Before telling you about tennis over the past few weeks in North America, take just two minutes to appreciate the site of Roger Federer’s and Serena Williams’s victories on Sunday afternoon.
Cincinnati, for the international readers in the crowd, is an American sports city starving for a professional sports success story.
The Reds are the oldest franchise in the history of America’s national pastime, baseball. Their existence dates back to 1876, as the Red Stockings. For a few years in the 1950s, they were called the “Redlegs” because of the anti-Communist frenzy which swept through the United States at the time. (“Better dead than red” did not sell well for Cincinnati’s baseball team; hence, the brief name change before a restoration of “Reds” in 1960.)
Yet, outside their one triumphant decade in the 1970s, the Reds have made only nine playoff appearances in their long history. Since 1977, they’ve won a playoff series in only two seasons, claiming a 1990 World Series championship and hardly anything else.
Cincinnati’s other major professional sports team is the Bengals of the National (American-Style) Football League. The Bengals have never won an NFL championship in nearly 50 years of existence. In January of 1989, they lost a Super Bowl in the final minute after dropping an interception earlier in the game which would have given them a much more commanding position. (The player who dropped the interception, a man named Lewis Billups, lost control of his life. After spending time in prison following the end of his playing career, he died in a car crash — he was going over 100 miles per hour — at the age of 30.)
The Bengals remained good for a few years after that Super Bowl loss. They won a playoff game in January of 1991… and have not won a single playoff game in the next 24 years. Not one.
Cincinnati is a place where professional sports excellence has remained elusive for a long time. Save for the Reds in the 1970s and the Bengals in the 1980s, generations of sports fans have watched seasons pass, leaves turn, and children grow up… without knowing what it’s like to see winners between the painted white lines of big-ticket professional sports competition.
In the persons of Roger Federer and Serena Williams, Cincinnatans and Ohioans have found a couple of professional athletes they can trust to get the job done.
One doesn’t need to dive into a lengthy explanation about the difficulty of winning Canada and Cincinnati in consecutive weeks. The season is closer to its endpoint than its beginning; the weather is generally punishing — hot, but also humid; and the U.S. Open is just around the corner, meaning that it’s not worth selling out in the desperate pursuit of a Masters (ATP) or Premier 5 (WTA) crown. It’s great if you can get it, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of tennis titles.
It was — and will be — a talking point heading into New York: Will winning Cincinnati be more of a springboard for Federer and Serena, or will losing in a final be the kind of sharpening event men’s runner-up Novak Djokovic and women’s runner-up Simona Halep need in order to be even better in a couple of weeks?
Keep that thought in mind when you process Cincinnati — especially for the ATP — but with that having been said, it’s hard to find enough superlatives for what Federer and Serena achieved over the past week. What, most centrally, did they achieve — at a tournament where it’s notoriously difficult to be the best on a relentlessly annual basis?
1st time both Men and Women champions have defended their titles since Bobby Riggs and Virginia Hollinger did so in 1937/1938. #CincyTennis
— W&S Open (@CincyTennis) August 23, 2015
That’s the kind of professional sports consistency Cincinnati residents very rarely get to see.
Let’s start with Serena, because while Federer took down Novak Djokovic, Serena once again won a tournament without being at her best. In many ways, the trajectory of this tournament (albeit only a week long instead of a fortnight) followed the path Serena carved out in Paris at the French Open. Yes, Serena didn’t lose a steady parade of first sets as she did in France, but before the final, the woman with only two match losses this year played like a person who had lost several more.
Let’s not try to get fancy here or evade the truth: Serena was fortunate she had Ana Ivanovic (and not, say, Victoria Azarenka, a woman whose only luck these days is bad luck — she had to halt her pursuit of a Cincinnati title due to a mid-tournament injury…) on the other side of the net in the quarterfinals. Ivanovic continues to show that she has the shots and physical capabilities of a major contender, but the mental game remains elusive for her.
It’s anything but elusive for Serena, whose hunger for each and every match victory — a hunger matched by her resilience and clarity in must-perform moments — is one of her most special qualities:
I'm in awe of how Serena is hyper invested emotionally in pretty much every match she plays. Fascinating to watch.. but has to be draining.
— Juan José Vallejo (@jjvallejoa) August 23, 2015
Against Ivanovic and also against Elina Svitolina in Saturday’s semifinals, Serena’s game came and went. She played hit-or-miss tennis and swam through multi-game periods of mediocrity. (She’s a lot like Djokovic in that regard, but — in the theme of this piece — it’s hardly the whole story.) Yet, whenever she had to make a stand, Serena planted her two feet solidly on Cincinnati cement and did what she needed to do.
