Dispatches: A Wimbledon Dialogue

Perhaps you’re aware that the Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, better known by the name of the London suburb in which it’s played–Wimbledon–begins today.  In case you’d like to catch up, here’s a discussion of the major storylines with my friend and fellow tennis fan, Sydneysider Lucy Perkins.

Asad Raza: Hi there Luce, thanks for taking the time to do this!  So I suppose we’d better tackle the question everyone asks first, first: What the heck is going on with Roger Federer?  He’s won only two tournaments this year, both minor tuneups, and suffered perhaps his worst Grand Slam loss ever at the hands of smiling assassin Rafael Nadal in the final of Roland Garros.  Is Federer, as your Sydney papers have it, ready to be put “out to pasture,” or have reports of his demise as the world’s dominant player been premature?

Lucy Perkins: Hi Asad! No problem: I feel more famous for talking to you. Re: Roger, I wish I knew. I think OUT TO PASTURE is, to put it mildly, a little harsh. There is no need to reel off his list of accomplishments, and anyway we don’t have time, but he’s been winning Wimbledon every year since Mark Philippoussis was a credible opponent. (Fans of the reality TV series The Age of Love will recognise the import of this statement.) He also has an unbroken grass streak of fifty-nine matches – and counting! – and he won Halle just last week without dropping serve. Fed has a knack of picking himself up after the ritual devastation of the French Open final and refusing to look back.

On the other hand, Federer’s performance in the Roland Garros final really was dismal, and his attitude surprisingly blase. And Rafa just keeps getting better; he seemed to reach his first Wimbledon final through sheer enthusiasm, but beating Djokovic and Roddick to win Queens looks awfully like accomplishment. As a Federer fan, my concern isn’t so much over Federer’s form as Rafa’s. He’s getting closer all the time to beating Roger on grass, as anyone who saw last year’s epic Wimbledon final could attest. Could this be the year?

Asad Raza: I think it could–not only did Nadal devastate Federer in Paris, but he handled Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic with such intimidating form at Queen’s, the most competitive Wimbledon tuneup tournament.  I think Rafa’s grass-court credentials are very real–after all, he made the last two Wimbledon finals–and I think there is no player who does not fear him right now.

If Nadal does win Wimbledon, it will be tough for anyone to dislodge him as the best player this year.  So for Federer, his two stated priorities, the Wimby crown and his number one ranking, are at stake.  Is he fully recovered from mono?  I think he is, since his clay court season was exactly as accomplished as his usually are–i.e. making the big finals and losing to Nadal.  Nothing new there.  On the other hand, he hasn’t looked as imperious as usual, but I thought that last year, too.  In the words of the pirate Mallorcan, we gonna see.

Who else do you think has a chance?

Lucy Perkins: Well, naturally, Novak Djokovic has to be part of this conversation. After winning his first Grand Slam in Australia this year, Djokovic has gone from up-and-comer to serious contender. He’s intensely talented and hypercompetitive, and he seems to manage the surface transition with ease. He’s also oddly brittle for such a brash young thing. I sincerely hope Djokovic doesn’t intend to repeat last year’s performance, in which he fought his way to a semi against Rafa only to retire. (Admittedly, the fortnight had been tough on Djokovic, with long rain delays interspersed with manic stretches of playing. But still.)

As far as form goes, Djokovic appears to have stepped down a notch since the Australian Open, and his loss to Nadal at Queens seemed to confirm his spot just below Nadal in the pecking order. But the greats always peak at the big tournaments, and they come no bigger than Wimbledon, so this could serve as an intriguing test of Djoko’s mettle. Especially since he is in Federer’s half of the draw. Apart from those three, the list of contenders is surprisingly short. Most years, I would also include Andy Roddick as a contender. But watching Roddick nowadays, it’s sometimes difficult to recall that only a few years ago he came within spitting distance of beating King Federer himself at Wimbledon. Last year, against the talented, flaky Richard Gasquet, Roddick was up two sets and a break before losing it, quite inexplicably. It was a measure of how far he’d fallen, and it was sad to behold. Can you be twenty-five years old and belong to a bygone era? It seems you can, in tennis at least.

Meanwhile, my favourite hobby horse, David Nalbandian, appears to have reverted to form after a phenomenal end to 2007. Nalbandian is no stranger to grass, having made the Wimbledon final in 2002, but he has a habit of turning in a string of desultory performances just as you’re starting to warm to him. He’s hardly a form player, having taken precisely one game off Novak Djokovic in the Queens semi. But I feel the need to mention him anyway.

Asad Raza: All true, although I rate Andy Roddick’s chances a little higher than you–my patriotic bias.  I note neither of us mentioned the Great Scottish Hope, Andy Murray, who is really talented but who I think we probably agree seems way too mercurial to win seven straight five-set matches.  Djokovic has chances, but he’s on Federer’s side of the draw and he might be too high-strung to beat both the top guys for the title.

Some other men I think bear watching: Robin Soderling (who may meet Fed in round two) and the always lovably irritating Radek Stepanek.  Then there’s the boy wonder, Ernests Gulbis (round two with Rafa, if he gets past Isner), the only Latvian player ever to be a factor on tour.  Gulbis is charming, confident, and the ball comes off his racquet like a cannon fired it.  And, my major upset guy this time out is Gael Monfils, the French player who came out of a long slump to reach the French semis, where he pushed Federer pretty hard.  He has incredible power and incredible movement, but likes to play a passive style and then counterpunch after baiting his opponent into leaving a side of the court open.  That might be impossible to pull off on grass, because the ball skips through the court faster, but Monfils is always exciting to watch.  Might pull off some huge wins, but also might flame out in the first round.

