Serve and Volley

Tennis for Churchillians

Djokovic-Federer go the limit in Wimbledon classic.

By 7.7.14

UPI
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Right away, on Roger Federer’s first service game, Novak Djokovic counter-attacks against the older man’s superior net game, as if to show him he is unafraid. Federer holds, with some effort, and Djokovic, who held his own first service easily, deploys his own weapons, a strong serve — Federer’s will turn out to be more effective over the course of the match — and relentless baseline defense to immediate effect, holding the third game at love. Contrasting styles of play, which sharpens the battle of wills: who is going to crack the other’s confidence in his own game plan?

On the immaculate Centre Court of the All-England Lawn Tennis Club at Wimbledon, you are not supposed to crack. If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew…

Federer is unfazed. In his own second service game he serve-and-volleys repeatedly, with gorgeous classic shots, a backhand volley in particular. At 2-2, Djokovic is serving as hard as possible again, he opens with a service winner and an ace, then opens up the court on the third serve to give himself a forehand winner, finally makes the same play on the backhand side.

There is no reason not to think this will be a classic.

Djokovic sends passes against the volley part of the serve and volley fearlessly and ruthlessly, but Federer adjusts, hits a service winner down the middle to close the game. Djokovic responds with an ace on the first point of his next service. He holds at 15, his only lost point a double fault. The score is 4-3. The set will last nearly an hour, tiny advantages lost and regained.

Roger Federer, who is from Bale and will be 33 in a few weeks, has won this tournament seven times, a record shared with the last world-dominant American, Pete Sampras. Djokovic, born and raised in Belgrade, has won it once, but he has been in an almost unbroken series of grand slam finals in the past three years. Federer’s game weakened following his last win here, 2012, and he had what for him was a miserable 2013 season. This year has been good so far, and this tournament has been superb. He had no trouble at all until this match, whereas Djokovic was taken to five sets by Marin Cilic in the semis.

Never quit: a long rally, uncharacteristic for these two on this fast, slippery, low-bouncing grass surface, ends with Federer netting a backhand, but Djokovic follows with an error, sending an easy smash long. He responds by closing out with an ace. Almost the same thing is repeated in the next game, a long baseline rally won by Federer, which he follows up with an out of bound volley smash. He comes back to close with a service winner and they are at 5-5.

It is that kind of set, that kind of match. They have radically different games, each one hugely successful. Federer is widely viewed as the greatest player of his era, which began with the century. Djokovic nearly outdid him in 2011, when he lost a chance for a Grand Slam at Roland-Garros, falling to mighty man of Majorca, Rafael Nadal. Nadal beat Djokovic again a few weeks ago at that legendary stadium in Paris, and there have been doubts about his resilience, mental toughness.

Winston Churchill was quoted — his “Never, never, never give up…” speech during the desperate days after Dunkirk, and, with all due respect for the historical references, this was rather overwrought. They actually produced a clip showing some Wimbledon moments into which they spliced newsreel footage from May 1940, Churchill in uniform, naval guns booming, Tommies. It is understood you have to fill television time, but frankly, war is war and sports is sports.

Good form and clear thinking warn us to beware of inappropriate comparisons. Coaches use battle metaphors, officers use sports metaphors: language. But to make a whole theme of it is misleading. Wimbledon, like Winston Churchill, is a product of the Edwardian Age, the last years of the British Empire. The ideas, the beliefs, the purposes expressed in Churchill’s rhetoric and leadership permeated society. Sports had their place in what we today would call the values system of the English, and to a lesser degree the larger community of the English-speaking peoples.

They did not confuse peacetime activities with war, however imbued with the same notions of fairness and effort and sacrifice that would be carried to the battlefield. One of the greatest of the pre-World War I tennis players was the New Zealander Anthony Wilding, who won four trophies and was the runner-up in 1914. He was killed in action a year later in the battle of Neuve-Chapelle. Don Budge and Bobby Riggs, the winners at the last three Wimbledon championships before war began again and interrupted the tournament for six years, joined the Air Force and Army, respectively; Fred Perry, the last British champion (1934, ’35, ’36) until Andy Murray last year, emigrated to the U.S., became an American citizen, and served in the U.S. Air Force.

