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Copyright July 2016 Column by Paul Fein

Serena Catches 22 at Wimbledon

“I prefer the words, one of the greatest ‘athletes’ of all time.” − Serena Williams’ reply when a reporter asked what she makes of it when others talk about her as one of history’s greatest female athletes.

Her muscular body collapsed gracefully on the lush Wimbledon grass. She lay on her back to celebrate. And after hugging Angelique Kerber at the net, she extended her arms and pointed two fingers on each hand. They represented the magic number, 22. Serena Williams had finally equaled Steffi Graf’s elusive Open Era record of 22 Grand Slam titles.

It took four majors to catch the legendary Graf, just as it had in 2014 to tie all-time greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert at 18. Serena had choked against lightweight Roberta Vinci at the US Open, was ambushed by counter-puncher Kerber at the Australian Open, and was outslugged by rising star Garbine Muguruza at the French Open.

Some wondered whether Serena, now three months shy of 35, would ever do it?

The skeptics fired more ammunition at this Wimbledon when Serena barely escaped a second-round loss. Down 0-2, 15-40 in the deciding set against No. 65 Christina McHale, she toughed out a 6-7, 6-2, 6-4 win. Afterwards she warned everyone: “Mentally, no one can break me. I’m in warrior mode.” That she was. Serena surrendered just 18 games in her next four matches.

Before the eagerly awaited final, Billie Jean King, who famously proclaimed, “Pressure is a privilege,” noted, “It’s taken Serena this long to recover from her loss to Vinci.” The seldom-serene Serena admitted “some really tough losses” at the last three majors had given her “some sleepless nights.”

Showing not the slightest sign of nerves, only her trademark ferocious intensity, Serena avenged her loss to Kerber with a virtuoso 7-5, 6-3 performance for her seventh Wimbledon crown.

“It’s been incredibly difficult not to think about it [equaling Graf’s record],” confided Serena. “It makes the victory even sweeter to know how hard I had to work for it.”

She’s worked hard for it ever since her hard-driving father Richard had her, then five, and her older sister Venus, hitting hundreds of balls every day on the dilapidated hard courts in crime-ridden Compton, California. Most recently, fitness guru Mickey Shilstone fined-tuned her running deceleration so she doesn’t awkwardly crowd groundstrokes and volleys as she did in Australia.

In the high-caliber, always-entertaining final, Serena, displaying improved balance and anticipation, struck volleys with power, precision, and touch. Her volleys and half volleys, sharpened by doubles matches—the super sisters won their fifth Wimbledon and 14th major doubles title—helped her win an impressive 73% (16 of 22) net points. Her groundstrokes blended power with accuracy. Many were sharply angled, pulling fourth-seeded Kerber way off the court. A beautifully crafted backhand angle forced a Kerber error that ended the first set. This and other rapid-fire, creative exchanges drew roars of applause from appreciative spectators.

The versatile, athletic, and tenacious German was confident she could do what no woman had ever done before: beat both Venus and Serena at the same Wimbledon. Emboldened by her Australian conquest of Serena and her 6-4, 6-4 semifinal victory over Venus, Kerber declared, “I know that I can beat her.”

Though the 28-year-old lefty, who did not drop a set en route to the final, maintained a high playing level throughout the match, ultimately she had no answer to Serena’s booming first serve. It bailed Serena out of the few jams she faced. Serving at 5-5, 15-30 in the first set, she hit two unreturnable serves and then whacked an ace to hold. At 3-3, 30-40 in the second set, Serena faced her only break point of the match. No problem. Her awesome serve came through again with a 117-mph ace and then a 124-mph ace.

Overall, Serena blasted 13 aces (vs. Kerber’s 0), while winning an astounding 88% of first-serve points (vs. Kerber’s 59%). This weapon of mass destruction averaged 109 mph (vs. Kerber’s 93 mph) and peaked at 124 mph (vs. Kerber’s peak of 106). “It’s the single greatest weapon in the history of the women’s game, followed closely by her will to win,” praised John McEnroe, an ESPN analyst and 1980s star.

Almost always a great closer, Serena belted three service winners when she seized the championship game at love. “Serena was serving unbelievable today,” said Kerber afterward. “She really played an unbelievable match. I think I didn’t lose the match. I think she won it.”

Kerber found herself in a Catch 22 situation. She’s most comfortable and successful when counter-punching to wear down opponents and elicit errors. She rarely over-hits or under-hits. But to upset a peak-form, overpowering Serena, who wound up with 39 winners, Kerber decided to leave her comfort zone. So, she “tried everything”: she played more aggressively, took more chances, and eventually made more errors, particularly at the business end of both sets. The tactical change, while costly, gave sports fans a rip-roaring match. “This is one of the best-quality finals in women’s tennis I’ve ever seen,” enthused Evert, an ESPN analyst.

Serena caught her 22nd major this fortnight, 17 years after grabbing her first major, and appears destined to capture more. The question now is: How many more? Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24—fattened by 11 titles at the Australian Open, which often had weak fields—is clearly breakable. “I think she’ll get to 25,” predicted McEnroe.

Even if age-defying Serena never surpasses Court’s hallowed record, she will likely win the unofficial “Greatest of all Time” (GOAT) accolade. “I’ve always said Serena is the greatest player we’ve ever seen,” contends Evert. “And now she also has the greatest results.”

Serena can thank her mother, Oracene Price, for helping her shatter another record—winning an astounding nine Grand Slam titles after turning 30. “When I reached 30, I was panicking,” Serena recalls. “My mom told me when you reach 30, it’s the best time of your life.”