Okay, in general the men’s tour is pretty much sewn up by the top three. The women’s, meanwhile, is wide open–no one seems to be able to establish lasting supremacy these days, leading many to claim disinterest in it.  But have you noticed that when the women’s tour was dominated by Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, people would complain that the women’s field had no depth?  Now that it has depth, apparently the players are insufficiently dominant.  Any thoughts on this strange double standard?  Are there real problems with the women’s tour right now?

For this decade, it’s really been an inconsistent struggle between Serena Williams and the just-retired Justine Henin, with lesser challenges from Maria Sharapova and others.  Now a new number one, Ana Ivanovic, has emerged with a title at the French and an intensity that others on the women’s tour don’t seem to match these days.  For that reason, I have Ivanovic as my favorite to win the title–I just don’t see the other top seeds as serious enough about it.  Sharapova was in L.A. while the Wimbledon tuneups were being played, and the Williams sisters almost never play them anyway.  That said, Venus is the defending champion and it’s hard to bet against her if she gets through the first week.

Lucy Perkins: I’m glad you brought up the double standard before I did. Nobody is ever happy when it comes to the state of the women’s game: if someone’s dominant, there’s no depth. If nobody’s dominant, it’s boring. And even during the Hingis/Williams/Davenport era, when the women’s game was both genuinely competitive and about a billion times as interesting as the men’s, there were all these gendered stories about how the competition just doesn’t seem as fair or as clean as the men’s.

But at the moment, I tend to agree with you about the state of the game, and I will even point to one problem with the women’s game that does seem systematic: it loses its champions at an alarming rate. I wasn’t particularly surprised when Kim Clijsters retired so that she could wash her husband’s dishes – she was nobody’s feminist poster child. But Justine Henin always struck me as the consummate career girl. I mean, when it was literally tennis or her marriage, tennis won. And now she ups and quits, aged 25? Something really must be amiss.

Anyway, back to Wimbledon. This is, as you point out, clearly a golden opportunity for Ivanovic, and I bet more than one WTA exec is hoping she takes it. Before this year, I wasn’t convinced that Ivanovic had it. Her fitness was always suspect, and off-court she seems bubbly and laid-back. But the steel she showed at Roland Garros was a real surprise.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t dismiss Sharapova’s ability to get serious when the moment requires it. And the Williamses are anyone’s guess. They seem to be able to decide to win and then do it, with minimal preparation. It’s infuriating, but captivating at the same time, as if the rest of the tour is just at the mercy of Williams-family whims. I don’t know about this year, though. Another out-of-nowhere title for Venus just seems a bridge too far, even for her.

I’ll also use this opportunity to plug my sentimental favourite for the women’s title, Elena Dementieva, who is lovely, talented, charming, thoughtful, and a choker extraordinaire. She will probably lose, and it will probably be a heartbreaker, and she will probably be charmingly sincere in her press-conference. But I wish it weren’t so.

Asad Raza: Excellent points all–I’m with you in admiring Dementieva, in my case also because she is the fiancée of one of my beloved Buffalo Sabres, Maxim Afinogenov.  I’m looking forward to running into the two of them eating chicken wings at the Anchor Bar someday.

So that seems to be about the size of it.  Shall we go out on limbs, and offer our predictions for the semifinals onwards?

Lucy Perkins: Fine, but with the usual disclaimers people offer up in these kind of circumstances, you know, about how anything can happen in sports and all that.

Men’s Semifinals: Roger Federer v. Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick v. Rafael Nadal
Finals: Roger Federer v. Rafael Nadal
Champion: Roger Federer. I typed Nadal’s name, but then anything other than Roger looked wrong.

And Bjorkman/Ulyett for the men’s doubles title! Boo-yah!

Women’s Semifinals: Ana Ivanovic v. Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Sharapova v. Venus Williams
Finals: Ivanovic v. Sharapova
Champion: Ana Ivanovic

… and Peschke/Stubbs for doubles, because I am highly patriotic and don’t wish to resort to Hewitt boosterism.

Asad Raza:  Hmmmm, mine are much the same, boringly enough.

Men’s Semifinals: Roger Federer v. Novak Djokovic, Andy Roddick v. Rafael Nadal
Finals: Roger Federer v. Rafael Nadal
Champion: Rafael Nadal.  He finds it impossible to miss the forehand down the line on big points, and he will carve serve after lefty, can-opening serve to Federer’s backhand.

Women’s Semifinals: Ana Ivanovic v. Agnieska Radwanska, Maria Sharapova v. Jelena Jankovic
Finals: Ivanovic v. Sharapova
Champion: Ana Ivanovic.  I don’t quite have faith this will happen, but I can’t think of anything else more likely.

Which leads me to one final question: if Rafa does defeat Roger, he will have beaten Federer in every match they’ve played this year, and taken two Grand Slams and two Master’s Series tourneys to Fed’s zero and zero, yet I believe he will still, undeservedly, be ranked number two.  What’s up with that?

Lucy Perkins: Well, let me try and explain.  How it works is, you get rewarded for winning tournaments in RANKING POINTS which in turn go to determine your RANKING including who is number one.  “Deserve” is factored into the system.

Asad Raza: Always making sense, Luce.  Alright, let’s check back later in the week when the draws have been shot to hail and our predictions mooted!