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12:48PM

Wimbledon’s last act: An anticlimax starring Djokovic

By Art Spander

WMBLEDON, England — In this land where Shakespeare wrote, “This blessed plot, this realm, this England,” Wimbledon 2018 went against the basic rule of theatre and fiction.

After a fantastic build-up, hours of suspense and history, the conclusion to the tale was anti-climatic.

Not because Novak Djokovic triumphed — he’s a one-man show full of subplots — but that his 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (3) victory over a weary Kevin Anderson in the final Sunday was hardly what we had hoped.

Although it’s probably what many expected.

It was flat and lifeless, a dreary contrast to the semifinals, which were wonderfully competitive if, in this modern age of instant gratification, a bit too long — well, more than a bit.

Anderson needed 6 hours, 36 minutes for his win over John Isner in one semi, finishing 26-24 in the fifth set; Djokovic needed 5 hours 16 minutes (and two days) to get past Rafael Nadal, finishing 10-8 in the fifth set. How do you top that?

You don’t. You get too overly tired players, if one, Djokovic, now a four-time Wimbledon winner and 13-time Grand Slam winner, has the pedigree and the better all-around game. And no less significantly, as he mentioned, the experience in Wimbledon finals.

It’s not fair, perhaps, to describe the game of the 6-foot-8 Anderson, a South African who played for the University of Illinois and lives in Florida, as the tennis version of a one-note samba. But his strength is his serve. And against Djokovic, one of best returners ever, Anderson’s strength was a weakness.

Serving to open the match on yet another glorious 85-degree afternoon, Anderson was broken. You sensed his opportunity was, too. “Novak beat up on me pretty bad,” said Anderson. He now has been in two Slam finals, losing in the 2017 U.S Open to Nadal.

From 2013 through early 2016, Djokovic, now 31, owned men’s tennis, Of the 16 Grand Slams over that period he won seven and was in five other finals. He won four in a row, starting with the 2015 U.S. Open through the 2016 French.

Then at the 2016 Wimbledon, he hurt his elbow. That, along with some coaching changes — Boris Becker out, Andre Agassi out — and rumored family problems, dropped him into a void.

Djokovic finally underwent surgery on the elbow in February.

“After that, I had a really good recovery,” he said. “I thought maybe too fast. I wasn’t ready to compete ... It took me several months to regain the confidence, go back to basics. I had to trust the process ... Playing against Nadal in the semifinals here was the biggest test that I could have, specifically for that, just to see if I could prevail.”

Djokovic is from Serbia, and while he speaks English well he tends to sound as if the words were linked together by, no, not Shakespeare, but a government employee — if one with the great ability to cover every inch of a tennis court.

He was aware of his opponent’s tactics — and tiredness, although Djokovic had fewer than 24 hours to recover from the Nadal semi.

“I knew Kevin spent plenty of time on the court in the quarters (a five-set win over Roger Federer) and semis, marathon wins. I did too. He had a day to recover. But at the same time, I knew it was his first Wimbledon finals, and it really is a different sensation when you’re in the finals.

“It was my fifth, and I tried to use that experience, that mental edge that I have, to start off the right way. The first game, I made a break of serve that was a perfect possible start. After that, I cruised for two sets.”

Anderson, 32, conceded he was nervous. And he said his body “didn’t feel great.”

Nor did the match, which required only 2 hours, 19 minutes (Anderson’s fifth set against Isner alone was some three hours).

“I didn’t play great tennis in the beginning,” said Anderson. “I definitely felt much better in the third set. I thought I had quite a few opportunities to win that third set.

“I would have loved to push it to another set, but obviously it wasn’t meant to be.”


1:16PM

Serena: ‘Two weeks of Wimbledon showed me the end of the road'

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — No, that wasn’t the Serena we knew. That was the Serena who had given birth via Caesarian section only 10 months ago, the Serena who, because of her skill and intensity, made such great progress in a comeback in so short a time that we were fooled into thinking she was as good as ever.

Which, as we learned, she isn’t. But then isn’t that what she kept telling us?

She was in her element Saturday, on the grass courts where she had won seven championships. And yet she was a new mother, a working mother, working to regain the power and touch that made her a champion.

Everything had gone so perfectly this Wimbledon, the top seeds, the big guns, the upsets of defending champ Garbiñe Muguruza and No. 1-ranked Simona Halep. And suddenly there was Williams, two months before her 37th birthday, in the final.

But Kerber had won the Australian and French Opens, and two years ago she lost to Serena in the Wimbledon final. After that she stumbled, lost early in the Slams, fell in the rankings. Tennis people wondered what was wrong.

