July 13, 2015

Wimbledon Wrap-Up: From Start to Finish

I'm back! And what a couple of weeks of tennis I missed, right? While the two champions at Wimbledon were just crowned over the weekend, plenty of others also showed us what they're made over over the past fortnight. We saw new stars emerge, a couple reaffirm their place in the elite, and -- not surprisingly -- a few stumble along the way. And while I can't hope to cover everything in this post, hopefully I'll be able to hit the highlights.

But since I've been gone a while, there's a lot to cover. So let's get right into it.

Early Upsets

Over the last couple years Wimbledon has become even more of a graveyard than Roland Garros, with even the super favorites being dealt amazing defeats way earlier than expected. And 2015 was no exception.

Now technically John Isner didn't suffer an upset at the All England Club -- ranked #17 in the world heading to London, his third round showing was just as well as he was expected to do -- still the top American may have squandered a big opportunity. After making a solid run to the quarterfinals at Queen's Club, he had a promising start to the event, winning his first two matches in straight sets -- breaks and everything. And though the first seed he faced was defending U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic, a man he'd lost to in all four of their previous meetings, he really had a chance to take advantage of the Croat's recent struggles. Clearly a fan of long matches, Isner fought back after losing the first and third sets and, in an eighty-three minute, twenty-two game decider, still managed to fire off fifteen aces and keep a seventy-plus first serve percentage. He did ultimately lose, of course, cutting short his hopes of reaching the second week of a Slam yet again, but perhaps he will be able to recover as he heads to home territory.

Feliciano Lopez's performance at Wimbledon may have been a bit more surprising. The traditionally strong grass court player was twice a quarterfinalist here and last year, on the heels of a final at the Aegon Championships and a title in Eastbourne, he managed to make his way to the fourth round and climb to a career-high ranking at thirty-two years of age. This year, though, he couldn't quite keep momentum going -- he only won two matches at lead-up lawn events and, despite pulling off a win over one-time giant-killer Steve Darcis in his opener, ran into a bit of trouble against unknown qualifier Nikoloz Basilashvili in the second round. The eastern European Georgian, ranked #153 at the time and playing his first ever Major main draw, took the first set off the veteran Spaniard and kept his cool after being pushed to a fifth. Lopez, despite thirty-two aces, a blistering first serve percentage and, actually, more total points won, couldn't close out the match and put his chances of holing onto a spot in the sport's elite a little more at risk.

It might be a little too early to write off Rafael Nadal in the same way, but there can be no doubt the long-time world #1 has had some trouble playing at his best this season. Two times a champion at the All England Club, the Spaniard's showing here recently has been marked more by early exits than by big triumphs. And after losing his grip on the tournament he's owned for the past decade, you had to think -- even with a nice little title in Stuttgart to kick off the grass season -- it would be hard for him to make a big dent here. And the draw did not shake out in his favor -- while David Ferrer pulled out of the event with an elbow injury and third seed Andy Murray wouldn't loom until the quarterfinals, his biggest threat actually came much earlier than that. German qualifier Dustin Brown, who'd trounced Nadal last year in Halle, had little more trouble this time around, dropping a set, but still breaking four times for his second straight win. Heading into the summer hardcourt season, Rafa is just barely holding on to a top ten ranking, but if he doesn't get his game together soon, he may see an even bigger drop from here.

Maybe not too surprisingly the women's draw saw a few more higher-profile losses in the early days of the tournament. Simona Halep was one of my picks to take the whole event, and with five wins over top ten players in the last year it wasn't really a big ask for her do it. But the world #3 hasn't quite had the same momentum she did last summer -- after falling well short of last year's French Open performance, the 2015 Wimbledon semifinalist was stunned again in Birmingham by underrated Kristina Mladenovic. And she didn't seem to regroup in time for her next Slam campaign -- after taking a tight first set of Slovakia's Jana Cepelova, ranked in triple digits but certainly a capable, Halep couldn't quite hold on. In a match that consisted of fifteen service breaks, she made seven double faults, won just thirty percent of her second serves and committed thirty-four unforced errors. It was the young Romanian's first opening round loss at a Major in over two years, and while she certainly has plenty of time to recover over the coming weeks, pressure will certainly be on for her to repeat some of the stellar results we know she's capable of.

