Not to be long winded about it, missing Wimbledon stinks.
From far away, you can watch and silently cheer as the graceful Agnieszka Radwanska holds serve after breaking Tsvetana Pironkova, getting into a solid 4-2 lead in the third set of their fourth round match. You never know — especially in this tournament — but it appears the star the sportswriters call Aga, who is seeded No. 4 in the ladies draw at the All-England Championships, is going to make it to the quarters and a battle of wits with the little flower powerhouse Na Li, the most famous sportswoman in China, who finally got the world to understand ping pong is not the only game they play in the Middle Kingdom. Miss Pironkova, a big girl with a tenacious backcourt game who comes from a place called Plovdiv in Bulgaria, holds her serve. Miss Radwanska quickly gets to 30-0 on hers. Smooth sailing. But who knows.
Thanks to the wonders of real-time communications, you hold you breath even from the distance, but it is not the same. Miss Radwanska held at love and is now making Miss Pironkova fight to stay in the match, and you can see this but you cannot feel it. The truth is that even with television, you get only a fake idea of what is going on. This causes you to rethink the whole TV sports industry. Instant replay and all that gadgetry, I suddenly realize, is for the birds.
One of the small excellent details of the charming and true baseball story, Trouble With the Curve, which was made (a movie) by Clint Eastwood last year, is how it shows that you cannot appreciate a ball player, pitcher or batter, from TV or from computer stats. Trouble With the Curve was probably not made deliberately as an answer to the stats nonsense that began with the book, Money Ball, by Michael Lewis, for it is a true story about love and baseball and grit and honesty, but for my money (c’est le mot), it settled the debate, definitively. Of course stats matter. They are hugely important to understand who does what when and thus who might do what under which conditions But this is sports, not physics.
The character played by Clint Eastwood knows all about statistics. He pays close attention to them. More important, he knows baseball history. He knows who threw what pitch under which conditions. He does not, however, own a computer, certainly does not travel around the bush leagues with one. He has eyes (failing) and ears (sharp as ever), and he can tell when a statistically much-touted batter — for example — is a player who in the big leagues, against big league pitchers, is going to have trouble: trouble with the curve.
Miss Radwanska breaks, so much for the Bulgarian bombshell, at least until next time. But you cannot tell from the distance if her elegant pirouettes, her shrewd finesse, her grace under pressure — the match did go to three sets — are intact as we enter the second week of what has been an astonishing tournament so far. Or consider this. You can see, from the coverage of Centre Court, the court of legends, how Andy Murray came back from 2-5 in the second set to tie it up against Mikhail Youzhny. With the first set already in the bag, if the young Scot can grab this one, he will have irresistible momentum — well, not quite. In tennis, nothing is irresistible. Still, he got the first ad on Youzhny’s serve in the 11th game and he is pushing, pushing, hitting those killer backhands. The Russian holds. If this were live, you could sense, feel, be almost sure that Murray would hold in turn and force a tiebreaker. Not on the cool medium, however. Even with camera zooms, you cannot.
Murray holds easily.
One of the nice things about Miss Radwanska’s win is that this gives us a big quarterfinal round in both draws. Yes, of course, tennis is an individual’s sport and who cares where they come from. As it happens, I care. You, the reader, care. Anyway, Murray pulls out a tense tiebreaker, 7-5. Two sets up. Sean Connery cares.
It was a wild first week, but not quite the way they said it was. Getting this much straight is one thing you can do from the distance as well as from courtside Briefly, they said because Rafael Nadal (two-time winner) was knocked out in the first round and Roger Federer (seven-time winner, including last year) was knocked out in the second, it meant this edition of The Championships marked The End of an Era. What do they think this is, Parade’s End? Maybe so. But is it the Beginning of an Era, then? How can you say that when every upstart who upset a living legend lost his next match. I refer to the gentlemen’s draw. Should we get world-historical about this? Should we get Tolstoyan? It could mean the grass was slippery. Or the umps were blind. Or the champs had indigestion. On the ladies’ side, Maria Sharapova was knocked out early. She had “issues” on the brain, a spat with Serena Williams about men. Boyfriends. Most unbecoming. It caught up with Miss Williams too, in time.