What was striking about the Saturday struggle against Svitolina — straight sets, but still not a cakewalk — is how awful Serena’s second serve became as the match wore on. Serena has not been evasive or mysterious in talking about the elbow problems that have lurked for much of the season, and which played a role in some of her three withdrawals from tournaments in 2015. She’s been rather direct in pointing out that problem.
Her serve has not been an automatic, every-match weapon. It flourished at Wimbledon, but as in France, it was not all that trusty for most of this stay in Cincinnati. Serena had to win with guile and court craft through the semifinals — she’s so much more than a missile-launching server or a cannon-blasting baseliner, and this is the deeper story behind her latest triumph in Ohio.
Serena can defend extremely well. She can hit with an assortment of speeds and angles. She can take pace off the ball to buy herself time in a point, setting up a crosscourt backhand two or three moves down the line. Serena processes tennis at a high level, which gets lost in the smoke left behind by a thunderbolt serve or a crushed groundstroke. This — in addition to her legendary and ever-present competitive presence on court — steered her to the final.
Then, much like the French Open final against Lucie Safarova, Serena played her best tennis of the tournament. In this regard, Serena the shotmaker — more akin to Federer than Djokovic — emerged. She is such an exquisite mix of fighter and performer, of a competitive marvel and an artist who can wave the magic wand in her hand to such great effect.
Simona Halep — who receded into the shadows during the European clay season and at Wimbledon — has obviously found a groove on hardcourts in 2015 after accumulating substantial accomplishments on all surfaces in her breakthrough season of 2014. Halep dismantled Jelena Jankovic in Saturday’s other semifinal, redirecting the ball with the assortment of angles and trajectories seen in her ascendancy last year.
For most of Sunday’s very entertaining and well-played final, the good Halep — the 2014 player who then won Indian Wells and battled Serena through three tough sets in the Miami semifinals this year — showed up. Serena didn’t just have a fight on her hands; the newly-restored No. 2 player in the world was on the other side of the net.
The Saturday version of Serena would have been clocked by Halep, but Serena Jameka Williams is the ultimate closer in tennis, female or male, and this is the heart of the legend’s heaven-kissed 2015 season.
How dependable is Serena as a finisher, when she does get to the final of a tournament? She’s 69-17 all-time in singles finals (a winning percentage of just over 80, registered over the course of 86 matches). The woman who is 21-4 in major singles finals has won her last 15 finals; 22 of 23; and 30 of 32. (Typically, a singles final record should start to deteriorate near one’s 34th birthday, if not much sooner; it’s just the opposite for Serena.) Her last loss in a singles final came in Cincinnati, interestingly enough, as Azarenka outlasted her in a thoroughly captivating match from 2013.
(An interesting side note: Many sporting events become turning points for the winner in a positive way, but in Cincinnati in 2013, Azarenka and the men’s winner, Rafael Nadal, reached hardcourt heights that haven’t been matched since the 2013 U.S. Open, when they both made the finals, and Rafa won another major championship.)
Since that loss to Azarenka two years ago, Serena hasn’t fallen short in a final — in Cincinnati or anywhere else. This marvelously consistent capacity to close the sale in any tournament was once again on display against a determined and highly-ranked opponent who was playing well.
Simona Halep, going up against the greatest tennis player of our time — and very possibly of all time — hit 73 percent of her first serves. She created 11 break-point chances against Serena. She finished with more winners (18) than unforced errors (14) in the face of Serena’s presence, pace and patience. She acquitted herself quite well in this match.
She walked away with zero sets won.
Serena — with those cream-puff double-fault second serves late Saturday — offered the appearance of someone whose weapons might have been losing their potency. Serena did not look worried after that nighttime semifinal, but one still had to wonder if she’d be right for this final.
Those worries — after the now-customary slow start to just about any match she plays — quickly dissipated.
It is as though Serena tries to play the first few games of a match on auto-pilot, hoping the journey will be easy enough to enable her to conserve energy. Yet, as soon as she trails by a 2-0 deficit, Serena virtually always pushes herself into form — at least a level good enough to prevail on the given day against a given opponent.
Versus Svitolina, Serena did what she had to, but that level remained ordinary. Against Halep, Serena found that serve — 15 aces, several service winners, and more thumpers which set up winners or putaways on subsequent shots in a brief exchange. The 12 double faults she committed in her Toronto semifinal loss to Belinda Bencic were reduced to only two against Halep. A cleaner Serena — “Cleanerena” if you want a nickname for her” — shows up in finals, and this was no exception.
Serena also blistered her crosscourt backhand to attain leverage from the baseline. She made sensible net approaches for the most part, pouncing on opportunities when she found them. She did spray the ball for much of the second set, but when a tiebreaker came, she steadied herself, as she regularly does. She made only one unforced error after the first point of the breaker. Halep — knowing Serena could end the point at any moment with a howitzer — was too ambitious on an attempted drop shot at 5-6, and when the shot hit the middle of the net, Serena had defended her Cincinnati title from 2014, 6-3, 7-6 (5).
