Once more, but maybe with less feeling: It was only four weeks ago Sunday that we watched Roger Federer dash the hopes of a nation — molded by the hands of the tennis gods into the form of a pasty Scot named Andy Murray — to grab his 17th Grand Slam title, seventh Wimbledon title, and retake the No. 1 ranking that eluded him for two years. Now they’re back at the All England Club to contest yet another significant title, and just as the grass is a little more worn, the wallpaper gaudy and new, and the dress code relaxed, you get the sense that this isn’t simply a sequel to Wimbledon. That’s a good thing for Murray.
All week the players have said that Olympic tennis at Wimbledon is “different”. No one has said it’s better or worse than the revered Championships, but they haven’t shied away from making it clear that this ain’t your grandson’s Wimbledon. It’s not even in the same family tree. For Murray, the Olympics mark the first time he’s played tennis at Wimbledon outside of the spotlight. There has been no talk of Fred Perry, droughts, or British sporting futility. Because when the Olympics are in town, tennis takes a backseat. As the Brits dominate the velodrome, the Americans rule the pool, and young women in sequined lycra dominate the headlines, tennis is just plodding along like it usually does. Effortlessly, mechanically, and invisibly.
In other words, it’s the perfect set of circumstances for Murray. Outside of the media spotlight and the pressure cooker that comes with it, Murray has be played some of the best tennis of his year in front of adoring, raucous, vocal fans who — wait a second — actually, openly, and feverishly want him to win. You have to understand, this is news in and of itself because weeks ago when he was trying to rewrite the history books and win Wimbledon, the posh Wimbledon crowd never fully backed their hometown guy. They couldn’t actually cheer against Roger, could they? No, they couldn’t and so they didn’t.
Come Sunday, that will change. No doubt there will be Federer fans packed into Centre Court to urge their man on to capture what will likely be Switzerland’s first gold medal of the Olympic games, but surely the same British crowd that has been there for Murray throughout the tournament, chanting “GB! GB! GB!” on changeovers and roaring with approval every chance they get, will be there as well. Remember, Murray’s post-Wimbledon tears fell hardest when he talked about the support of his family, team, and the British fans. He even said the fan support makes it easier for him. So if he came as close as he did to pulling off the upset at Wimbledon with a 50-50 crowd, I can’t help but wonder what he can do with a stadium full of Union Jacks firmly on his side.
Serena looking golden: If you were crazy enough to write that Victoria Azarenka might have a shot to pull off the upset over Serena Williams in Friday’s semifinals, then you are probably a bit red-faced today. Serena rolled over the world No. 1, 6-1, 6-2, to move on to play Maria Sharapova in Saturday’s gold medal match. It was clinical work from Serena, who popped aces seemingly at will, moved wide with ease, played patiently in the rally when she needed to, and summoned unstoppable power when she needed. There’s not much more we can say about Serena these days. She is, undoubtedly, the best player in the world right now and given the fact that Sharapova hasn’t come close to beating her since 2004, it’s hard to see any meaningful obstacles standing in the way of that gold medal. She’s served well, she’s conserved her energy, and she’s playing thoroughly within herself. Barring a complete collapse, look for Serena to stand atop that medal stand on Saturday and complete a career Golden Slam. Sharapova’s got a chance — she did after all become a household name at Serena’s expense here at Wimbledon in 2004 when she was 17 to win her first Slam — but she’s going to need Serena to come out flat. Very flat.
Completing the set: Serena isn’t the only player with a chance to make things golden this weekend. Federer and Sharapova are also trying to complete the career Golden Slam set in singles, while the Bryans, who are into the gold medal match against the French team of Michael Llodra and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, are trying to accomplish the feat in doubles. Speaking of Tsonga, let’s pause for a second and be happy that the Frenchman is going to walk away from London with a medal. No one has had to work harder than Jo all week, having gone 25-23 in the third with Milos Raonic and then today, securing a spot in the gold medal match by working overtime again to beat the David Ferrer and Feliciano Lopez 18-16 in the third. That was a lot of tennis, Jo. Well done.
Oh, Canada: No tournament was going to suffer more collateral damage from the Olympics than next week’s Rogers Cup in Toronto (ATP) and Montreal (WTA). With main draw play set to begin on Monday (yes, that’s right, the day after the men’s final, women’s doubles final, and mixed doubles final), high profile names have already pulled out — Rafael Nadal, Federer, and Ferrer to name a few — and a more have to be coming soon with Djokovic, Murray, Tsonga, Del Potro, Sharapova, Azarenka, and Stosur still in the tournament. As has been the case for all of the U.S. Open Series tournaments this summer, it’s just about making due with what you’ve got. Which brings me to a somewhat rhetorical question: Is having tennis at the Olympics worth making a series of committed tournaments struggle every four years? On the whole, is it better or worse for the sport?
Three sets or bust: We’ve spent a lot of time over the last few weeks at BTB discussing the concept of tennis at the Olympics, and as the Games have played out I find myself even more firmly of the opinion that men’s matches, even at the Slams, should be best of three instead of best of five, with on twist: no final-set tiebreaks. In otherwords, I’m loving this Olympic format and would love to see it used in the major events. Just today we had two high-quality men’s matches, with Federer and Del Potro pushing each other to 19-17 in the third set in four hours and 25 minutes and then Murray and Djokovic followed it up with yet another top notch match that was fueled by the tension incumbent not only to an Olympic semifinal, but to a best of three match. With little room for error and zero option of letting games or sets slide every point seemed important. The best of three format with no final set tiebreaks makes for edge-of-your-seat stuff. Let’s have more of it.