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Can You Say "Omen?" 07/07/2012 - 6:51 PM

Picby Pete Bodo

WIMBLEDON, England—The word "omen" is on the lips of countless people throughout Great Britain, because Jonny Marray (sounds like "Murray," sort of) has become the first British male to win a singles or mens' doubles champion at Wimbledon since 1936. And that also happens to be the same year Fred Perry became the last British man to win the singles championship for which Andy Murray will play Roger Federer tomorrow.

Wait. It's even stranger than that.

Marray's partner here was Frederik Nielsen, whose grandfather was the last Danish man in any Grand Slam final, way back in 1955. They won the title today, beating fifth-seeded Robert Lindstedt and Horia Tecau, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 6-3.

And that's not all.

This was the first tour-level tournament Marray and Nielsen have played together, and just their fourth event together (although the two have been friends for some time). And with a career-high singles ranking of No. 215, Marray has been what a journeyman might describe as a wannabe. A 31-year-old from Liverpool, Marray has made one singles final in his career—that in a sub-tour Challenger event. Entering the tournament, he was ranked ninth in Great Britain, not good enough to merit a wild card into the singles draw of Wimbledon.

But this was no fluke win set up by unexpected turns of events, either, Marray and Nielsen upset defending champs and second-seeded Bob and Mike Bryan in the semifinals; Lindstedt and Tecau were in the final for the third year in a row. 

"Jonny Marray is a rock," commentator and former player John Lloyd said late in the fifth set, hard put to suppress the astonishment that had gradually crept into his voice—and remained there until the final point was secured via a sharply angled backhand volley by Nielsen. 

Marray and Nielsen were still stunned when they did the obligatory interview with the BBC immediately after the on-court trophy presentation. "I don't know what to say," Marray said, turning to his partner. "Freddy?"

"Yeah. It's tough to put into words," Nielsen agreed. He later admitted that he experienced waves of goosebumps while realizing his lifetime dream of playing on Centre Court. That's not always conducive to playing your best tennis, but the hand of fate seemed to rest heavily on the underdog's side of the scale once again.

There was a moment of great sportsmanship in the critical third-set tiebreaker when Marray gave up a point his team won because he inadvertently touched the net before the point was over. "Freddy hit a great serve," Marray explained. "As I hit the volley I followed through and touched the net." He paused. "You own up to it, don't you?"

A reporter said, "You don't often see that in professional sports."

"You don't always see us winning Wimbledon in professional sports," Nielsen replied, without missing a beat.

Both men denied thinking about the various historic or even surreal dimensions of what they were accomplishing.

"I was just focusing on trying to perform and play well," Marray admitted. He went on to say he hopes Murray can win tomorrow, too. 

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Zen This! 07/07/2012 - 4:51 PM

201207071119407719306-p2@stats.comby Pete Bodo

WIMBLEDON, England—People turn to all forms of comfort in times of need. For some, it's prayer, for others it's a double bourbon on the rocks. There's the whole Beatles "Let it Be" thing, and let's not forget the healing powers of the four-hour nap. When Serena Williams needs somewhere to turn to get away from whatever woes and cares befall her on a tennis court, we know where she goes—to the ace.

She goes down the pipe with a 120 M.P.H. turf scorcher, or out wide with a swinging 108 M.P.H. slice. She goes after it at 15-40, or 30-all. Today, just when Agnieszka Radwanska's comeback from a humiliating start seemed on the cusp of morphing into a remarkable upset, Serena sought comfort in her serve and found it against the zen princess of the WTA.

Trailing 1-2 in the third set, Serena toed the baseline and popped aces like a Pez dispenser, landing four—Bang!, Whap!, Smack!, Wham!—to hold the game without Radwanska taking a cut, never mind making contact with strings (preferable) or frame. Later, a reporter was foolish enough to ask if that was the first time Serena had fired off four straight aces in a game. She fixed him with a look and then said, "I do that all the time now. I did it in Madrid. I think I did it earlier in this tournament. That's my latest and greatest thing to do, is hitting four aces in a game. It's awesome."

Radwanska would have to agree, if not with the same degree of enthusiasm. After that four-of-a-kind game, the world No. 3 was broken from 30-all as Serena clubbed a hybrid smash/volley winner, and then punched out a service return that Radwanska could barely reach, but not put back into play.

That proved the key break of the match, although Serena would go on to add an insurance break with a beautifully disguised forehand drop shot when everyone in the stadium—including Radwanska—was expecting her to take a great big swing at a forehand. That deft move reminded everyone that just because you can crank out aces doesn't mean you have hands of stone—and it brought Serena one game closer to the final score, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2.

"No one hits more dropshots than me in practice," she explained. "I'm shocked I don't hit more in a match. Every other shot for me is a dropshot. Today when I hit (that shot), I didn't even think about it like, 'I'm going to hit a dropshot.' I thought she was going to run it down, but she didn't and I was so happy."

Still, it was those aces that added up to a turning point, as well as a symbolic punctuation mark of the tournament in which Serena served up a record number of them, 102—the last 17 coming today. Radwanska may traffic in question marks, but Serena is all about exclamation points.

Yet popular notion that this was a mismatch, and that Radwanska's serve would constitute easy pickin's for Serena, while the latter's serve would keep the threat of the Pole's ball striking at bay, was not entirely accurate. As Wojtek Fibak, the greatest player yet produced by Poland, said when I saw him shortly after the match, "Agnieszka is a genius; I saw it the first time I watched her play, about five years ago. She can put the ball anywhere on the court without even seeming to swing at it."

At the start today, Radwanska might have been happy to put the ball anywhere on the court, albeit not in the way Fibak meant. It was her first Grand Slam final, and she was in against a four-time Wimbledon champion. The weather was by turns sunny and overcast, chilly and blustery. The cold Radwanska has been fighting was one thing, the serve and intimidating presence of Serena quite another. If Radwanska had an extra set of hands, they too would have been full.

Error-prone and hesitant, Radwanska quickly fell behind 0-5 and managed to survive two set points, finally holding a game with a 100 M.P.H. ace. It was greeted with a burst of applause and, soon thereafter, spitting rain. When Serena easily served out the set, the grounds crews pulled out the tarps and covered the courts for a rain delay lasting almost half an hour.