To be sure, Roger Federer has not failed to get at least to the quarterfinals in a grand slam tournament since 2003, so his loss in straight sets to Sergiy Stakhovsky, who is from the Ukraine (politically, a creation of the German general staff during World War I) and who is known for suspicious behavior on court (photographing disputed shots with his cellphone camera, which forces even non-paranoiacs to worry about what else he is doing with that device during a match), came as a shock. However, Stakhovsky lost in the next round to Jürgen Melzer. The Austro-Hungarian Empire — but never mind.
Steven Darcis defeated Rafa Nadal in the first round, but it must have taken something out of him because he withdrew before the start of his next match, which would have been against Lukasz Kubot, who proceeded to beat two Frenchmen in a row to reach the quarters, where he will meet his compatriot Jerzy Janowicz. This means there will be a Pole in the semis, a Wimbledon first. And keep in mind that Miss Radwanska has a shot at the semis too, not to mention the final.
It is perfectly so that Ernest Gulbis beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who was favored, only to lose in straight sets to Fernando Verdasco, who went on to beat Kenny de Schepper and will meet David Ferrer in the quarters. There has been a pattern like this since the beginning of the season. It seems the effort to take out a better-known, seeded player takes as much physical and mental energy as the young gun has and he is finished for the tournament.
This either tells us that the dominant players of recent years were dominant for a reason, or the upcoming players are in fact still pretty wobbly. Nonetheless, there is, inevitably, the beginning of the changing of the guard. How could there not be? That is the way of the world, so it has got to be the way of sports.
Having got that straight, there is a rising generation — which can include late bloomers, as in the comparative cases of Jerzy Janowicz among younger stars and David Ferrer among older ones, and there are flashes in the pan, which are best left unnamed because this is Wimbledon and it is not proper to run chappies down.
Janowicz, a big-serving big man who can go to the net or play cross court baseline tennis with the best of them, has been bedeviled by a concentration-shattering temper, though it has to be said that sometimes blowing a fuse gets him back on task. For all his spectacular tantrums directed at umps, worthy of the young John McEnroe, it has been clear to observers of his game that his anger is directed at himself. At 23, he has more time to make a big career than the 31-year-old Lukasz Kubot; but then again — Tommy Haas too is almost made it to the quarters, at 35 the oldest to have got this far in living — and maybe dying — memory, and he is playing fantastically. This is a man who has had extremely serious surgeries and refused to quit. His father and Arnold Schwarzenegger were school chums. He lives in Florida and has dual U.S.-German citizenship. He looks like a brooding dark-haired Brad Pitt. He fought three tough sets against Novak Djokovic, the mountain man from Serbia, including an excruciating tiebreaker at the very end. (At Wimbledon there is no tiebreaker only in the fifth set, if there is one, if you see what I mean.)
When Sabine Lisicki beat Serena Williams in three sets, rallying from 0-3 in the third, you could shake your head and say this is the kind of year it is, but you could also remember that Miss Lisicki has prevailed over the great American champ in all their matches at Wimbledon. This one made sense. It surprised those who were mesmerized by Miss Williams’s 34-match winning streak this year but it did not surprise those who looked at the background, studied Miss Lisicki’s game. She serves well — Miss Williams is not the only big server on the ladies’ tour. She made Miss Williams run, hitting to the corners. She had a plan. She had the game for the plan. She is on the way up, as is young Sloane Stephens, who has the kind of quick, resourceful game that can undercut her quarterfinals opponent, Marion Bartoli, who, though from Corsica, does not have a Napoleonic style, relying on the old counterpunch rather than the audacious attack. It will be interesting, as will be her likely meeting in the semis with Petra Kvitova, the 2011 champion — but you never know.
I am aware Mr. Pleszczynski worries about this twilight of the gods sort of thing. He would have preferred the San Antonio Spurs to hang on for one more championship. But some of the gods are still standing — Andy Murray has as good a shot at the trophy as has Novak Djokovic, and if they are beaten on the way by the likes of Tomas Berdych or David Ferrer or Juan Martin Del Potro, no one in his right mind would speak of flukes, any more than in the case of wins by Miss Radwanska or Miss Kvitova. Admittedly, triumphs by Miss Stephens or Miss Lisicki would represent unexpected breakthroughs, but those have to occur every few years.
The Championships this year are not as wacky as the boys in the press box would have you think. The winners will be athletes who have been working hard for a long time and have earned their places in the last brackets of the draws.
If you think such philosophical ruminations are some kind of consolation for having to keep track of all this on the cool medium, you are mistaken. They are but feeble efforts at reading the program, and while I know you cannot always get what you want, I still wish I were there.