WIMBLEDON: That Wasn’t an End for Roger Federer. It was the Start of his Agassi Phase

 

We are too fast to bring in the next generation, and now, in the case of Roger Federer, too quick to kick out the old.

So many people have characterized Federer’s five-set loss to Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final Sunday as his last, best chance. I have something to say about that:

No. Way. Where most people saw the end for Federer, I saw a beginning. Federer is now moving into what I’ll call the Agassi Phase of his career. The Agassi Phase is a time when someone finds another gear, another avenue, another strategy and another wind beyond the time when age says it’s possible. Andre Agassi did it, re-inventing himself and reaching the U.S. Open final when he was 35, when his back was such a mess and his legs so beaten down that it looked like he was tripping over the paint on the baseline while trying to run down a forehand. Agassi crowded the baseline and cut off all angles so he wouldn’t have to run much.

A prediction: Federer, who is 32, will now be among the handful of top favorites again at the majors for another two years, and an outside favorite for another year after that. Last year, he never had a shot.

Welcome back to the top of the mountain, new old Roger. Or, old new Roger. Whichever.

Federer’s re-invention didn’t involve duct-taping broken parts back together, the way Agassi had to do it. Federer can still run just fine, though not as fast as he used to. In the fifth set Sunday, Federer was in better physical condition than Djokovic, who’s 27. Federer’s body is also in better shape than the 20-something bodies of Rafael Nadal (sore back, lost a step), and Andy Murray (back surgery).

It’s about making changes and adjusting to realities. As of 10 months ago, I didn’t think Federer had it in him. Oh, he had the skills, but I thought he was too stubborn to

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WIMBLEDON: Novak Djokovic Beats Roger Federer, Wins Title, Ends Career, Um, Crisis?

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When Novak Djokovic was younger and still on the outskirts of greatness, he was always known for his melodrama. It was one overplayed ailment after another. And the crowd in New York booed him, and Andy Roddick apparently punched him, or close. And in Australia, where he ran to the bathroom during a match and his opponent, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was asked when he noticed something was wrong with Djokovic. Tsonga replied, “Five years ago.”

Times have changed, and respect has grown, but I’m having difficulty accepting the new narrative that Djokovic’ career was in some sort of crisis. He is 27, has reached the heights of his profession that few have reached. He has done it by winning his fair share against Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, possibly the two greatest players of all time. He has made an insane amount of money, won an insane amount of matches, had an insane amount of fun. And he’s about to get married and become a father.

That ain’t a crisis. But Djokovic beat Federer Sunday to win Wimbledon in a classic, 6-7 (9-7), 6-4, 7-6 (7-4), 5-7, 6-4. And when it was over, Djokovic said this:

“At this time in my career, for this Grand Slam trophy to arrive is crucial, especially after losing several Grand Slam finals in a row. I started doubting, of course, a little bit. I needed this win a lot.”

Djokovic did not NEED this win. Not for his legacy, which was already set for greatness, and not for the confidence to win more majors. He was always going to win more. This match is the defining moment of Djokovic’ career, but not because it pulled him out of some imaginary hole. It is because he finally beat Federer the Great in an epic Wimbledon final.

It was the guy he beat, the way he kept getting back up and the place he did it. All of that combined.

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To be honest, the narrative on Federer is wrong, too. He’s 32, and people saw this as his last, best chance to win another major.

Wrong. Federer has finally found confidence now that he finally — FINALLY — switched to a modern racquet that gives him more power and allows him to fend off those who are crushing the ball at him. He is going to have to get more comfortable hitting forehands with it, but the point is that he has plenty more runs at majors in him now.

God knows how many majors Federer threw away by stubbornly sticking with that ancient, outdated stick.

The thing is, Federer looked more confident these past two weeks than he has in a few years. I doubt he feels this was his last chance. Djokovic’ brain was telling him that he was in crisis.

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WIMBLEDON: Genie Bouchard Goes from Tennis’ Next Big Thing to its Biggest Question Mark…Oh yeah, Petra Kvitova Wins, too

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Petra Kvitova wins 2nd Wimbledon

 

The theme of the match was Genie Bouchard, her emergence. That’s what the moment was about. Tennis has a new superstar, one who is young, fresh, and tough as nails with marketers already drooling over her good looks.

Come see her crowning.