The break proved a boon to Radwansa, who would say: "Well first of all, I was a little bit nervous in the beginning, especially being in my first final. I think I just wanted too much a little bit. I think the break was better for me just to cool down a little bit. When I was going on the court the second time, I just felt like a normal match. Didn't seem like a final anymore, so there was not that much pressure. But then I was just trying to do everything, you know, to play good tennis."

Radwanska may not (yet) be the best or most highly-ranked woman in the WTA, but she must be the most interesting. Her timing, as Fibak said, is almost preternatural—her swing is so slow that half the time you're surprised the ball pops back out from her racquet. There's something zen-like about the leisurely, almost lazy way she moves and how very little emotion she shows under the brim of that white visor, or in her body language in general. The emotion she expresses best, but even then in small doses, is disgust. When she flubs an easy return, she's likely to fling her arms in the air, but quickly gets back to the business at hand.

Radwanska also has a great talent for using the pace of an incoming shot against her opponent, which is the trademark of superb timing. For someone who looks almost frail, Radwanska is surprisingly athletic. And what about those familiar squat shots, hit as if she's actually decided to sit down on the court and, well, to heck with all the rest? It's more like a party trick than a weapon, but it's surprising how often it gets the job done.

That certainly was the case in the second set, when all of these uncommon qualities once again served to mesmerize an opponent. Serena knew that she didn't need to rush things, that Radwanska had little with which to hurt her. But poor tennis is often about hurting yourself, and Radwanska knows how to goad opponents into mistakes borne of sheer impatience and/or frustration. Serena experienced both of those negative emotions in the second set.

"I just got too anxious and I shouldn't have been so anxious," Serena said of the middle period of the match, during which Radwanska gave up an early break, but then suddenly found her precise game and ended up overcoming a 2-4 deficit to break twice in Williams' last three service games, the last time for the set. "There was no reason in particular. I just think that I was, you know, playing aggressive a little more than the first set. Then I have to give credit where credit's due. She started playing really, really well. She started playing excellent grass court tennis, getting a lot of balls back, and I panicked a little bit and I shouldn't have. I usually don't."

It takes a lot to make Serena panic, but then the ability to serve aces is a potent tonic. As a result, Serena now has 14 Grand Slam titles, including five Wimbledons—the same number as her sister Venus. Together, the Williams girls have won 10 of the last 13 Wimbledon Championships.

Pundits have spent many words and devoted a lot of time to celebrating the unique place the Williams sisters already occupy in the pantheon of sports, as well as delving into the murky psychology of having to meet your own flesh and blood in one-on-one combat. Or they did when those Venus versus Serena finals were a regular feature of the tour. What seems to have gone missing, though, is a good stong sense of the way the sisters might have benefited from the inspiration each one provides the other. Would Serena have five Wimbledon titles and 14 majors were she an only child?

"I don't know what I would have if Venus didn't exist," she said. "I don't even know if I would own a Grand Slam title or if I would play tennis, because we do everything together. Growing up I copied Venus, everything she did. She was a real big influence for me. So when she started winning, I wanted it so bad. When she became No. 1, I had to be No. 1. I had to work harder. I had to do everything in my power to get there. I have no idea what would happen if she wasn't around." 

This latest title moves Serena to within four major titles of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, and only one Open-era player has more—Steffi Graf. Serena is 30 years old now, but as Sue Barker said during the Centre Court interview immediately after the match, "Thirty is the new 20 in women's tennis"—to which Serena responded, "Well, yeah. Hell-ooooh."

She elaborated later on: "I have never felt better. This whole tournament I have pretty much been injury‑free. I played so much. Normally I play two events, but this one was different because I played every day, two matches a day for a while. I haven't done that in a long time, and I felt great."

Feeling good hasn't always come easily to Serena since a somewhat bizarre and then life-threatening series of mostly unrelated events began shortly after she won here in 2010. She's essentially been a part-time player in the interim, hard-pressed to get healthy and in the flow of tournament play. There was a point while she was recovering from a potentially lethal pulmonary embolism when, she recalled, she didn't move from her couch for two days.

"I was praying, like I can't take any more. I've endured enough. Let me be able to get through this. I didn't give up. I was just so tired at that point. I had a tube in my stomach and it was draining constantly. Gosh, I mean, right before that I had the blood clot. I had lung problems. You know, then (earlier) I had two foot surgeries. It was a lot. It was a lot. I felt like I didn't do anything to bring on that. I felt like, uhm, I just felt down, the lowest of lows."

Today, having endured those lowest of lows also enabled her to fully savor the highest of highs. It was time to celebrate with—what else—the most exuberant shot in tennis, the ace, the one that most definitively says, "Here I am!" 

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Your Cup of Tea, Day 12 07/07/2012 - 8:31 AM

Picby Pete Bodo

WIMBLEDON, England—Mornin'. The women's final is almost upon us, and I'm probably one of the few people here in the press room who isn't prepared to hand Serena Williams the title and fast forward to the Andy Murray vs. Roger Federer men's final. There's no doubt that the planets seem aligned for a beatdown; something like Serena pounding out 32 aces in a 6-1, 6-0 rout. But when you live by the sword you die by the sword. And if Serena's serve deserts her, things could get interesting and even ugly.

PicI say "ugly" because one of the major factors in play here will be the fact that this is Agnieszka Radwanska's first Grand Slam final. And nobody knows how someone else is going to react to that loaded privilege. Some freeze up, others shed the pressure like ducks shed water. So put yourself in Radwanska's shoes in the best case scenario: She's on Centre Court and, contrary to all logic and punditry, in a position to beat Serena Williams. Will she have what it takes to get the job done? I keep thinking back to that narrow escape Serena had Jie Zheng in the third round, the one that ended 9-7 in the third. Serena has cleaned her game up since then, but each day is a new one.

Let's look at some of their tournament numbers; Serena has the edge in the italicized entries, Aga in the bold-faced ones:

Aces: Serena, 85 (four shy of the Wimbledon record she established in 2010); Aga, 14

First-serve points won: Serena, 80%; Aga, 68%

Second-serve points won: Serena, 62%; Aga, 52%

Service games won/lost: Serena, 66-6; Aga, 49-10

First serve conversion percentage: Aga, 74%; Serena, 65%

Fastest serve (first & second): Serena, 120 & 102 M.P.H.; Aga, 106 & 89 M.P.H.

