Everyone’s a critic. So, following a stellar Summer Olympics for the sport of men’s tennis, what are they saying about …?
Andy Murray: Roger Federer was tired from his extended semifinal against Juan Martin del Potro and had nothing left for the Wimbledon final. Rafael Nadal’s absence cleared the route to the final even before that. Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray’s penultimate Olympic conquest, has been on a mini-dry spell and he lacked the usual self-assuredness he had shown even in the tensest moments of 2011.
And, frankly, it was about time. Lost in the successes of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer over the past few years is the fact that Murray has put up some remarkably consistent results. Four grand slam finals since the last Olympics. A streak of five straight GS semis that didn’t end until the quarters of this year’s Roland Garros. His trip to the Wimbledon finals, giving him final round appearances at every major save the RG.
Through it all Murray has been upstaged by that unique trio of men, all of whom had achieved GS success before him, putting him at a disadvantage before the first ball was even struck. And through it all the Scot, who probably has a better all-around game than anyone who played before 2000, has had to endure criticism of his mental strength and questions about whether or not he had the game to win a big one.
Well now he has. While the London Olympics may not be on par with a slam in terms of prize money or ranking points, their infrequency, the stage they took place on this year and the audience Murray played in front of mean that he’s created a memory exceeding that of, say, one of those Australian Open titles he lost. For the time being, it should mean that he has given himself breathing room from questions regarding his ability to win the majors.
So what of the summer ahead? Murray has points to defend in Cincinnati, but don’t be surprised if he doesn’t win there following this expedition. Where this result is going to matter is in events like the US Open, a place where Murray has been surprised early in recent years (by Marin Cilic in 2009 and Stanislas Wawrinka in 2010). This is a win that should give him the confidence to get through results such as that, and possibly through a player of Nadal or Djokovic’s caliber in the semis.
It doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll win it all, but his odds have definitely gone up.
Roger Federer: His recent resurgence, just like the one he experienced in 2009, coincides with a lengthy absence of Nadal. His semi with del Potro suggests that, even with the Wimbledon win, players he could once intimidate now can stay with him. And the final shows that age catches up to even the most graceful and most prepared.
Still, what’s it going to take to beat Federer at the US Open? Nadal will be on his least favorite surface and lacking the kind of momentum he had in 2010, even if his knee is healed. Djokovic, for the first time in what seems like decades, will probably not await him in the USO semis and won’t be bursting with the confidence of ’11. And Murray may find it harder to seal the deal after playing best of five for two weeks.
All in all, Federer’s sitting in a good position going into the USO, and we know he’ll schedule enough off time going into it not to jeopardize his chances there.
Then again, there’s …
Juan Martin del Potro: His movement, while good for a big guy, is still problematic when competing against the best in the world. He’s had spurts of greatness since returning from wrist surgery, but hasn’t shown the kind of play he did when winning the 2009 USO.
Nonetheless, this tournament means more to him than any he’s played, or even won, in a long time. Sure, he couldn’t make enough of an impact on Federer’s serve in the third set of the semis, but the fact that he held serve 16 times in that set alone while facing that kind of pressure (not to mention a guy quite adept at returning big serves on grass) says his mental strength is approaching 2009 levels.
Even more impressive than the semi? He came back and won the bronze from Djokovic despite the mental and physical letdown he had to be feeling. That win didn’t just net him the prize he wore around his neck; it was his first non-injury-aided win over a top 4 player since 2009.
Novak Djokovic: He hasn’t won a title since April. Nadal, Federer and now Murray have all lined up since then to show him that his 2011 aura has faded.
While his win over Andy Roddick suggests that his strokes are still plenty sharp, there’s little denying that the Serb’s psychological edge over the tour is long gone. He still has the game, but will that be enough? Can he rebuild his edge?
I’m betting not before the Open.
Andy Roddick: He’s getting old. Age softens the hardest of serves, and without that Roddick has little chance against the best.
Well, maybe. Still, he had won two of three events going into the Olympics, and there was a sudden change of surfaces, and continents, involved. This need not portend an inability to win hardcourt titles, but his chances at the majors don’t look good.
Olympic tennis: It was a venue with an unusually strong connection with the sport. Future Olympics won’t be played in nations with such an extended tennis history, nor will they have such an extraordinarily consistent crop of top players. The debate over whether tennis belongs in the Olympics will return
Yes, but that’s many years away. I was among those with memories of Massu-Fish epics and of past triumphs by Marc Rosset and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, questioning the relevance of Olympic tennis today. The Federer-Delpo semi, the coronation of Murray, plus the career capping wins of Serena Williams and the Bryan Brothers definitively answered whether the sport belongs in the games.
Barring a plague of devastating injuries that razes the players who competed so well in London and hinders their performances in New York, I was wrong about Olympic tennis.
And happy to say so.