Sunday’s men’s tennis final at Wimbledon is being called the greatest match ever. For those of us watching at the bar of Georgetown’s Martin’s Tavern around 2 p.m. on July 14, amid a friendly crowd, the cries of “Great shot!” were soon overtaken by a wave of wows and OMGs. “Unbelievable!” was heard more than once.
There were so many things to ooh and ah about. Even for those who know little to nothing about tennis, the fact that the two finalists, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, are seniors in tennis terms — the Swiss Federer is 37 and the Serb Djokovic is 32 — is almost unbelievable in itself.
That makes the record-breaking, five-plus-hour match even more remarkable. Even toward the end, serves were recorded at up to 117 mph. The final game went to 12-12 before a new rule was instituted, requiring a seven-point tiebreaker to finish the match.
But for knowledgeable tennis players, it was the perfection of the long-game points that made us swoon. With the District’s Citi Open to begin July 27, just weeks before the U.S. Open starts on Aug. 19, here are the thrills I watch for.
Put ’Em Where They Ain’t
Hard ace serves and drives are the exciting stuff of tennis — and the mother’s milk of young players. But every experienced player knows that placement is the holy grail, especially in singles (though harder and even more strategic in doubles) and on grass and turf courts, where speed is reduced as soon as the ball hits the ground. Federer and Djokovic do placement almost perfectly.
For instance, both served most of their nearly 100-mph serves to the center corner of the service court, right in the corner. Do you know how hard that is to do consistently? That would cut off the angles that most players, even pros, would be able to return serve.
But these guys. From a deep middle serve, they could return to an edge of the court where the opponent wasn’t, who would then leap to the ball and make a perfect return to the other side, where that player wasn’t a second before, who would make an impossible save down the line to a back corner. Okay, I’m getting carried away with the details here.
And just watch them run. Racing from side to side, backward behind the baseline for a deep shot and then a final surge forward if there was a short shot for what is usually a put-away volley — though nothing was ever a “slam dunk” in this match.
Diversity and Anticipation
Of course, the other side of that coin of placement is how the players mix up their shots and how well the opponent anticipates what they are going to do.
Again, Federer and Djokovic were masters. They’d make two, maybe three, wide cross-court returns and, just when you think it’s a pattern, one or the other would put it deep down the line or make a really brave slice volley just behind the other side of the net. Or they would change a pattern of deep-down-the-middle serves, say, to suddenly serve a perfect wide slice cross-court serve. And don’t forget to watch for deep, high topspin lobs.
But the amazing thing was that, most of the time, the other guy was already there.
So when watching this high-end tennis for a while, keep your eye on just one of the players and see what he or she does after hitting the ball. Where do they go to prepare for the next shot? Watch the footwork and where they stand (very often way behind the back line).
Landing on the Line
With all the new technology today, an instant replay can record exactly where the ball lands, even its shadow on or near a line. All that raging about line calls (famously by John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, once upon a time) are now quickly resolved by the replay. It was just jaw-dropping how often in Sunday’s historic match Federer and Djokovic would perfectly drop a huge fast shot directly on or just covering a quarter of a line. Phew!
Playing on the lawns — the grass courts of Wimbledon — is different than playing on the red “clay” of the French Open and the true hard surface of the District’s Citi Open and the U.S. Open in New York. Each tournament has its own atmosphere. The tournament at Wimbledon Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club is known for its genteel clubhouse, the presence of members of the royal family (this time, Kate and William), everyone wearing white, the serving of strawberries and cream and the lineup of tennis icons at the end. It was all so civilized.
And what tennis — a great setup for the Citi Open.