The first set goes, with a certain inevitability, to a tiebreak. Federer breaks twice to get ahead, 3-2. At the changeover he is holding at 4-2 on a Djokovic forehand error into the net. But Djokovic breaks him on the next point, then ties it up and takes over the lead on two missed backhands by Federer in a row. In a fantastically dramatic play, Federer takes the next point to even it at 5-5, then makes a ridiculous shot into the net to lose his advantage 6-5. He pushes Djokovic to the edge to regain a tie, 6-6, at the second changeover. Djokovic serves a tricky second serve down the middle, which Federer backhands into the net. He responds with an ace, 7-7, which he follows up with a service winner down the middle. It is 8-7, Federer. With Djokovic serving, Federer holds his nerve and sends back a good return which Djokovic flubs. Set.

Churchill was not, according to Jon Wertheim (who produced the never-quit clip and who is himself an excellent Wimbledon historian, having written an excellent book about the classic 2008 final between Federer and Nadal, Strokes of Genius), a tennis player or fan, but he would have taken the Wimbledon ethos for granted, down to the sartorial rules that some players find a bit overstrict. When asked, Wertheim suggested Churchill would be a soccer fan, the grit and resilience and “bulldog” determination.

Who is to say? Soccer and tennis are both English inventions. There were hopes this year Andy Murray would repeat his triumph of last year and keep the trophy in British hands, but he was knocked out rather embarrassingly — especially as he had until then played a great tournament — by the young Bulgarian star, Grigor Dimitrov. Dimitrov was then overwhelmed by Djokovic in the semis.

Obviously, you have to be careful about national references in international sports, they tend to the same ineptitudes as political and historical ones. No Bulgar ever had got this far. Ken Tomlinson, the late, great Reader’s Digest editor, had a Bulgarian colleague, Dimitri Panitza, who was quite athletic in his youth as well as multilingual and fiercely anti-communist, but this has nothing to do with Wimbledon. As a matter of fact, I do not recall — corrections are welcome — Dimi being especially keen on British institutions and customs, maybe the lingering suspicion of a man of the Balkans that the Brits let them down in the 1940s when the Red Army laid down its iron rule, causing the Panitza family great harm and suffering. An optimist by nature, Dimi eventually made it home, recovered the family property, set up a foundation to help destalinize the place and bring it up to the standards required of a free society. How well this worked out I do not know, though I am sure it worked out better than whatever official U.S. democratizing agencies did, squandering American tax dollars on moronic projects.

Among small countries, the Canadians have done well this year. Canada is a big country, but with a fairly small population, augmented lately by sensible immigration policies we would do well to study. A child of immigration, Milos Raonic (born in Podgorica, raised in Ontario) made it to the semis where he was stopped cold by Federer, and in the ladies’ draw 20-year old Eugenie Bouchard, who is from Quebec and is reportedly an admirer of an individual named Bieber whom U.S. authorities view as a pernicious influence, made it to the final, the first Canadian to get this far in the history of this tournament. However, she was stopped in the final even colder than Raonic by the marvelous Czech Petra Kvitova, the 2011 winner.

Czech immigrants to the U.S. include two of the greatest players of all time, Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl. Lendl plays golf at Lake Waramaug, the same club where my son in law plays, but that is neither here nor there. Also, Djokovic uses Head racquets, Federer favors the more classy Wilsons. He has been playing, since that disappointing season, with a new model, larger frame (97" compared to 90"), commercial variations of which will be on the market in the fall. This is not a placement ad.