Whatever was wrong isn’t wrong any more.

Kerber, lashing shots, keeping Williams on the move, breaking serve the very first game of the match, making only five unforced errors compared to 24 for Serena, needed only 1 hour, 5 minutes to score a decisive 6-3, 6-3 victory.

That wasn’t expected. Maybe it should have been.

“It was a great opportunity for me to find out what I didn’t know a couple of months ago,” said Williams. “Where I was, and what I need to do, how I would be able to come back. I had such a long way to go to see the light at the end of the road. The two weeks of Wimbledon showed me the end of the road.”

As opposed to the end of a career.

“She played from the first point to the last point pretty good,” said Serena of the 30-year-old Kerber. “She played unbelievably.”

As the match progressed, or regressed, if you choose, John McEnroe said on BBC TV, “Normally Serena doesn’t beat herself.” But she wasn’t. Kerber was beating Serena.

Now and then there would be a cry of desperation from the stands, “Come on, Serena.” That wasn’t any more helpful than Williams’ relatively ineffective serve.   

The issue here may be our disbelief. Even at the top of their game, great athletes and sportsman have their failings. Tom Brady throws interceptions. Klay Thompson can’t throw a ball into the ocean, much less a rim.

And right now Serena, who embraced Kerber at the net after the final point, is not at the top of her game. She’ll attempt to get there once more, but as was apparent against Kerber it will take time and great effort.

“I knew I had to play my best against a champion like Serena,” said Kerber. Which she did, and then fell flat on the lawn in exultation. Moments later she was handed the trophy, the Venus Rosewater Plate, while Williams stood on the edge of the court in a scene so rare, a spectator rather than a participant.

“It was such an amazing tournament for me,” Williams would say in reflection. ”Obviously I’m disappointed. But I can’t be disappointed because I’m just getting started. To all the working moms out there, I tried. Angelique just played out of her mind.”

Analyzing on BBC-TV, nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova said, ”Serena played the best player in the tournament, by far.”

And Billie Jean King, a multiple Wimbledon winner, pointed out, “Kerber always got one more ball back.”

In the royal box were actual royalty, the Duchess of Cambridge and the new Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, as well as long-time Serena pal Jelena Djokovic, whose husband, Novak, beat Rafael Nadal to reach Sunday’s men’s final.

“These two weeks,” said Serena of the Wimbledon fortnight, “really showed me, OK, I can compete. I can come out and be a contender and win Grand Slams.”

As she used to do, and as Angelique Kerber just did.

5:45PM

In a record 6 hours, 36 minutes, Anderson wins Wimbledon semi

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — It was a fantastic match, an amazing match, and perhaps an unfortunate match, a tennis battle that, because Wimbledon has its own rules — no tiebreaker in the fifth set — and because Kevin Anderson and John Isner, old pals, served brilliantly and rallied courageously, may force a change at the All England Club.

Anderson won it, as you surely know, finding a place with Isner, the Marathon Man, as part of history and, with the remarkable 7-6 (6), 6-7 (5), 6-7 (9), 6-4, 26-24 semifinal victory Friday, finding a place in the final.

The two of them played 6 hours, 36 minutes, a record for both a semi and for Centre Court, but because Isner was involved in that ridiculous 11-hour, three-day match against Nicolas Mahut in 2018, not a record for the tournament.

Isner, 33, won that one, and leading two sets to one and seemingly always in front appeared destined to win this one and become the first American in a Wimbledon final since Andy Roddick in 2009. But it was not to be.

Anderson, a South African who lives in Florida and has applied for U.S. citizenship, came up with the key points, including one in a last set that itself lasted just five minutes short of three hours when he fell, lost his racket and hit a shot lefthanded.

Yet Anderson, 32, who spent time at the University of Illinois and has known Isner since John played at the University of Georgia, was not particularly effusive about reaching the final.

“I apologize,” Anderson said about his reaction. “John’s such a great guy. He’s really pushed me through my career, and I pushed myself harder because of the success he’s had.”

This was a battle between the sport’s big men, literally, the 6-foot-10 Isner and the 6-8 Anderson, two with huge serves and huge staying power. Every time it seemed one had the match, the other would rebound with a service ace or remarkable return. Isner had 53 aces, Anderson had 49.

But Anderson had the win and makes it to his second Grand Slam final. He was runner-up to Rafael Nadal at the 2017 U.S. Open.

Nadal and Novak Djokovic had to wait — and wait and wait — to start their semifinal because the Anderson-Isner match kept going. A fan screamed out during the first match, “Get off and let Rafa get on.”