Returns in: Aga 84%; Serena, 73%

Winners (including serve): Serena, 207; Aga, 109

Break points won: Aga, 29 of 56; Serena, 19 of 38

Unforced errors (forehand, backhand, total): Aga, 25-25-56; Serena, 38-36-81

Forced errors (F,B,T): Aga, 62-48-115; Serena, 80-92-175

Total net points won: Aga, 69 of 104; Serena, 60 of 69

Alright. Numbers can be deceptive, and match-ups matter. But you can see from these statistics that Serena dominates Aga most in serve-related categories. If it isn't a blowout, this one could be a lot closer than many people expect.

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One for the Hill People 07/06/2012 - 5:37 PM

Picby Pete Bodo

WIMBLEDON, England—It was a scene you'd be more likely to find after the hottest rock-and-roll band on the planet had just finished a killer show, except it was hearts that were ringing, not ears. An hour after Andy Murray had booked his spot in the Wimbledon final opposite Roger Federer—the first time a British man had achieved the final of his native championship in 74 years—hundreds of fans on Henman Hill still stood around under the giant television screen that was no longer the technicolor monolith painting out the realization of their dreams. Did they really just see what they. . . saw?

Some of them were talking. Others were drinking (this was Henman Hill, you know, where such things do happen). Still others were doing nothing, just standing there feeling happy in a goofy kind of way for which there was no explanation. It's been torture with Murray, just as it was with the eponymous Tim Henman, and the person who articulated it best yesterday was Roger Federer. "Let's be happy that he's such a great player that he makes that sort of hype last," Federer mused. "He always remains in the tournament for so long. I think that's what's particular about it."

Andy Murray was finally in the Wimbledon final. Irrevocably, too.

It was a victory for Henman Hill habitues, because that's where the least inhibited and perhaps most passionate (as well as most broke) seekers for the annual miracle gather in a ritual during which gradually rising hopes come to a crescendo and very soon thereafter end in. . .despair. As Federer pointed out, it wouldn't be half so bad if Murray were less predictably competitive.

But there was no despair this time. Andy Murray is in a Wimbledon final. Finally. And it wasn't easy, not least because nothing with Murray is. The final point of the match was a wonderful illustration of what you might call the Murray gestalt. 

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga cracked a whopper of a serve to Murray's forehand. The wiry Scot returned the favor with a stupendous forehand return, cross-court. The Centre Court crowd as well as the Henman Hill hearties rose as one, arms flung high, their squeals and roars blending into the same sound as a load of coal avalanching down a metal chute. 


The umpire did not say, "Game, set and match." Murray was confused. At first, he thought maybe Tsonga challenged a call, but it was the linesman's doing. The ball had been called out. The umpire told Murray and noted that he had chosen not to overrule. Gulp.

Now it was up to Murray to challenge, which he did. By then, Tsonga was up at the net, grinning at Murray. The Frenchman later reprised the dialogue.

"How was it?" Murray asked.

"I think it's wide. But maybe on the line or not, I don't know."

Very helpful, Mr. Tsonga.

Thankfully for Murray, though, the electronic line-calling system proved the ball good. The price paid to develop and implement this system, originally called Hawkeye, can now officially be said to have been a worthwhile investment, or so anyone in the UK would posit. Given Murray's history, who knows what might have happened were the original call left to stand?

After all, this was another of those matches in which Murray's moth-to-flame relationship with success was on display. He played a terrific two sets, but almost lost the plot and nearly found himself in the same situation Roger Federer did a year ago in the quarterfinals against the same opponent. Tsonga came back on that occasion from two sets down to win. The less confident British pundits and fans were getting an awful feeling in the pit of their stomachs.

"In the beginning, he didn't give me one chance, not one chance to go to the net," Tsonga said after Murray won it, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. "He didn't miss one serve. He was really, really good."

In reality, though, Murray's subsequent decline could hardly be called precipitous; it's hard to fault him for the way Tsonga got back into the match in the third set. Murray facilitated the process by allowing Tsonga to break him in the second game, but a letdown was inevitable, and always better at the start of a set than the end. Later, Murray's most egregious shortcoming was failing to hold onto a 3-1 lead in the fourth set. That seemed especially ominous when Murray failed to convert either of two break points with Tsonga serving, 3-4.

But Tsonga played two magnificent points, and in the long run the extra few games aren't likely to make much difference on Sunday. But Tsonga did remark: "It's going to be tough for Andy because he need to recover from the last match and this match against me. He looked pretty tired at the end, so I don't know how he will be physically."

Said Murray, "Well, I played one bad game, and then after that I thought I played well (again)," referring to the third set. "I had a lot of games where I was giving myself chances. All of his service games I was getting 30‑All, Love‑30, had some breakpoints here and there. He played some great points. Obviously let him back into it a little bit. He started playing better and he started serving very well on the big points."

But on this day, Murray kept the drama manageable, and he's entitled to go into the final feeling no pressure, and hoping that Federer will be spent emotionally, perhaps come up a little flat. Murray has made a point of explaining that he doesn't really think all that much about the so-called "pressure" in his situation—the first British man to contest a Wimbledon final since Bunny Austin in 1938.

"I've been trying to explain you don't really think about it that much," he said. "But I think like subconsciously. . . at the end of the match it was obviously very emotional. Haven't really been like that before in a semifinal match, so obviously it meant something to me and it was very, very important. And, yeah, there is obviously a lot of pressure and stress around this time of year. (But) I don't, like, feel it like when I'm on the practice court on when I'm just kind of walking around. I try not to think about that stuff, but in the back of my mind it's obviously there."

It's been there in the minds of the people of the Hill, too. And it will be there again on Sunday.

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Swiss Steel 07/06/2012 - 2:47 PM

Picby Pete Bodo

WIMBLEDON, England—He stepped up to the service notch that has come to look more like a threadbare carpet than the most hallowed piece of turf in tennis, and the applause cascaded down all around him, mixed with cries of encouragement and exhortations that had a hint of desperation and urgency—that's how badly so many of the spectators wanted him to win it.

Roger Federer, who hasn't won a Grand Slam event in over two years and who, some said, was no longer capable of maintaining the pace set by Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, was serving for the match against the top-ranked Serb.