Meanwhile, however, Djokovic, breaks Federer in the third game of the second set — the first time Federer is broken in the tournament. Classic net play by Federer keeps the score close, 2-3. He holds at love to reach 4-5, with two aces to close. But Djokovic saves a break point in the next one and follows up with some huge smashes, and they are even, one set each. Federer holds the first game of the third set with a service winner to Djokovic’s backhand, but it took some effort, Djokovic seems to have got the mo now, invigorated. On nearby No. 1 court, an all-American final is won by Noah Rubin over Stepan Kozlov (born in Skopje), following a boys’ semis in which three of the four were Americans — a ray of hope in an otherwise dismal period for U.S. tennis.

We, nation of immigrants, need to keep attracting such talents as Navratilova and Lendl and young Kozlov (or his fellow junior, Francis Tifao, who was knocked out in an earlier round and who will be compete in the Washington D.C. tournament later this month). Immigration, movement, search for freedom, opportunity — clichés, but true. Miss Ann Coulter, the brilliantly controversial commentator, is more often right than wrong, and her central idea on immigration is of course, sound, it is madness to lose control — willfully — of our borders. I cannot follow the logic of her disparagement of soccer, however, which she calls an tiresome sport appreciated by aliens whom we can only hope will be weaned from their delusions and adopt football as they grow into Americans.

Soccer is a manly sport, brutal physically and packed with guile, cheating. One star player was ejected from the world series, currently going into its final week somewhere in the southern hemisphere, for illegal use of his teeth against an opponent; a key player on one of the favored teams was taken out with a broken back. The money is huge, pervasive, and the ruling body in the sport is run by an alleged band of crooks headed by a creep from Switzerland.

We can turn our backs on this, as Miss Coulter suggests, or we can fight back, using our talent to prevail on the field (in England they call it a pitch) and the RICO act to keep the sport honest. To begin, we should sue the governing body of the sport, called FIFA, to remove its top leaders and to transfer the venue of the next world series, known as the World Cup, from Dubai, a slave state, to a civilized nation such as our own or England.

If we do the right thing and proceed with a lawsuit against FIFA, the ideal special prosecutor would be either Rudolph Giuliani, one of America’s top lawmen before he served as the finest mayor of America’s greatest city in the 1990s and early ’00s (and the child of immigrants), or Kenneth Starr, whose steely austerity would be a bracing reminder to the world that America means what it says, something that the current powers-that-are in Washington seem intent on forgetting.

Now Federer, who got a very bad call in the sixth game when he had a chance to break Djokovic, steadies himself and holds to stay on serve with another beautiful slice from the net and it is 4-3. It is not clear to me why the dress code seems to have been relaxed for spectators at Wimbledon, but maybe that is why the dress code for players was tightened. Djokovic holds at love for 4-4. Mr. Pleszczynski, however, wore coat and tie when he visited Wimbledon some years ago. Federer gets four aces a row to hold the 9th game after which (on TV) there is an ad for an ape movie, forthcoming. Observe that Chariots of Fire, a fine minor film about the 1924 Olympics — the last classic, Edwardian Olympics — is the only movie about individual sports (Mr. Bowman will correct me; The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is, of course, not a sports movie.) These were the last Edwardian Games, the old habits and virtues had been shattered by the Great War but they endured in sectors of British society.

In the 11th game, a missed backhand down the line by Federer gives Djokovic the break point, but a power serve saves it, then Federer makes another backhand error. Again he saves the break point.

It is only sport, but the virtues are there. Churchill’s ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, when he expressed his famous epigram about Waterloo, knew that something was learned on the playing fields of Eton, and he knew even better that something quite other was earned on the battlefield. Perspective, proportion. This is also why I am cautious with making comparisons, as Miss Coulter does, between soccer and un-Americanness.

The third set tiebreak, both players know, is crucial. Who gets this set gets a huge advantage going into the fourth. To be sure, it can go to five if there is a comeback by the loser of this tiebreak. They are both at the limits of physical and mental tension. It shows in Federer’s game more than Djokovic’s; he is making errors clearly due to annoyance, lack of attention, he is shanking. Djokovic is playing shrewdly, using defense-offense change ups to throw the master off balance. He is in control, though Federer is the more brilliant, graceful, gorgeous, athletic.

