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Screaming inside of myself: Championship weekend at Wimbledon

July 11, 2015

Men’s Semifinals (Friday): In a match that surpassed its aesthetic billing as the Battle of the Beautiful Backhands and delivered arguably the tournament’s best match, Richard Gasquet won a berth in the semi-finals at Wimbledon. However, against Novak Djokovic, substance receded leaving only flash and Gasquet, as always, was on the outside looking in, wondering what happened to the moment. Ah, but at least he can relish his relationship with alliteration.

After the match when asked who he might face in the final, Djokovic unveiled that he indeed cannot foresee the future, which was another way of saying that he is the future, that his loss in the French Open final was simply a matter of dramatic pretext.

The match that followed, between Roger Federer and Andy Murray, then seemed to suggest that the future is already past, that the Big Four era is done, that Murray is done, that Djokovic soon will be done, that Federer is all there was and ever will be.

After the Australian Open, I wrote for The Classical about Andy Murray’s unique ability to come together only to fall apart. He composes himself so that he can later explode. The Australian Open was painful to watch and suggested that while his back had healed from injury, his emotions had regressed away from the Championship caliber tennis he was playing only a couple seasons ago. The worst of this was the match’s fourth set, which Andy lost 0-6, the matter made even more unsettling by his emotional state going as mute as his racket.

In the French Open at Roland Garros, Murray again faced Djokovic in the semifinals. He lost both of the first two sets 3-6 before winning the third and fourth sets 7-5. In the climactic fifth set, Murray wilted 1-6, but he did so in a less defeated trend than the Australian Open. Still, as well as Djokovic played in these matches, Murray played rather mistake-ridden tennis, returning his game to an elite level, yes, but doing so through a great deal of self-inflicted turbulence.

The question raised by both the Australian and French for Murray was whether he could play the more offensive-minded tennis that saw him win two Slams and an Olympic gold medal against the sport’s other elite players. His match against Federer was another prompting of this question.

Yet Federer never allowed the Scotsman to answer.

For all Murray’s displays of emotion, whether they are expressed in confidence or despair, Federer emits nothing. He blows coolly on his fingertips. He pushes the hair behind his ears. He rocks back and forth, but these movements are far from neurotic in their level of calm, as if Federer has seen to the killing of men and that tennis is just some game played with a rather small ball and an even weaker racket.   

These two come together on the court like a Robert Frost poem: fire and ice. The implication of which should be epic in both proportion and style. After all, Federer is one of the historically great servers in the game and one of its most creative shot makers. While, on the other hand, Murray is a historically great returner.

On Friday, however, Murray neither pouted nor surrendered. He simply was not Roger Federer on a day when only Roger could have defeated Federer.  His serve remained stellar. He has won, I believe, all but one game in which he has served this season on grass. He remains timeless. He is stoic, perhaps even stone. He is forever.

After the match, when asked about his frozen emotional state throughout the match but particularly during the tenth game of the second set, Federer replied, “I was screaming inside of myself.” To which we must all assume, his rib cage contains the silent vastness of outer space, for his exterior was resolute and undisturbed.

Women’s Final (Saturday): After winning her semifinal match against Agnieszka Radwanska in three sets, 21-year-old Garbiñe Muguruza stated in something along the lines of having dreamed about meeting Serena in a Slam final that Serena is the one you want to face.

Hearing those words, I admired her willingness to embrace not just the moment but the fight presented within the moment. Perhaps Muguruza would make Serena work, maybe she even had the faintest of chances at the upset. I believed this too because Muguruza absolutely bullied Radwanska at times, so here was a young phenom  talking and playing in a manner that suggested a possibility for Saturday to be special.

In the first game of Saturday’s match, Muguruza broke Serena, largely due to Serena’s double-faulting on serve, but still she also came with a power that appeared to handcuff Serena’s groundstrokes. In other words, Muguruza is the rare player who can do unto Serena what Serena typically does unto others.

However, after leading 4-2, Muguruza’s promise waned in the presence of what Serena is at this moment in the world of women’s tennis, which is, to say the least, everything. Serena won the first set 6-4.

In the second set, Serena took an easy 5-1 lead. Muguruza continued to display the fight voiced in her earlier interview. She broke Serena to reach a score of 4-5. She had an opportunity to hold serve in order to even the set. Her tears after the match were surely filled with a sentiment of ‘what if’ or ‘if only.’ She probably did believe until the very moment that her last forehand flew astray that she had a chance to win not only the game or the set but the entire thing.

While Serena moves forward, distancing herself from her peers and her era and moving evermore into the impossible conversations about history and all-time greatness, the game will need more performances like the one given today.

Serena’s historic chase gives the game a rare stage and focus, but young, energetic performances such as the ones given by Garbiñe Muguruza in today’s final and Heather Watson earlier in the tournament lend a certain poetic daring to Serena’s historic pursuit. With young rivals emerging, her dominance transitions to a resistance of youth in revolt.

Her career has never lacked for success. She won her first ‘Serena Slam’ at age 21. She has now won her second at age 33. While discussions of her popularity and critiques of her etiquette have always turned into mired conversations about race, what has truly prevented her from being viewed as Federer’s equal on the women's side is the lack of competition she's seemingly faced. She has never had a rival worthy of her talents and athleticism.

 As proof, I won't even mention her abhorrent drubbing of a certain blond Russian in Thursday’s semifinal, just that it made for an abysmal tennis showing because it lacked any element of unpredictability. When Serena does drop a set or falters in a match, when she turns pleading towards her box and whines, “I’m trying,” it all seems rehearsed; scripted drama to disguise the fact that her dominance  hammered the narrative into a flat, infinite line a long time ago. And perhaps that’s what Serena is: a total lack of surprise. After all, her father told us early on that this would happen, and it has.

Feel free to follow Bryan Harvey @LawnChairBoys.


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