Sunday, July 6, 2014

Shootout on the Greensward

For most of the fortnight, the Young Guns were in the saddle. Nick Tyrgios, a sprite of 19 playing out of Australia, went eyeball-to-eyeball with Rafael Nadal, the best player in the universe, and sent him packing. Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, who'd have to show i.d. to get a pint at the pub on the corner, played up to his "Little Fed" nickname and ousted the defending champion, Andy Murray. Milos Raonic, a fuzzy-cheeked Canadian seeded No. 8 in the tournament, littered Wimbledon with ace-riddled corpses en route to the semifinals.

Now it was High Noon in London. Novak Djokovic, already with six Grand Slam notches on his pistol grip, dodged Dimitrov's best bullets, ever upright to fire one more round of his own. It wasn't easy, but the veteran prevailed.

Out of the shadows came the Old Man, ready for one more showdown at the Grand Corral of tennis, Wimbledon's Centre Court. Raonic had never played there. For a decade, Roger Federer owned it. Now 32, father of two sets of twins, he's ancient in tennis terms. But his straight-set dissection of the kid was almost boring in its clinical efficiency.

The Young Guns were gone. The Big Four  of tennis -- Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Murray -- had won 35 of the last 37 Grand Slam championships.  One of them was about to claim a 36th. Could it be the Old Man? Could Federer, who with 17 holds more Grand Slam titles than any man in history, win an 18th, and a record eighth at Wimbledon?

Appropriately, in his twilight, this most elegant of tennis champions is now coached by Stefan Edberg, who introduced elegance to the sport, and once ruled supreme at Wimbledon. Under his influence, Federer had reached the final showing more and more of the attack-and-volley style that had marked his early career -- back when HE was the Young Gun, taking it to Pete Sampras, the reigning king of Wimbledon.

Djokovic was on a mission of his own: beat the legend here, on his best surface, and the svelte Serb would regain the No. 1 ranking in the world. The rivalry between him and Nadal for that encomium is the most compelling narrative in tennis today.

And so began what would be the tone for much of the match: Djokovic seemed to dominate, holding serve effortlessly, while Federer struggled but somehow stayed even until it was 6-all. Throughout, we saw occasional flashes of the old, ascendant Federer. "Balletic," my companion aptly described one masterly backhand volley winner.

Federer's serve became the most fearsome weapon in the match.  He would finish with 29 aces, more than twice his opponent's total. But Djokovic's steel will, his incomparable all-court game, his savage returns of all but Federer's very best serves, won the next two hotly contested sets.

The worm had turned for the younger player, who forged ahead 5-2 in the fourth set. But writers of Federer's obituary had to erase their pages. The Old Man fended off a championship point, then won five games in a row to square the match. Once again he was Wimbledon's will o' the wisp, maker of shots that only he can make, that leave his opponent shaking his head in wonder.

Four-all, fifth set: Whoever broke serve next would win this thrilling thing.  Djokovic, he of the iron resolve, held. Roger's serve, his best weapon all day, deserted him. Two feeble offerings and he's down love-30. The end was mercilessly abrupt after all the day's heroics. Federer would not make history.  Djokovic would rule the tennis world, a gracious champion who actually thanked Federer "for letting me win today."

It had been, thanks especially to the Young Guns, one of the most exciting Wimbledons of recent years. The Old Man did not ride off into the sunset. "See you next year," he said.

Federer, even in defeat,  had added to his legacy yet another five-set classic for the ages.

But of course.  This is Wimbledon after all.

1 comment:

  1. Great writing, Thomas! Only someone who loves and knows this sport can write such an insightful article.

    Thank you for a great read!
    Norbert, Vienna, Austria