Federer would not acknowledge the crowd nor milk the moment. He wouldn't even look up, and his facial expression gave away absolutely nothing. There had no time for the ovewrought now. He looked serious, almost to the point of seeming sour, treading that very fine line between pride and hubris. Imagine a thought bubble over his head; might have been thinking, "I don't need this, not yet. I'm not that old, not that over the hill, not that needful of being carried across the finish line on a wave of sentiment, like some broken down old piker. . ."

A hush fell over the Centre Court as he lined up to serve, head down and fully focused. It was a shot that had served him well, if never quite as obviously as in the blazing first set, in which he converted 75 percent of his first deliveries. Federer would fail to make a first serve until his last serve in this game, but it would turn out not to matter all that much, for the tug of victory by then was as inevitable as the surge of the tide. Some place in his brave and proud heart, Djokovic already knew that he was beaten. Was the defending champ aware that this was the six-time champion's crowd, the minions he earned with his history and impeccable conduct here for so many years? The six-time champion's time?

"To be honest, you know, I thought about this match, really," Djokovic would say when he contemplated those questions after a Federer service winner drove the final nail into the 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 win. "Obviously the last two days I was really focused on performing well today and trying to get a win. . . I mean, of course I do have a respect for Roger and everything he has done." He added a little later, "I do regret that I didn't play as well as I thought I would, and as well as I played maybe last couple matches. You know, life goes on. This is sport. I have to move on."

Djokovic may not have been thinking about the metaphysics of it all, but those factors certainly shaped the tone of the match and perhaps played a role in the outcome. It's one way to explain at least partly why the customary fire and passion we've come to expect from Djokovic seemed to drain out of his game by the end of the third set—usually a time when Djokovic takes a deep breath, rolls up his proverbial sleeves, and begins sledge-hammering those groundstrokes as he gets down to the really fun part of his job. Not today.

After the match, Djokovic also alluded to feeling "not so great" and having "a bad couple of days," but he would say no more about that. It certainly wasn't the best time to rain on Federer's parade, not when the floats and marching bands and drill teams had been lined up and waiting for so long.

This was the first meeting of these two men on grass, which had to plant a seed of caution if not outright doubt in the mind of Djokovic. Remember, it's not like Djokovic has been ripping through Federer in Grand Slam events with quite the same gusto that he brought to his clashes with the other member of the Big Three, Nadal. Djokovic had won their last Grand Slam meeting in straight sets (at the French Open), but Federer had two match points in the penultimate one (at the 2011 U.S. Open). Djokovic had good reason to wonder what lay in store when he awoke this morning.

The answer to that question crystalized early in the match, as Federer rode that deceptively effortless serve to a dazzling first set win in all of 24 minutes. If you stop to consider that in one of those Djokovic-Nadal dust-ups that have so dominated recent headlines, that's about the length of time consumed by, oh, three routine hold games. You could hardly  blame Djokovic for allowing his equilibrium to get upset. To paraphrase Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, "Djoko, I have a funny feeling we're not in Paris anymore."

Federer on grass. The lethality is easily taken for granted. 

Djokovic found his game in the second set, though, partly because he found his serve and laid into Federer expertly with those flat backhands and punishing forehands. But the rallies slowly habituated Federer to Djokovic's pace and weight of shot—this "first meeting" business cuts both ways—and by the middle of the third set he was acclimated and sufficiently adjusted. Federer finally broke Djokovic leading 5-4; the top seed mistimed a smash and banged the ball beyond the baseline to go down 0-40, and the Swiss converted his second set point with a surprise attack and a winning overhead.

Djokovic summed up his growing problem neatly later, saying, "I think what I did bad and wrong today was my first shot after the serve. You know, I missed a lot of those, I didn't move as fast as I was supposed to, and I didn't, you know, get on the ball. So, you know, if you play the first shot defensively, then you are on your back foot and you have very little chance to win the point."

That sudden, set-ending break was like jet fuel for Federer. As much as he relies on artistry and fluidity, his great allies in the fourth set were power and finality. His game was no longer a thing of beauty, the feature which everyone has celebrated for so long. It was all deadly weapon, a rose turned to steel, sharpened to a fine point and honed to a razor edge. Federer took command of that fourth set. He knocked off his first service game with a pair of service winners and broke immediately, forcing a rally to conclude with a Djokovic down-the-line error. The blade found its mark. 

In the blink of an eye, it was 3-0 for Federer in the fourth, and obvious that a Djokovic fightback would have to be one of historic proportions. It wasn't just the nature of the competitor but the nature of the match that made it so. As Federer said later:

"I think the surface obviously does make our match quite different, to be quite honest. We barely had rallies in the first couple of sets, which was surprising for me to see, as well. We did a lot of first‑strike tennis; a lot of service winners out there. That obviously changes momentum of the match. Doesn't make it maybe as physical. It's more explosive. Maybe a touch unpredictable."

He returned to the theme a little later, explaining: "We didn't have that many long rallies in the first couple of sets. It's always hard to find rhythm maybe, let's be honest. I mean, it's hard to fire bullets the whole time (on grass), so you try to also find some range. If he tees off first, it's hard to defend obviously. It is grass, after all. It's just not as easy to take that many balls out and come up with amazing shots time and time again. That's why I kept on attacking."

The roof on Centre Court was closed (it would be opened later for the second semifinal), providing the best indoor player in the world with something like indoor conditions. Most agree that the humidity and still air when the roof is closed makes the game faster. More explosive. A touch unpredictable.

Asked about that, Federer said, "I spoke about it with my coaches. I asked them. 'Is it better for me or not?' Nobody knew." He paused to smile. "I mean, now I guess it was. Who knows?"

Who knows, or cares. Federer himself was already thinking ahead to Sunday's final, and I don't mean he was visualizing the stroll on the red carpet to meet the Duke and Duchess of Kent. He doesn't plan to let the emotions unleashed by this win distract him from one last remaining task. "I'm aware that the tournament's not over yet," he told us. "I didn't break down crying and fell to my knees and thought the tournament is over and I achieved everything I ever wanted."

Everyone, including Federer laughed. The touch of sarcasm in his voice was unusual and ominous for the man he'll play on Sunday, Andy Murray. But as a light moment, it was right up there with the way an elastic smile transformed Federer's face after he won that final game today and stood by his chair, his pride satisfied, allowing himself to drink in the sentiment which he no longer needed to reject in order to complete the task he set himself. The guy is no piker.


