July 7, 2013

It's a New World

I woke up this morning feeling like something had changed in the world. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who felt that way.

This weekend we crowned two brand new Wimbledon singles champions, both of whom had come THISCLOSE to tasting glory at the All England Club before, but only this year were able to take home the trophies. And after a fortnight that might be best remembered for slippery stumbles and shocking upsets, it was their victories that marked the end of a couple long droughts -- and possibly the beginning of a new era.

Marion Bartoli was the unlikely runner-up here in 2007 -- ranked just nineteenth in the world at the time, she had only just made her first Major fourth round a month earlier at Roland Garros. She found her groove though on the grass that season, reaching the semis in both Birmingham and Eastbourne before beating then-world #3 Jelena Jankovic and top-ranked Justine Henin to make the final here. She was technically the favorite against Venus Williams then, but the on-paper underdog, three times a winner at Wimbledon already, had the upper hand that Saturday, and Bartoli had to settle for second best. The Frenchwoman hung around the top players after that, though -- a staple in or around the top ten through the years since, she took home big titles in Stanford and Osaka, ended Serena Williams' comeback run at Wimbledon in 2011, and brought Victoria Azarenka's miracle beginning last year to a close in Miami.

She was a little slow to start this season, though -- she split with her father as coach, struggled a bit with injury and illness, and came back to the All England club way under the radar. But the withdrawal of Victoria Azarenka and the loss of Maria Sharapova cleared her half of the bracket early in the tournament. In fact, Bartoli didn't face a seeded player until the semifinals where she dismissed Cinderella woman Kirsten Flipkens in straight sets. Her opponent in the final, meanwhile, had been doing most of the heavy lifting this week -- Sabine Lisicki, struggling herself all year, had taken out five-time champion Serena Williams in the fourth round and then survived a threat from last year's runner-up Aga Radwanska in the semis. Though she was playing her first Slam final, the German has had some of her biggest successes on these courts, and might have been hoping to deliver Marion another upset in the championship match.

But that would not be the case this time, though, as the emotion and exhaustion of a week's worth of victories finally got to her. Bartoli had the advantage from the start in Saturday's final -- she allowed Lisicki just ten points on serve in the first set and broke her in every service game. The scoreline was a little closer in the second, but the usually big-serving Sabine struggled to hold in one game after another, and was nearly reduced to tears when she couldn't get a jump on her opponent's game. After just over eighty minutes it was the Frenchwoman claiming the crown and ending a six-year stint as a bridesmaid at the sport's grandest ceremony.

Andy Murray came to Wimbledon this year intent on providing water for a drought of a different kind -- one that had lasted most of a century. Though a Gold medal last summer and a U.S. Open crown a few weeks later proved he had the stuff of a Grand Slam champion, his homeland's Major remained without a British king since Fred Perry last claimed the honor in 1936. He'd made a valiant effort in last year's final, and it seemed this year -- with a warm-up title at Queen's Club and every man who'd ever beaten him here out by the second round -- he was bound to go one better. He had a tough time, though -- surprise quarterfinalist Fernando Verdasco ran off with an equally surprising two-set lead in their Round of Sixteen, while super Cinderella Jerzy Janowicz looked primed to repeat his Paris victory in the semis -- but he never faced a top twenty during the week, and was the clear favorite in terms of both experience and fan support.

World #1 and 2011 champ Novak Djokovic didn't have an easy time of it either, though. He didn't drop a set in his first five matches, but faced powerhouses later in the draw, meeting uber-veteran Tommy Haas and 2010 finalist Tomas Berdych before being forced to go the distance against back-in-form Bronze medalist Juan Martin Del Potro in the semis. Still he'd rebounded from long matches to win Majors before, so there was clearly no counting him out.

But like with the ladies, this time was also different. The top two seeds stayed on serve early before Murray claimed the opening set, and Nole ran to a 5-2 lead in the second. But buoyed by the crowd and ready to rally, the Scot won eight of the next nine games to take the second and grab a break in the third. Like in their U.S. Open final, though, momentum seemed to shift back to the Serb -- but only for a short while. Though he saved three championship points in the tenth game and even earned a couple chances to break back, Murray ultimately closed out the three-plus hour match, cementing his place in the history books and finally giving the Brits something to cheer about. It was Nole's first straight-set loss at a Major since 2010, but more importantly Murray's first successful attempt to prove he's no one-hit wonder. He's currently the only man holding two Grand Slam trophies, and the win makes quite an emphatic statement as he begins to journey to defend his New York crown.

Both winners start this week, for the first time in their careers, as Wimbledon champions, a distinction that carries more than a little clout in the tennis world. By ending their streak of disappointments -- whether at the Majors, and this one in particular, or for their countries -- they've set themselves on a new course for their seasons, and maybe for their careers.

What they do with this opportunity, of course, remains to be seen -- but from here it sure looks like the possibilities are endless.

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