But by the time Rafa and Novak got on, it was nearly dark, and the roof, which was completed before the 2009 tournament so play could go on in the rain, was closed and the lights turned on.

Djokovic and Nadal, both Wimbledon champions, had to wait impatiently in the locker room while Anderson and Isner went on and on, not knowing whether to grab some food or stay warmed up.

Isner never had been past the third round at Wimbledon until this year — someone nicknamed it “John’s House of Horrors” — and then, after winning the second third sets in tiebreakers, was one set from the final. He couldn’t make it.

“I’m just disappointed,” said Isner. “I came pretty close to making a Grand Slam final. I competed hard. I’m proud of that. But it stinks to lose. He was a little bit better in the end.

“One thing he was doing better was winning the big points. He broke me at four-all in the fourth set. I would like my chances in a tiebreaker.”

What he did have was a blister on his heel, but that didn’t seem to bother him as much as Anderson’s game.

“I don’t know what to say right now,” was Anderson’s comment when the BBC grabbed him moments after the final point. “It was really tough on both of us. I feel like it was a draw. I really feel for him.”

Anderson also feels that Wimbledon, alone among the four Grand Slams, has to forego playing a fifth set and go to a tiebreaker. In his BBC commentary, John McEnroe, a former Wimbledon champion, kept pushing that idea during the fifth set.

“Maybe this will make a difference,” said McEnroe. “It’s unfair the way it is now.”

Not only because the players wear down, but because the winning player feels the effects in his next match.

Isner was in agreement. “Maybe they play to 12-12, then go to a tiebreak,” he said.

And no, John didn’t want to talk about the 11-hour match eight years ago that ended 70-68. “I’m trying my hardest to forget it,” he said.

That will be easier than forgetting this one.

3:53PM

Serena into the Wimbledon final: a matter of presence

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — They talk about the serve, and it is a powerful one, the Hammer, like a Steph Curry jumper, a Max Scherzer fastball. They talk about the quickness and the ability to cover the court. But maybe what gives Serena Williams the real advantage is presence.

She’s a champion, of course, in effect the sport’s goddess. Everyone knows that, whether battling her or talking about her.   

It’s as intangible and important as any shot she hits.

To the other players, it doesn’t matter if she missed months while pregnant and underwent a Caesarian. It doesn’t matter if this Wimbledon, where Friday she’ll he playing in the finals — go ahead, say you knew it all along — is only the fourth tournament of her comeback. 

“She’s hard to beat,” Martina Navratilova, who as a nine-time Wimbledon winner was equally as hard, said on the BBC.

Two years ago John McEnroe, a damn good player himself and no less an excellent commentator and analyst — Stanford doesn’t admit dummies — said Serena was the best women’s player in history. If not, she’s very much in the mix.

Serena took on one of the game’s improving young stars Thursday in a semifinal at Centre Court, Julia Goerges, who probably played as well as possible — even breaking Williams’ serve once. Williams was a comfortable 6-2, 6-4 winner. The match took 1 hour 10 minutes. Zap.

When someone asked Goerges, a 29-year-old German, if that result was frustrating, she did one of those “Let me escape” responses and answered, “I think frustrating is a negative word. I should not be too negative about the match. It was more about experience ... She knew how to win.”

Serena always did know. Always will know. She’s an intimidator, a destroyer. The weeks away haven’t made a difference to Serena, or to the young ladies she plays.

Also in the final, for the second time in three years, a repeat of the 2016 championship match, will be Angelique Kerber. Williams is seeking an eighth Wimbledon, a 24th Grand Slam.

Williams is not just another female athlete who left for a while to have a baby. This is a legend, with that monster serve — one was clocked at 122 mph against Goerges — and an ability to make returns.

“She was there from every single point,” said Goerges about the last set. “She showed me how to win those matches at that stage, because I think she’s won 23 Grand Slams and played I don’t know how many times on that court, which I haven’t done.”

Neither has the 30-year-old Kerber, who’s also from Germany, but Kerber has won the Australian Open (over Serena) and the French, and was runner-up in that 2016 Wimbledon final, Serena’s last match here until this year.

Asked about Serena, Kerber said, “I see a champion. She’s coming back. She’s one of the great players in the world.”

That item confirmed, Williams, to her credit is guarded, choosing not to remind us of her talent but allowing her play to do so.

She had been in just three previous tournaments since daughter Olympia was born in September, and without the opportunity to accumulate points her WTA ranking had plummeted to 181st. But the Wimbledon people were not fooled. They gave Williams a seeding, 23. Very wise.