Genie Bouchard must be feeling even more pressure. The Canadian breakout star was riding high at this time last year, coming off her first Grand Slam final and a meteoric rise to #6 in the world. But she's struggled even more than Halep to keep her momentum going. A semifinalist at the first three Majors of 2014, she's gotten no more than one win at all but two of the events she's played this season. She came to Wimbledon on precarious ground, no doubt, but nevertheless few would have expected the showing we got. Against qualifier Ying-ying Duan, who'd never won a main draw match on a big stage before, Bouchard struggled on serve, barely getting half of her first attempts in and double faulting ten times. It was the ninth time this year she couldn't pull off a single win during a week, and at the tournament where she's seen her biggest successes, it might be a little more than problematic. Now out of the top twenty, she'll need to pull herself together quick if she's going to prove last season's results were no fluke.

Petra Kvitova's situation isn't quite so dire, but that doesn't make the exit of last year's ladies' champ any less surprising. The #2 seed is the only player all year to beat Serena Williams and, despite skipping the warm-up grass court season, had high hopes to win her third Wimbledon crown. And she looked good early too, losing just three games in her first two matches against tough players like Kurumi Nara and Kiki Bertens. Against a largely under-the-radar Jelena Jankovic in the third round, then, she should have had little problem -- the long-ago world #1 had gone three sets in both her matches so far at the All England Club, and without a single win over a top-ten player in over a year, should have posed little threat. But the Czech was caught a little off guard -- after rolling through the first set in under a half-hour, she started to falter. Jankovic cleaned up her game, making just two errors in the second and scoring the only break in the decisive third for her biggest win in quite some time. Kvitova's loss marked the third of last year's semifinalists to fall in the first week -- the only other one, French Open runner-up Lucie Safarfova, would go just one round later -- and while she's sure to come out swinging again on the hardcourts, you can't help but notice how much things have changed in the last year.

Week-Two Standouts

Of course it wasn't all bad news for the seeds at Wimbledon this year, and even those who didn't ultimately walk away with the trophies stirred things up pretty good after middle Sunday.

Kevin Anderson has long been part of the sport's upper tiers, but he's always seemed to struggle on the big stages. In the top forty for four years and possessing one of the biggest serves on Tour, it's been a couple years since his last title and has never made it out of a Major fourth round in twenty-five previous tries. But he's gotten some big wins in his career -- he's won his last four meetings against surprise Roland Garros champ Stan Wawrinka -- and certainly has the talent to get a few more. The South African had a relatively easy draw early at the All England Club, facing off against twenty-fourth seed Leonardo Mayer in the third round. But a match later was when he really was able to shine -- against world #1 Novak Djokovic to start the second week, he grabbed the first two sets in tiebreaks, but it wasn't until the heavy favorite pushed him to a decider that he finally scored his first and only break of the match. Like Isner, Anderson would not be able to pull off the upset, but getting as close as he's ever been to making a Slam quarter -- and facing off against the best player in the sport to do it -- he might just have set himself up for a few more surprises down the road.

Coco Vandeweghe took a little longer to realize her potential than I thought it would, but the twenty-three year old American may finally be ready for her breakthrough. Just a shade out of seeding territory at the French Open, she lost a bit of ground heading into Wimbledon after failing to defend title points from Den Bosch, but seemed unfazed when she hit the grass in 2015 -- she opened with a straight-set win over always tough Anna Schmiedlova and then stunned eleventh seed Karolina Pliskova in the second round. The upsets didn't stop there -- Coco lost just two games former Grand Slam champion Sam Stosur and then stopped last year's Cinderella Lucie Safarova a couple rounds short of her dream run from last year. In her first ever Major quarterfinal, Vandeweghe even took a set off Maria Sharapova before finally falling in the nearly three-hour match. The streak was enough to bring her back to her career high ranking of #32, but if she takes the momentum with her into the late summer season, there's no reason to believe she can't finish the year much higher still.

France's Richard Gasquet, on the other hand, was only trying to claw his way back into the sport's elite. The former world #7 has quietly been putting together a pretty successful season, picking up titles in Montpellier and Estoril and climbing back into the top twenty at the start of this tournament. Still it had been quite a while since his last deep run at the All England Club -- though he did make the semis at the U.S. Open a few years back, his last trip to the Final Four in London came way back in 2007. But he didn't let that get in the way of his performance this year -- after easily dismissing one-time wunderkind Grigor Dimitrov in the third round, he took out 2014 standout Nick Kyrgios and then pushed Roland Garros winner Stan Wawrinka to twenty games in their final set before eking out the win. After that battle he might not have had a lot of gas left against Novak Djokovic in the semis -- he lost in straight sets in a barely two hour match -- but with those couple upsets Gasquet certainly showed us he's still more than relevant at the Slams and might just be able to refuel in time for the next one.