FedererFinalFor more on Federer and his history at Wimbledon, check out my new e-book, Roger Federer: the Man, the Matches, the Rivals. It's a tribute to Federer and a collection of observations gleaned from covering him and through the golden era of his career.

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Your Cup of Tea, Day 11 07/06/2012 - 7:58 AM

Picby Pete Bodo

WIMBLEDON, England—The roof over Centre Court has really proved its worth these past two weeks; as bleak as the weather outlook is on this semifinal day, the tournament is guaranteed to finish on time, with a proper Saturday (women's) and Sunday (men's) final. I had hoped to catch some of the action in the boys' and girls' (18-and-under) events today, but it looks like a rainout.

One of the real pleasures here, and at every major, is flopping down by some outside court to see someone who's an absolute stranger to you, unlike the Roger Federers and Serena Williamses of this world, but who could go on to become the next. . . Federer or Williams.

The big news from the flourishing tennis nursery is that Canada, American's hat, has three youngsters still in contention—two girls (Francoise Abanda and Eugenie Bouchard) and a boy (Filip Peliwo). Peliwo is of Polish descent, which adds another interesting vein of Polish influence to the ones already running through the game via the Radwanska sisters and Caroline Wozniacki (among others). But Peliwo is Canadian-born (Vancouver) and lives in Montreal, where he trains under the wing of his national federation. He's been ranked as high as No. 4 on the ITF junior circuit, and is working on a junior runner-up Grand Slam, having been to the singles final at the Australian and French Opens. Could it be that within just a few years the USA will be described as Canada's shorts? Or tube sock?

The ITF publishes a junior media guide, which is far less glossy than the main tour ones and admittedly a little short on the history of the kids for the obvious reason: They have no history to speak of. But it's a brave effort to create a record, not to mention help out habitues of the press room who may be desperate to find a story—any story.

Flipping through the guide, I had to smile at the brief "additional information" bits meant to shed some light on the personality and interests of each player. "Ambition in tennis" is one component. If the individual replies are reliable predictors, hang onto your hats because we're in for a wild ride. Every one of these 120-odd kids is going to be no. 1!

But I couldn't help note that the ambition of Luke Saville, the Australian junior whose record thus far makes him the most likely to become No. 1 when he moves on to the pros, is considerably more modest. He wants to play for Australia, which means Davis Cup and Olympics. There's a potential true-blue Aussie battler for you.

Under hobbies, the interests of the juniors are as tepid a those of most pros, which is partly a testament to the demands of the game and the way of life it imposes on players, even at a young age. Apparently, lots of these kids enjoy "hanging out with friends" and other avocations that require little skill, like "listening to music" and reading (I presume they also like walking around and breathing). The outstanding exception is video gaming, which does require some skill as well as a high threshhold for really, really irritating, repetitive musical themes.

My great find and favorite, though, is an American girl, Kyle McPhillips. Regrettably, Kyle went down in the second round to No. 6 seed Katerina Siniakova of the Czech Republic, who likes music and reading, lists Maria Sharapova as her favorite player, and whose somewhat more modest ambition is to be "Top 5 in the world."

McPhillips is from Willoughby, Ohio, and her combined (singles and doubles) ranking has dropped from a career high of No. 11 to a current No. 30. Let's get right to the complete personal data:

Hobbies: Bungee jumping with Sean, parasailing, dancing

Favorite player: Sean McPhillips

Ambition in tennis: To beat Sean 

I'm guessing that Sean is Kyle's brother, but wouldn't it be cool if he were her grandpa? Whatever the case, Kyle appears to be a real live wire. Good luck to her.

Let's cut right to the chase on today's men's semifinals:

Most Interesting: Andy Murray (No. 4) vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (No. 5) is the match of the day, given the British narrative. Somehow, I find it hard to imagine that the generous, life-loving Tsonga has it in him to break the collective heart of the UK. Murray gave a great interview to the British press after his workout yesterday (if anyone has a link that can get other readers behind the pay wall at the Times, please post it below), in which he said, among other things, that as much this win means for Brits, he wants to win it first and foremost for himself. I think he'll come through.

FedererFinalUpset Special
: Roger Federer (No. 3) vs. Novak Djokovic (No. 1) is the selection here, going on the theory that Federer, quickly closing on age 31, still has at least one Grand Slam left in his golden right arm. Federer still leads their head-to-head 14-12, and the two have never met on a grass court. While Djokovic won their last Grand Slam meeting (at Roland Garros a few weeks ago), Federer knocked Djokovic out of the semis in the same event last year, and he had two match points on Djokovic when they clashed in the U.S. Open semifinals about eight months ago. The stars seem aligned for a potential upset of the defending champion by the six-time winner here, whose best chance to add No. 17 to his Grand Slam title count is right here, right now. For more on Federer's illustrous history at Wimbledon and elsewhere, check out my newly published e-book, which is a tribute to the "maestro" and trip through Federer's golden years.

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Can't Touch This 07/05/2012 - 2:16 PM

Picby Pete Bodo

WIMBLEDON, England—Victoria Azarenka had just completed a big hold, fending off two break points to stall a potential rout and maintain her slim, second-set lead (4-3) over Serena Williams. Taking her turn at the service notch in the next game, Serena hammered down a monstrous ace.

Gingerly taking three of those familiar, curious baby steps, she passed to the other side of the notch and did it all over again. The crowd reaction was sparse and ragged; but if you want people to explode out of their seats on your behalf, you'd better give them a little time, and a little something to actually make them swivel their eyes side-to-side.

Serena hit a fault. She turned to a ballboy and gestured for another ball, then used the face of her racquet to dribble it, side-to-side. Suddenly the ball got away from her and ran quickly toward the back of the court. Which is probably exactly what you would have done, were you an otherwise cheery, rotund yellow Slazenger, subject to the punishment inflicted on your kind by Serena.

For the record, Serena's next serve was not an ace. It was something like the exception that proves the rule on a day when she whacked 24 of them—one more than her previous high, which was a Wimbledon record she set earlier this fortnight—and tickled the radar gun up to 120 M.P.H., a full 15 M.P.H. faster than her opponent was able to squeeze out of her own arm. Thus, it was a tribute to Azarenka that she actually made a match of this semifinal on an unexpectedly bright day on Centre Court. Serena would go on to win the match, 6-3, 7-6 (6), but not before Azarenka gamely mounted a high-quality comeback and almost managed to push this semifinal to a third set. 