Serena fought herself (more than anyone else) for most of a tournament but then did her thing in a singles final. What was true in Paris was similarly true in Cincinnati, only on a smaller scale.
Serena, this incredible closer in finals, is also 11-1 when losing first sets of matches this year. She’s a comeback artist; she survives nights when she doesn’t have her best stuff; and she responds to the big stage of a final. What’s more to say?
We’ll find out in New York, where a date with history awaits.
Now, to Federer.
Sure, he didn’t play in Montreal, which kept him fresher for Cincinnati.
Sure, Djokovic played a full week in Montreal, including doubles, so winning Cincinnati was a big ask for him, especially since he did not play a single night match at this tournament. (Night matches are Djokovic’s close friend, and have been for a long time.)
Sure, much as Simona Halep (finalist in Canada and Cincinnati) was in many ways the best player over the past two weeks on the WTA Tour, and both Djokovic and Andy Murray (finalists in Montreal, deep runners in Cincinnati) were more impressive over a multi-week period on the ATP Tour, it’s true that Federer and Serena merely enjoyed one showcase week in the lead-up to the U.S. Open. Winning both Canada and Cincy? THAT is superhuman.
So, we’re not here to deify Federer or make him into anything more than he should be. He didn’t rewrite the laws of physics or cure cancer. Lord knows, a lot of slobbering over Federer is done to the diminishment/exclusion/marginalization of other competitors on the ATP Tour and tennis in general. When the tennis community should be focusing on other players, the pageview-centric reality of modern sports blogging (and blogging in general) still creates a river of Federer-based content. This media-oriented reality doesn’t help the sport of tennis to outgrow the harmful notion that it is rooted in superstars, not the essence of the competition itself.
Yet, there’s more to the story:
For all the longstanding (and legitimate) concerns about too much Federer here and too much Federer there, the man — at 34, long past the point when the vast majority of tennis careers witness their most vital and prosperous moments — is still at the center of the conversation in his sport for reasons based on merit, and not mere media overplay. Once again No. 2 in the world — once again seeded second at the U.S. Open — Federer continues to win tournaments, admiration, wonder, and respect.
This is not an aging athlete playing simply to soak up more waves of applause, bathing in some sweet and sentimental affection all while a descent into competitive irrelevance relentlessly continues. No — Federer is earning applause based on exceptionally good tennis for a man his age.
First of all, Federer never got broken in this tournament.
Also, Murray hasn't had a break point versus Federer since the first game of their Wimbledon semi.
— Matt Kriz (@2ndServeHack) August 22, 2015
Third, see what he did at 3:15 of this video against a noted fireball server in Kevin Anderson:
Fourth, see what he did against Djokovic during the first-set tiebreaker in Sunday’s final — similar to what he did against Anderson, only in a much tighter match with far higher stakes:
Fifth, see what he did just two points after that crazy second-serve return in that same first-set tiebreaker against Djokovic — the unreal stab volley occurs just after the 5:05 mark of this clip:
Let’s put it this way, sports (and tennis) fans:
It does get extremely tiring when commentators and writers wax poetic about Federer, his high art, and his aesthetic ideal, his (blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, white noise, blah, blah) when he’s polishing off a pigeon named Roberto Bautista Agut or Kevin Anderson. Those who are weary in the aftermath of Federer Excess have a point, and they HAVE had a point for the past few years in a post-prime Federer world.
Can we acknowledge that?
I think we can.
HOWEVER… there’s more to the story:
When Federer unsheathes the kind of tennis he did against both Andy Murray (having the second-best year on tour) and Novak Djokovic (having the best year on the ATP Tour, hands down), not even being subject to a single break point against two of the best returners the sport has ever seen in a 24-hour period, he reminds us why so many pundits have ooohed and ahhhed and said so many sweet nothings about him — on the air or in print — for over a decade.
“Federer as the epitome of beauty is overdone,” they say.
They are right most of the time…
… but not in moments such as this.
Roger Federer and Serena Williams don’t need more superlatives from the mouths of broadcasters or the keyboards of bloggers… but what the heck are we supposed to do with our time and our lives when we see what we saw in Cincinnati over the past week?
Cincinnati residents only wish they could have sports teams as situationally reliable as Serena, and as graceful-with-a-purpose as Federer. For each of these children of the year 1981, age is just a number, and slowing down is a foreign concept.
World-class tennis accompanied by championships and continued relevance at the highest levels of the sport? They’re anything but foreign to these two very special athletes, who are giving us many more years of quality than we ever had a right to expect.