But perhaps the player who gained the most these past two weeks was one who was nearly counted out entirely. Former Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska rose to a career-high #2 in the world after her performance here three years ago, but seemed to be struggling mightily in 2015. With early exits at Indian Wells and Roland Garros and a surprising defeat at the hands of young Belinda Bencic in the Eastbourne final just ahead of this tournament, she'd dropped out of the top ten for the first time in years. She did recover ground though -- with defending champion Petra Kvitova taken out of her section of the draw she didn't face a higher ranked player during her run. With a semifinal encounter against twentieth-seed Garbiñe Muguruza, she should have been the favorite to set a rematch of the 2012 final, but while she did notch her third straight loss to the talented Spaniard in three sets, she should take comfort in the fight she did display. Now back at #7, Aga will need to be careful not to lose her momentum -- but hopefully she was able to scrounge up a bit of confidence to pull her through the rest of the year.

The Finals

And while all of these athletes put on some impressive shows for us over the last fortnight, ultimately it all comes down to the two champions crowned this weekend. And while maybe we shouldn't be surprised by the results, what each of these titleists accomplished may be even more important than the new hardware they gained.

The top two men in the world both know what it's like to win at the All England Club, and in their fortieth career meeting both showed they were more than hungry to return to the Winner's Circle. Defending champ Novak Djokovic and seven-time titleist Roger Federer had both been challenged during the fortnight -- Nole coming back from a two-set deficit in his two-day fourth round against Kevin Anderson and Fed having a minor hiccup against a monstrous Sam Groth in his third -- but by the time they both made it to the final, you knew we were in for another great battle. The pair had traded wins over most of the last two years, but with wins in the Indian Wells and Rome Masters championships, the Serb had pulled within one victory of tying their all-time head-to-head record. And after a heartbreaking loss in the French Open final last month, he might have had a little extra motivation driving him on Sunday -- after getting down the first break in the opening set, Djokovic quickly regrouped and stormed through the tiebreak. He narrowly lost the second but seemed little perturbed, either by his opponent or by a crowd rooting loudly against him, and rebounded to take the next two sets in just about an hour. The win gave Novak his third Wimbledon trophy and his ninth Grand Slam, breaking the six-way tie he'd been in for eighth on the all-time list. He may still lag a couple of his contemporaries, but showing no signs of slowing down, the unquestioned #1 may have a lot more left in him.

The same might be said for Serena Williams, who made her own history at Wimbledon on Saturday. Coming straight off a surprisingly tricky win at Roland Garros, the top seed had a chance to win the first three Majors of a season for the first time in her storied career. And she was tested more than a few times during her campaign -- young Brit Heather Watson managed to push her to a decider and long-time rival Victoria Azarenka yet again took the opener before finally falling in three. Serena's opponent in the final was considerably less comfortable on the big stages -- twenty-two year old Garbiñe Muguruza, who'd shocked the world #1 last year at Roland Garros, was one of the breakthrough stars of 2014, but had only won one match before in her short Wimbledon career. Still she'd been more than impressive in her first final run at a Slam -- she took out Timea Bacsinszky, Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki, all ranked higher than her, before upsetting Aga Radwanska in the semis. She even got the first break on Serena in the championship match and rallied from a 1-5 deficit in the second. But experience won out in the end -- after two sets it was Serena holding the crown -- her twenty-first career Major, just one short of Steffi Graf's Open Era record. The win also makes her the current holder of all four Slams, and gives her the chance to capture all of them in one calendar year for the first time since Graf did it in 1988. That might mean even more pressure than usual when she heads to New York, but something tells me she might be able to handle it.

Of course there was a lot more action over the past two weeks which I just couldn't get to here. But rest assured that, whether the current top dogs continue their reigns or some new talent breaks out on the scene, there will be more than enough to talk about in the coming months.

And if the show we got at Wimbledon is any indication, it's going to be an exciting end of the season.

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