there might be a few chinks in even the top men's armor. We might not ultimately crown brand new champions this weekend, but it sure seems we're on the verge of something different and exciting.

And can we really ever ask for anything more in this sport?

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