Murray Seizes Opportunity and Second Title

Three years ago with the weight of a champion-starved nation’s hopes on his shoulders, Andy Murray looked forlorn and dazed for minutes after he became the first British man to win Wimbledon since 1936. This year, after Milos Raonic erred on championship point, Murray punched the air in ecstasy and smiled.

“I’ve been around tennis almost 40 years, and of all the players and tournaments I’ve seen,” said McEnroe, “he has been under more pressure and stress than anyone, trying to win Wimbledon for the first time. So if anyone deserves to enjoy it a little more, it’s Andy Murray.”

Murray is a man of many emotions—often rage and frustration he vents toward his Player’s Box. When he sat down, the drained Scotsman covered his eyes with his hands and then his towel, and sobbed tears of joy.

The pressure of ending the long British drought in 2013 wasn’t the only burden he’s surmounted. For nearly 10 years, Murray played fourth fiddle to superstars Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and, most recently, Novak Djokovic. Going into The Championships, Wimbledon’s other and real name, he was stuck with a dismal 2-8 career record in Grand Slam finals. All these losses came against Federer and Djokovic.

He beamed with pride when he held the trophy, but he candidly told the adoring Centre Court spectators, “I’ve had some great moments here and also some tough losses. And obviously the wins feel extra special because of the tough losses. To do it twice here in an event where there is a lot of pressure on me to perform—I’m very proud of how I’ve handled that over the years. Obviously a lot of questions would get asked of me after those losses. But you know, failing’s not terrible.”

A year ago on the same court, a seemingly ageless Federer serving brilliantly overpowered him 7-5, 7-5, 6-4 in the semifinals. This fortnight Murray capitalized on the absence of the injured Nadal, the stunning upset of Djokovic by Sam Querrey, and Raonic’s thrilling five-set semifinal victory over Federer. Murray’s sternest test came against 12th-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a five-set quarterfinal. He outclassed five other opponents before the final, including 10th-seeded Tomas Berdych 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 in the semis.

Federer, who turns 35 on August 8, provided the two most dramatic duels. Competing in only his seventh tournament of the season—because of knee surgery, a bout of the flu, and a recurring back ailment—he fought off a two-set deficit and three match points to overcome ninth-seeded Marin Cilic 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-3. “I fought, I tried, I believed. At the end, I got it done,” said an exultant Federer. “To test the body, to be out there again fighting, being in a physical battle—and winning it—is an unbelievable feeling.”

The perennial fan favorite could not survive a second straight marathon against another much younger foe though, especially after injuring his knee in a nasty fall early in the fifth set, and succumbed 6-3, 6-7, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 to Raonic. At his press conference, Federer rued his missed fourth-set opportunities: “Something went wrong, I don’t know what, can’t believe it. Unexplainable for me. I’m very sad about that, and angry.” Raonic called the riveting semifinal “the best match mentally of my career,” and added, “I am by no means done.”

Raonic has harbored dreams of tennis stardom ever since he was a kid. A son of ambitious immigrants, much like Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Michael Chang, the 25-year-old Canadian recalled his early struggles in the sport: “My earliest memory was when I tried out for this coach, Casey, in Toronto. I wasn’t good enough to be in the program then. I was just short of nine years old. Me and my father started on the ball machine every morning, at six in the morning, and nine at night, because that’s when court fees were affordable enough for us. That’s when they gave us a deal. I remember that ball machine pretty well.”

Leaving no stone unturned along the road toward the top, Raonic recently hired McEnroe, an in-your-face serve-volleyer in the 1980s, as a grass-court consultant to hone his forecourt skills, tactics, and mental game. “He’s tried to make sure that I show my presence out there,” explained Raonic. “The biggest thing is how I can make the other guy feel. Not only looking at myself, but also sometimes taking a glance to the other side of the net.”

Raonic glared a few times at Federer after winning big points, but he had little to preen or flaunt about against Murray. A heavy 2-7 favorite according to British bookmakers, Andy was dandy and predictably prevailed 6-4, 7-6, 7-6. Raonic boasted a superb 20-6 tiebreaker record this year, but Murray easily grabbed the crucial tiebreakers, 7-3 and 7-2.

Throughout the final, the far more experienced Murray—Raonic was playing his first major final—used his superlative return to blunt and even occasionally attack the 6’5”, 212-pound Raonic’s rocket serve. Despite averaging 126 mph (much less than 133 mph against Federer) on his first serve, Raonic won a mediocre 67% of his first-serve points and struck only eight aces. Murray even managed to return a 147-mph serve, the second-fastest in Wimbledon history, right at his body.

Conversely, Raonic’s inferior groundstrokes were ruthlessly exposed on serve returns, as Murray took 87% of his first-serve points. The most telling statistics: both players hit 39 winners; Raonic committed 29 unforced errors compared to only 12 for Murray. As ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe noted, “Murray had great tactics and executed them perfectly.”

There was much discussion among the cognoscenti about the Lendl Effect. After all, Ivan Lendl, the 1980s superstar, earned a reputation as a super coach when he guided Murray to the US Open title and an Olympic gold medal in 2012, and the Wimbledon crown in 2013, before quitting in early 2014. He re-united with Murray this June. Presto. Murray wins his second Wimbledon.

What about the putative cause-and-effective relationship?

A relaxed Murray, during his post-match comments to the spectators, quipped, “He’s just lucky.”

But the new and mischievous Murray wasn’t finished having fun. Noticing spectator Prime Minister David Cameron, who announced he will resign in October in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the champ said, “I think playing in a Wimbledon final is tough. But I certainly wouldn’t like to be a prime minister. It’s an impossible job.” The prime minister smiled and laughed. The cheering crowd loved it.


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