Can Federer rally? It does not traditionally happen when he gets into this kind of situation with Djokovic, who serves first in the fourth set and immediately provokes careless Federer shanks to go ahead on the first points. Quit, persist? Djokovic holds at love.

Federer holds back (at 15) and Djokovic takes a nasty spill, the second in the match. Obviously, tennis is not a contact sport like soccer but the body takes blows under the strain. Djokovic may or may not be in pain, but he breaks in the fourth — with some effort — and it certainly appears he is in charge. Federer must do something quickly or he is a goner. He ups the pace — a risky strategy given it will wear him out, but what choice does he have? He has to reverse the powerful momentum Djokovic has acquired. He goes for broke, risks dangerous shots, wins — breaks — on a superb crosscourt toward the deuce side that Djokovic cannot reach, jumps and yells, he has broken back. The audience is rooting for him; it is true there is something very British about Roger Federer, the grace, the classic, fair-minded style.

Not good enough. Federer is again broken. At 4-2, it looks pretty good for the man from Belgrade, and Federer is showing increasing signs of fatigue. With a score like this, as the great American champion Bill Tilden wrote in his classic Match Point many years ago, whoever wins is almost certain to get the mental edge to close out. A long rally, 23 shots, ends with a Djokovic point, followed by a service winner, 5-2. It appears, folks, that this is it.

But Federer holds with some superb first serves. Djokovic throws away an easy winner on the first point of his service. Federer returns the favor with a netted return that should have been easy, then counterattacks to get a break point. Federer converts, as Djokovic takes still another spill.

Imagine the strain now, Federer serving at 4-5. It shows —he double faults to give Djokovic a free point, 30-30, then nets a backhand to give him championship point. Saves it with an ace. Gets the ad with another one. Goes on defense, nets a backhand. Deuce again. A classic fast paced winner into the open court gives him the ad again. Bam, service winner, 5-5!

Djokovic tries a backhand passing short down the line, Federer judges it will fly out. He is right, and Djokovic follows with a double. 0-30. Another Djokovic backhand flies long — 0-40, triple breakpoint.

A great service winner saves the first. A weak forehand return saves the second. Then a tense exchange ends with a Djokovic forehand sailing long, and Federer has broken and serves at 6-5. Well, never quit, never, never give up. No, it is not Waterloo. But it is Wimbledon.

They both try to up the pace again. Federer hits an ace to go ahead, his 26th, follows it with a perfect drop shot from the baseline, closes out on the next point and takes the set, they are even at 2-2, the match goes to the decider.

For the rest, you can look it up. After that Federer rally from 2-5, you would think the fifth set would have to be anti-climatic, but it was as good as the first four and you felt they both deserved to win but of course that was not possible. Djokovic broke early and stayed ahead and forced the master to take chances that did not work as they had in the fourth set. The Serb stayed steady, the normally unflappable Swiss lost, if only for splits of seconds, his intense attention; a netted smash, the only one, if I err not, of the match, typified those last few games.

It was a beaut, though, worthy of the classics of yore, including the five-setter in Australia between Djokovic and Nadal, longest match in the history of Grand Slam finals, in which the man from Belgrade prevailed, as he did again yesterday, by not blinking or flinching, by never quitting. It was worthy of the great finals between Federer and Nadal and between Federer and Andy Roddick in 2009. Roddick went to the final at Wimbledon three times, could not quite summon that nerve and sinew, To serve your turn long after they are gone, but he is deservedly remembered as a wonderfully good natured, athletic, American player. Federer and Djokovic played radically different games but competed evenly, almost the same number of winners, errors. It was superb.

Tennis was at one time a typical Republican game, country clubs and all that. That milieu still exists and is in fact doing fine, but there is a broader audience for the game. Globalization, democracy, money, entertainment. Conservatives should promote the sport. They should promote soccer as well, pace Miss Coulter, and they should preserve the great national sports, it goes without saying. How? That is the question. It is the question for another time and place.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.