And now, they not only have a potentially exciting final but the one name in women’s tennis that resonates on both sides of the Atlantic, Serena Williams. And lucky they do.

“It’s no secret, I had a super-tough delivery,” said Williams. ”The routine was to have a new surgery every day ... There was a time I could barely walk to the mailbox. A lot of people were saying, ‘She should be in the final. For me, it’s such a pleasure and joy because less than a year ago I was going through so much rough stuff.”

Serena said she thought she would have done better in the earlier tournaments, even at age 35 and away from tennis.

“I wouldn’t say it was a reality check,” she said of the stumbles. “I look at as a stepping stone. I honestly felt I would have done better. That was the hardest part, accepting that I didn’t. Whenever I go out there, I expect to win the next match.”

She’s not alone.

2:03PM

Federer on his loss: ‘I’m not sure what happened’

By Art Spander

WIMBLEDON, England — He sounded as bewildered as the rest of us. Sure, it’s happened before, a favorite squandering a lead, breaking bad — and that’s the key phrase here — when it’s all going so good, Arnold Palmer throwing away a seven-shot lead in a U.S. Open, the Falcons falling apart after going in front by 25 points in Super Bowl LI.

But not Roger Federer. Not the acknowledged greatest tennis player ever. Not at Wimbledon, where he had won the men’s singles seven times. Not against Kevin Anderson, whom he’d beaten the four times they’d ever met.

There was Roger on Wednesday, coasting, breezing, playing with the grace and skill we — and he — would expect, even a month before his 37th birthday.

Two sets ahead, a lead in the third, one point from his fifth straight semifinals, from his 12th in 15 Wimbledons overall. And then?

“After that,” he would confess, “I’m not sure what happened.”

On the scoreboard, what happened was Anderson, the big guy (6-foot-8) from South Africa (he lives in Florida and has applied for U.S. citizenship), stunned Federer, 2-6, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4, 13-11.

A mini-marathon, 4 hours, 14 minutes. A maxi-surprise.

“I’m up two sets to one,” said a chastened Federer. “It’s all good, so... At that point, I wasn’t thinking of losing.”

But he lost. He lost for only the second time in a Wimbledon match after winning the first two sets (Jo-Wilfred Tsonga beat him 3-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4). He lost after having his serve broken for the first time at Wimbledon since last year’s semi against Tomas Berdych, 85 games.

“I was very happy that I got off to the right start,” said Federer, “as I was able to take control of the game.”

It’s the end that counts in sports. It’s how you finish. And Anderson, who had 28 service aces — 11 in the fifth set, which lasted for an hour and a half — was able to finish off Federer.

“I think I had my chances,” said Federer, “so it’s disappointing. No doubt about it. I just don’t know exactly how I couldn’t create more opportunities once the third set came around. He was consistent. He was solid. Credit to him for hanging around that long.”

Anderson, who through the second set had dropped all 10 sets he’d ever played against the Swiss master starting in 2013, will take that credit and take his spot in the semis against an American, John Isner, who beat the Canadian Milos Raonic.

“It felt great to get that match.” said Anderson. ”I mean, the toughest thing players face when playing somebody like Roger in this setting is giving yourself a chance.”

Even if nobody else gave him a chance.

“Again,” said Anderson, who spent a year at the University of Illinois, “I really hope it’s an example of sticking to your dreams.”

More importantly, sticking to your plan. A day earlier, he told a writer from Metro, the free London paper, “I feel like a lot of aspects of my game can give him a lot of trouble. I’m a big player, big serve. I’m going to have to really take it to him.”

In truth, Anderson took it from Federer, took away the opportunity to add a 20th Grand Slam title to his record.

“That has nothing to do with my opponent,” Federer would contend, when of course it did have a great deal to do with his opponent. Anderson didn’t melt under the Federer spell — “Roger, Roger” was the scream at Centre Court. Anderson was resolute.

“It was just one of those days where you hope to get by,” said Federer. “Somehow, I almost could have.”

Almost, that’s the word so often used by the people who play Federer. They had him. Then they didn’t have him. Then he hit the great passing shot, the great serve.

“I didn’t feel mental fatigue,” said Federer. “Now I feel horribly fatigued. It’s just awful. But that’s how it goes.”

It’s legitimate to wonder where Federer will go. He said he’ll return to Wimbledon, but it won’t be as defending champion, as the virtually unbeatable star.

“Today,” said Federer, “I had moments where I was great. I felt like I was reading his serve, other moments where I don’t know where the hell I was moving.”

He knows now. He was moving out of Wimbledon.