Perhaps because her serving prowess was evident from the start (Serena fired an ace in her first game and three more in the second), the rest of her game was in sleep mode at the onset. But she snapped to life in the sixth game, when it became clear that she'd have to do something about Azarenka's service games, too. From 30-40 down, Serena drove a booming backhand winner down the line, but got burned when she attacked the net during a rally, only to see an Azarenka backhand passing shot whistle by her. A fierce cross-court forehand winner got Serena back to deuce, but Azarenka saved the game.

Not so fast, Serena, Madame Whooooo seemed to be saying. And in truth, it's hard to imagine anyone who could not match Serena's 73 percent success rate on service points fighting as successful a guerrilla war as Azarenka did. She turned in a textbook example of hanging tough, which takes pluck and skill when your fate isn't entirely in your own hands. Azarenka had nearly the first-serve conversion rate as Serena, 72 percent, but produced just one ace.

Once Serena took a keen interest in breaking serve, it didn't take her long to bust through. The key game of the first set—on serve, leading 4-3—started inauspiciously for Serena; she took a tumble as she galloped toward the net. Although she rose slowly, she hit back hard—a big, looping swing launched a forehand cross-court winner got her to break point. She then ran down two sharp, cross-court backhands, the latter via two-handed Azarenka volley, and punched out a down-the-line passing shot for the break and a 5-3 lead. She held with ease for the set, thanks to two aces and a pair of mere service winners.

Madame Whoooooo had been making plenty of noise during the match, while Serena was once again wrapped in a cocoon of silence, in that fugue state players seek and describe in less highfalutin terms as "being in the moment" or "taking it one point at a time." But when Serena served her way out of a tight spot in the second game and broke for a 2-1 lead, her "Come on!" reverberated through the Centre Court. She would get louder as the match got tenser.

After another easy hold by Serena, Azarenka pushed her game to higher ground. She held, and broke for 3-all in a game where two aces weren't sufficient insurance for Serena. The key was an elevated sense of purpose and pace in Azarenka's already dangerous game. She began to move the ball really well, and relatively flat—a formula that had Serena chasing balls as if she were having to do it in a tunnel with a four-foot ceiling. Time and again, Serena had to wrench back two-handed backhands with her backside—unmistakable thanks to those purple bloomers—at greater altitude than her head. It was good stuff.

"I was looking too far into the future, and I can't do that," Serena said of that period, quickly adding that she wasn't thinking about the final as much as the latter part of the set.

As if the Serena juju were rubbing off on Azaerenka, the recently deposed No. 1 began to get a little more pace and sting on her own serve. At 3-3, Serena created a break point with an aggressive service return that Azarenka drove into the net, but a service winner to the backhand saved the game. Serena had another break point, but she made a forehand error to return to deuce, after which Azarenka forced a service return error and knocked off a service winner to stay out in front, 4-3.

The quality of play at both ends was excellent during the next few games, and the way both women were serving, a tiebreaker was inevitable. When it arrived, there wasn't a mini-break until the 13th point, even though Serena had a match point at 6-5, but wasted it with a nervy but ill-advised drop shot/lob combination.

Azarenka was the one who finally succumbed to the pressure, at 6-all. She drove a backhand into the net off a Serena service return. There really was only one appropriate ending to this match, and Serena delivered it with—what else?—an ace. The Wimbledon record for most aces in a women's tournament is 89; Serena, who has 85, seems destined to break it when she meets Agnieszka Radwanska for the title on Saturday.

Looking forward to the final, Serena told the BBC: "Radwanska. . . she's doing unbelievable, Wow. She's gonna get every ball back."

I wouldn't bet on it.

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Your Cup of Tea, Day 10 07/05/2012 - 8:19 AM

Picby Pete Bodo

WIMBLEDON, England—Good mornin', everyone. I took a quick look at your comments this morning and noticed that quite a few people took exception to my suggestion that Andy Murray tapped into a use of the phrase, "common, self-sabotaging British sense of fundamental unworthiness." I didn't feel that, given the context and the recent history of British tennis, I would be accused of hurling a vile slur at an entire peoples, but there you go. I sometimes forget how literally some read, how important it is to be as clear as possible (although in this specific case I plead innocent), and also how quick some are to take offense.

Besides, the idea that I would hold such a simplistic and condescending stereotype is a little disappointing, but you learn to roll with things like that when you write in a forum like this. Over time, I've come to embrace this truism: The more secure you are, the less apt you will be snap into a defensive posture. I am sometimes dismayed by the number of ROTs (Rapid Offense Takers) there are out there, but maybe the anonymity of the Internet encourages that. This dovetails a little bit with a topic from the other day, the "quality" of the questions asked by the press (it was triggered by my Miss Impatience post).

Like this website, the media center is filled with an amazing variety of people, not all of them brilliant, not all of them cynics, not all of them dewy-eyed fans nor serviceable amateur psychologists. Now if you read the comments here at TW at all, I'm sure you run across plenty that make you wince, or marvel at how (fill in the blank with: stupid, arrogant, aggressive, conceited, bigoted, or just plain stupid) some of your fellow travelers are. It's the same in the media. Not everyone laboring in these trenches is as perceptive as a Steve Tignor, as knowledgeable as a Tom Perrotta, or as diplomatic as a Chris Clarey.

There's more to this issue, and it will be worth a full post one day (for example, some of the most interesting things said in a presser are often in response to really off the wall or irritating questions). But we have a couple of women's semifinals to look at, so here goes:

Match most likely to short-circuit the electronic scoreboard: Nuria Llagostera Vives and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez (is there a Spanish player out there with, perhaps, a string of five names?) vs. Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone. Why am I writing about doubles, except to try to get a cheap laugh? Because of the Olympic Games coming up—and because the color of the gold medal is the same in singles as in doubles—so the doubles competition here is both more intense and meaningful than is sometimes the case. And the pairings are suddenly heavily skewed to national teams. To that end, this is like a giant Fed Cup/Davis Cup tournament.

Also: Starting today, all the marquee main-draw singles matches will be on Centre Court, yet Wimbledon thinks nothing of selling No. 1 Court tickets, and those seated there seem not to mind the all-doubles menu. First on today, No. 2-seeded Bob and Mike Bryan meet Scott Lipsky and Rajeev Ram. The third doubles features Kazakhs Mikhail Kukushkin and Yaroslava Shvedova against Paul Hanley of Australia and Alla Kurdyavtseva of Russia. I guess neither of them have been nominated for Olympics duty.

