Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Belated and Woefully Inadequate Guide to Wimbledon, Sort Of.

Sometimes, when the mood strikes, I take a crack at writing about sports. Now, with the Wimbledon Championships underway, is one of those times. Unfortunately I'm only a very casual tennis fan, generally restricting myself to watching top-10 players in the late rounds of major tournaments, so rather than a full preview this is more my impressions of the top players augmented by Youtube clips, which I feel is equally valuable in its own way.

Roger Federer

Roger Federer is the kind of player about whom normally prosaic writers wax rhapsodic, a tennis player for purists and casual fans alike. He's the most successful player of all time with 17 victories at the sport's four Grand Slams, including a record seven victories at Wimbledon, as well as innumerable other tournaments (note: those tournaments actually do have a number, I just don't feel like finding it. But it's a lot). He utterly dominated the sport for nearly a decade after his first Wimbledon title in 2003, staking a strong claim for the best player of all time. Seeing Federer at his best evokes words like graceful, perfect, rainbows trailing unicorns, and tears of joy. The economy of movement, the impeccable shot placement, the bangs lightly dancing in front of the headband...sorry, lost my train of thought there. Full disclosure: I'm an unabashed Federer fan. Unfortunately at age 31 his best days are likely behind him, and he's no longer the undisputed master of the sport. He's more prone to losses that would have once been unthinkable, his shots are just less perfect and his footwork is just slower than it once was. Still, while he might need a few breaks to win another Grand Slam, anyone remotely interested in sports owes it to themselves to watch Federer play at a high level while there's still time.

How I imagine it feels to play against Federer.

Rafael Nadal

The most significant objection to the argument for Roger Federer as the greatest player ever is Rafael Nadal, the impossibly muscled man from Mallorca. Nadal began his career as a clay court specialist who's improved his game enough to become a dominant player on all surfaces. With 12 Grand Slams (8 at the French Open) he's behind only Federer among active players, and he's generally outplayed Federer on all surfaces and at all major tournaments since around 2009. The two are a contrast in style: If Federer's play is reminiscent of Motzart, Nadal is Mastodon, all hustle, energy, and crushing staccato forehands. For various reasons, he's proven to be a terrible matchup for Federer--and almost everybody else-- but he's lacked the Swiss maestro's consistency, largely due to frequent injuries (which, if you believe pro-Federer conspiracy theorists like me, coincide suspiciously with PED usage cycles) and occasional baffling losses to lesser players, including this year in the first round of Wimbledon where he lost to a Belgian guy whose name I can't be bothered to Google. Given that he's already out of the tournament there's no particular reason to include him in this ostensible preview, except to give him credit for being, at his best, the most aggressive and determined player you'll ever see.

Puny Federer.

Novak Djokovic

Djokovic is the current holder of the "best player in the world" championship, both quantitatively (he's ranked #1) and qualitatively. He entered the decade with the reputation of a talented player prone to fall apart in big matches, but in 2010-2011 he found consistency and made the leap to elite status. His game, less fluid than Federer's and less muscular than Nadal's, does not lend itself as well to hyperbolic caricature, but it's enough to say he's a great shot maker and nearly flawless on defense. He doesn't make mistakes. Ever. It's almost unfair for opponents, like playing pong against a perfect AI at maximum speed. Other men, even Federer, shrink before the wrath of Nadal, but Djokovic only laughs (although he can be beaten, most recently in an epic French Open final against Nadal). As with Nadal, conspiracy theorists will note that Djokovic's jump to greatness, coincided with, as he tells it, a switch to a gluten-free diet and a few other psuedosciencey treatments that are undoubtedly just covers for something more sinister, but until my unfounded accusations are proven it's still a marvel to watch Djokovic play.

I'm seeing and I still don't believe it's possible.

Andy Murray

Murray, despite winning an Olympic gold medal and the U.S. Open in 2012, is still sort of the odd man out in the world of elite tennis players. He's tremendously talented...but maybe not quite as much the preceding three. To make it worse, he's from the U.K., where the sports press seems to delight in ruthlessly grinding home grown talent into fine dust for every slightest mistake. Honestly, I don't have a clever appraisal of his game to offer; I mostly just feel bad for the guy. It's not his fault he's in the shadow of three of the best tennis players ever. He's got a lot of talent, maybe enough to supplant the others one day, but he also seems incredibly on-edge most of the time, playing with a grimace that shows he clearly feels the weight of a country's unrealistic expectations on his shoulders or possibly suffers from irritable bowels.

Beyond those four there are bunch of other talented players, none of whom are likely to win Wimbledon or any other Grand Slam for the foreseeable future; taking as evidence the fact that one of the preceding four has won 35 of the past 38 Slams. Maybe if someone else wins they'll earn a video of their own; until then, you'll have to rely on analysis from actual, dedicated fans.


  1. An interesting dynamic also exists (even now with the relative decline of Federer) among the top three players of surfaces. Federer is best on grass, great on hard court, and so-so on clay. Nadal is the undisputed GOAT on clay, middling on grass, and surprisingly ineffective on hard court (given his playing style). Djokovic is the best on hard court, impressive on clay, and solid on grass. Murray is basically a lesser version of Djokovic in court skill and general playing style at this point.
    In my opinion, as I kind of alluded to earlier, Rafa has underachieved throughout his career outside of the French Open where he has been historically good. For a player who is considered one of the greatest of all time and passes the ultimate eye test, his other majors record is rather underwhelming. He has won the Aussie Open only once (2009), the US Open only once (2010), and Wimbledon twice (2008, 2010). He has been a top ranked, elite player for a decade now, so he has been ONE of the favorites, if not THE favorite in almost 20 hard court grand slams between the US Open and Australian Open(I know he didn't enter a couple due to injury...but this is just a rough shot to make a point). His 2 titles in those 20 shots puts his winning rate at 10% with a plenty large sample size (for a tennis player). Federer's 1 French Open title in his 10 years of dominance, which has brought a fair amount of criticism to him, puts his winning percentage there also at about 10% when he has been a favorite. My point is that I don't think it is very well known or publicized how much Nadal has really struggled on hard court throughout his career. You would think it would be grass since that surface is the most "opposite" his preferred clay, but it is hard court for some reason. Interesting...

    1. I think Federer's 40 straight Grand Slam quarterfinals tells a lot about his status as a player. There's no doubt Nadal would probably be favored to beat Federer on any outdoor surface most days, but Rafa's got this propensity for getting knocked out of tournaments early way more often. There's a reason Federer has so many clay court losses to Nadal--he's always been there to play him in the finals! You can't say the same about Nadal on other surfaces. It'll be interesting to see how Djokovic v. Nadal plays out over the next half decade (if Nadal stays healthy), because if the French Open final is indication Nole is at least nearly capable of matching Rafa on clay, and he's already better on the other surfaces. Then again, I don't see Djokovic attaining "automatic French Open Champion" status even if Nadal's health declines, so he'll have a harder time making up ground on total Slams.