Match of the day: Undoubtedly, it's No. 6 seed Serena Williams' clash with No. 2 seed Victoria Azarenka. Sorry, but i just don't have the guts to call this my upset special, despite the seeding order. It's too much of a "gimme." A win by Azarenka today would vault her back to the Nno. 1 ranking, but the 1-7 head-to-head with Serena also makes a mockery of the seedings. While Azarenka is the only semifinalist who hasn't dropped a set at this tournament, I think she'll drop two soon after match-hardened and suddenly calm Serena starts raining down the aces and draws a bead on Madame Whooooo's serve with the hellish return. 

Upset special: Angelique Kerber (No. 8) vs. Agnieszka Radwanska (No. 3) is a premium match-up; the women are 2-2 (no meetings on grass), and the last two meetings were three-setters. Based on ranking, Radwanska is a clear favorite, and she's had a better year. Yet Kerber has won more matches this year (45) than any other WTA player. This is also the connoisseur's special, because of the grass surface. Both women are excellent movers, and if Kerber gets the nod in the power department, the guile of Radwanska could be a big factor on a surface that produces a very low bounce to lightly struck balls.


Federer3a (Mobile)And if you want to bone up on Roger Federer, let me be presumptuous to reccomend my new e-book (which can be downloaded to your computer), Roger Federer: the Man, the Matches, the Rivals

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Inadequately Heartbreaking 07/04/2012 - 6:21 PM

Picby Pete Bodo

WIMBLEDON, England—The ace was just one in a barrage that had been growing more intense as the match went on, but this was the final one, at match point, and even without the acoustic enhancement provided when the roof of Centre Court is closed, you could the hear it come off Andy Murray's racquet with the crack of a shot from a high-powered rifle.

By the time the ball whistled past David Ferrer, who didn't even have the time to wave at it, the winner's arms were flung high in the air in triumph—and so were those of thousands of his fans in the stadium, in such a seemingly synchronized moment that it might have been orchestrated.

It was a vivid testament to the extent to which the British crowd, on Centre Court, on Henman Hill, in living rooms all across the UK, are as of one with Murray. They have yoked their fortunes to his, at least for the span of this fortnight. They live with him and die with him. If you are a British tennis fan you trust Murray with your heart, and the thing about Murray is, what he's most inclined to do with it is juggle, which he certainly did throughout his 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6), 6-4, 7-6 (4) quarterfinal victory.

It can be tough to be an Andy Murray fan. He doesn't have a blond braid flopping around between his shoulder blades, nor does he shriek like a woman giving birth when he hits the ball. But given his unique role at this tournament, he ranks as the best drama queen of them all. Forget the way he clutches at his back, berates himself bitterly and often, or rises from a slip or inconsequential fall as slowly as a man who's been gut shot. Even those ankle braces he wears suggest infirmity, and increasingly the bald spot growing on the back of his head does too. It's as if Murray wants you to think that just his presence, and going on doing what he does, is a minor miracle.

There's a bit of the martyr in Murray, and it ultimately influences his game in a way that his team of coaches and fans might judge unhealthy. His talent can make even difficult victories appear routine, but the downside is that he seems to have a comparable appetite for making puzzling defeats and patches of terrible, negative tennis seem pre-ordained—it probably all ties in with this common, self-sabotaging British sense of fundamental unworthiness. Come on, Andy, we know you're going to blow it. You do too. Play out the role.

For a long time today it looked as if that's just what Murray was aiming to do. With the wrong Spaniard across the net (how much easier it would have been to square off against Rafael Nadal and take a straight sets licking) and a slot in the semifinals at stake, Murray was poised to deliver a fresh if secretly-expected and perhaps masochistically-relished disappointment, made ever so slightly palatable (no use alienating anyone, right?) by the fact that Ferrer is probably playing the best tennis of his life, and has more than amply displayed his bona fides in a nine-match winning streak leading up to this day.

The set-up was perfect, and it all went according to script when Murray was broken and Ferrer served for the first set at 5-3. Baffled Murray fans could only shake their heads at the way their hero seemed content to rally with Ferrer, and engage in cat-and-mouse rally games that played right into the No. 7-seed's hands. Going in, Murray needed to avoid getting jerked all over the court by Ferrer, but without overly forcing the action and going for too much, too soon, with his own shots. It was a delicate balance for sure, and it looked like Murray had forgotten the mandate. Nothing drives Murray watchers quite as crazy as those times when he almost perversely chooses to play the other guy's game, only worse. At those times, he's truly the man with no game.

But ho, this is Murray we're talking about, and he found a way to break back. Then he lost the ensuing tiebreaker despite earning back a mini-break that enabled him to level for a brief and shining moment at 5-all. He served and then drove a backhand into the net on the next point, after which Ferrer closed him out with a cross-court backhand that forced an error. It was vintage stuff—Ilie Nastase at his hysterical best could not have done better.

In the second set, Murray showed signs of resurgence, but he was broken for 5-4. Dramatic enough for you? Adequately heartbreaking? Not yet, Murray seemed to say.

Ferrer, who has so often come to the brink of a big breakthrough only to subtly but surely back off, played a terrible game after winning the first point. Down 15-40, he was broken when he made a forehand error during the ensuing rally. Soon they were in another tiebreaker. Murray kicked things off by trying a silly—and risky—drop shot, and a forehand pass gave Ferrer the mini-break. The next eight points went on serve; Ferrer had the set on his racquet when he took the balls with two serves to come at 5-4. 

And that's when Murray's sense of high drama kicked in. He belted a big forehand winner to level, then fell behind set point by virtue of a Ferrer service winner. But Murray stepped up with a spectacular, forehand approach winner and followed with a service winner of his own to reach set point. He clinched it when he rallied Ferrer out of position and forced him into a backhand error. Good thing the roof was open; it would have blown off, given the way the crowd reacted. 

"I think the key was in the second set, no?" Ferrer said afterward. "When I have 5-4, or one set point. But Andy, in important moments, he play really good. He played more aggressive than me, and he was better. If I win two sets up, anyway is still difficult to beat Andy because he is playing very good."

Winning that second set seemed to free up Murray's arm as well as his spirit and confidence. He began to find his range; where earlier in the match he had so often exchanged tepid groundstrokes in rallies, or played with no discernible purpose, he suddenly began firing bullets, cracking serves, and pushing Ferrer back off the baseline. The process was gradual, for Murray had been doing a lot of dithering. But when it was complete, the new version of the Scot was eye-opening. And it suddenly became clear that in the first two sets he was fighting the greatest opponent of them all—himself. He had been tight, albeit in a quiet way. After he won the second set, it was as if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders.

Murray made the crucial breakthrough in the third set from deuce in the ninth game, thanks to a forehand service return winner and a crisp backhand cross-court service return that Ferrer couldn't handle. Leading 5-4, Murray served out four straight points, ending with two service winners—and his first set-ending ace of this day.

"I could have done a little bit better probably in the third set. I knew how important it was to get off to a good start there. I had a couple chances early and didn't get it. I was a little frustrated with that. But I think I did a good job at the end of the set."

Murray was superb in the fourth set, but there was one more dramatic turn in store, a rain delay of 25 minutes at 5-all. But when the men returned, the No. 4 seed picked up right where he'd left off, playing positive, aggressive tennis. The two regular games of the set went quickly, and Murray declared his intentions in the tiebreaker with a down-the-line backhand blast that generated a mini-break from the first point. Although Ferrer broke back and eventually took a 3-2 lead, Murray responded with back-to-back aces and a backhand approach that forced an error—and a mini-break for 5-3. Ferrer held the next point, but a running, down-the-line forehand winner carried Murray to match point, and he put it away with another ace.

This win had the look of a game-changer for Murray at Wimbledon. In against an opponent who had nothing to lose and with a long history of British born—and borne—frustration, Murray came awake just in time to make things brighter, if less heart-wrenching, than at Wimbledon's past. As a result, British hopes for a male champion at this very British tournament for the first time in three-quarters of a century live on.

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Your Cup of Tea, Day 9 07/04/2012 - 8:41 AM

Picby Pete Bodo

WIMBLEDON, England—It took an extra day to boil off the fat because of the rain, but today we'll see if we can dismiss the usual suspects and set the stage for the first all-German final at Wimbledon since 1991, when Michael Stich upset heavy favorite Boris Becker.

Are you ready for a  Florian Mayer vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber Sunday bust-up? 

I didn't think so. So be careful what you wish for when it comes to the "Big Three."

But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Here, as in the locker room, we take them one match at a time, and the two steps left before the final are huge ones for any man or woman, even if some are not quite the stretch as others.

Teutonic thunder has rumbled throughout this Wimbledon; for the first time, Germany had four quarterfinalists (the other two were Sabine Lisicki and Angelique Kerber). But are we really going to see Mayer upset top-seeded Novak Djokovic and Kohlschreiber take down Jo-Wilfried Tsonga today? 

Then there's the case of No. 3 seed Roger Fedrerer. He plays Mikhail Youzhny, No. 26, the replacement for projected quarterfinalist Tomas Berdych, who was upset in the first round by Ernests Gulbis. Youzhny is one of the three 30-year-olds in the quarters (you could call this the "Golden Pond" Wimbledon), and one of just three remaining players who have never won a grass-court title (the other two are Tsonga and Mayer). This may not be the tournament where Youzhny breaks through for any number of reasons, starting with the obstacle he faces today in Federer. The two have met 13 times and Federer has won them all, including five on grass.

FedererFinalFederer, another one of the 30-year-olds, hasn't won a major title in two-and-a-half years, and those who have resolutely believed that has one major left in that right arm think this may be it. That's partly why, earlier this year, I decided to collect my thoughts on The Mighty Fed and pull them together in an e-book (cover image on the right) that's available via If you don't have an e-reading device, you an download it to your computer. The book has three sections: The Man, The Matches, and the Rivals. Hope you enjoy it.

So let's break down the men's quartefinals in a slightly different way than most handicappers:

Most Intriguing: David Ferrer (No. 7) vs. Andy Murray (No. 4) is going to be a tension fest, given the fact that win or lose, Ferrer stays with an opponent from the outset to the bitter end—even if he is prone to back up every so slightly at key moments against superior players. If you had floated this quarterfinal a year ago, most pundits and fans would have predicted a cakewalk for Murray. But Ferrer, the oldest man left in the draw, won on grass at 's-Hertogenbosch. He's won more matches his year than any other man (47) and he's on a sizzling nine-match winning streak. This is not the humble, bow-out-in-the-quarters-or-semis Ferrer we've known for so many years, as he showed in a spectacular victory over Juan Martin del Potro yesterday. The big question is, has Ferrer spent himself?

Least Predictable: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (No. 5) vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber (No. 27) is a tough one to call, even if Tsonga leads the head-to-head 5-1. Tsonga has won their last two matches in straight sets, but they have no record on grass—and Kohlschreiber has been playing magical tennis on the turf. He hasn't lost a set since he knocked out Halle champ Tommy Haas in a tough five-setter in the first round. Tsonga has often found a way to disappoint in majors, sometimes in inexplicable fashion. Toss in the back troubles he had (but which he dismissed as something unlikely to recur) in his last win against Mardy Fish and you might agree: Who knows?

Shortest Match: Novak Djokovic (No. 1) vs. Florian Mayer (No. 31). If you saw the way top-seeded Serb ripped through his countryman Viktor Troicki the other day, you will understand why Mayer's return to the quarterfinals after an eight-year hiatus is apt to be a bittersweet one. The two have met just once previously, when Djokovic prevailed in Dubai, 7-5, 6-1. Mayer has been through hell at this tournament; he had to fight back from an 0-2 deficit (in sets) against countryman Philipp Petzschner in the second round, and he had to fend off two match points in his 7-5 in-the-fifth win over Jerzy Janowicz one round later. His quads are apt to feel like jelly once Djokovic begins to yank him around the court. 

Sentimental Special: You don't have to be a fierce Roger Federer partisan to pull for him to make a great run here. With Rafael Nadal out of the hunt, even the fans of the Spanish champ might find room in their hearts to pull for Federer to make one more major Grand Slam statement. 

Upset Special: At the risk of bumming out readers and fans in the UK, Murray seems to be in the greatest danger because of how well Ferrer has been playing on grass.

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