Well, the match didn’t live up to that. The other person won. It wasn’t even close. Petra Kvitova won 6-3, 6-0 in 55 minutes, playing great and knocking Bouchard into a stupor. That’s two Wimbedon titles for Kvitova, who came from nowhere to win the first one three years ago, when she was 21, and then disappeared for three years, and now came back to win again.

The problem is that the match never was going to be about Kvitova. The tennis world just saw Kvitova, loaded with talent but not enough focus or footwork, put it together again for two weeks and win Wimbledon. I wish I had the feeling that the rest of the sports world saw it that way, and not, roughly, this way:

That next-generation Canadian Sharapova lost. Big time. With Sheldon, from Big Bang Theory watching.

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Genie Bouchard

You know how people dress up to play a character on TV, and then look totally different when you see them on the late-night shows or something? Sheldon — Jim Parsons — wore a suit and sunglasses in the friends box at Wimbledon and it was incredible: Even without his Flash shirt, he still managed to look like a science geek anyway.

In fact, it looked as if he had beamed himself into Centre Court and was trying to remain incognito.

Honestly, I’m not sure what’s going to happen with Bouchard now. This hurt her. She doesn’t look quite as sure of a sure thing as she did before the match. She is just 20, and has reached the semis in two majors and the finals in one this year. She has played in just six majors, and is already the most consistent player in majors on tour this year.

But, as ESPN’s business writer, Darren Rovell tweeted after the match, “Marketers now face dilemma. Is she worth big $?” He had said just before the match that she was poised to be an ad idol.

I think they will, on spec. She is still the most marketable new face to come out of this tennis season, and tennis is still the only women’s sport to have broken into the mainstream. Bouchard is too hot of a prospect to let someone else get to first.

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Sheldon, still a geek

That said, she was demolished Saturday, and didn’t even make it a fight.

Anyway, welcome back, Petra Kvitova. Welcome to the Hall of Fame when it’s all over for you. Which won’t be for another decade.

She is just 24 and had somehow managed to already be forgotten. She didn’t fit in with the 30-something stars, Serena Williams and Li Na. She hadn’t done enough to

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WIMBLEDON: Serena Fumbling Around. Question, but Don’t Assume Worst

 

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Questions are fair. Assumptions are not. And I think people are crossing the line on Serena Williams’ bizarre actions the other day, when she couldn’t catch the ball, couldn’t hold the ball, couldn’t toss the ball, apparently couldn’t see the ball, serve the ball or even hit the ball during warmups and the first few minutes of her Wimbledon doubles match with her sister, Venus Williams.

Three games into the match, after Serena had double-faulted on all four of her service points, including some serves that she hadn’t hit hard enough to get all the way to the net, they retired from the match. Venus held her hand as they walked to the net for the last time.

So what did you see? Because Chris Evert wondered aloud if Serena’s problem was something that needed to be drug-tested for. And Martina Navratilova said it was “clearly” not a sickness. Williams and Wimbledon officials made things worse by saying, overly generically, that the problem was a viral illness.

And the suggestions might be right, or might not be. My inclination is to be concerned for her emotional state before being suspicious of her behavior. I’m still going back to her singles match a few days earlier, when she seemed scared, fought off tears and played poorly. I’m not just saying this in hindsight, either. What I wrote after her singles loss was that she seems afraid.

It stood out. It was different than the Serena we have seen for years.

Don’t assume the worst about her on this. It’s equally possible that Williams’ issues are emotional. People can be emotionally rung out and it can look like this.

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WIMBLEDON: Rafael Nadal Losing to Nick Kyrgios not as Shocking as it Looks. Losing to Roger Federer Would be the Shock

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Nick Kyrgios is just 19 years old. He isn’t ranked in the top 140. As of a week ago, he’d won just one match this year above tennis’ minor leagues. He didn’t earn his way into Wimbledon, but instead got in with a freebie, a wildcard.

And of course, the No. 1 player hadn’t lost in a major to anyone outside the top 100 in 22 years. So people are seeing Rafael Nadal’s 7-6(7-5), 5-7, 7-6 (7-5), 6-3 loss to Kyrgios Tuesday as a historic upset. But here’s the truth: If you’re stunned that that kid was able to beat Nadal, then you just haven’t been paying attention.

The much more stunning thing would be if Roger Federer beat Nadal.

“I was not able to read his serve during the whole match,” Nadal said. “At the end on grass, the resume is that. I was not able to read his serve.”

Luckily, thanks to my inner-Uncle Toni, I’m here with the checklist of Nadal’s problems. Some are fixable, some have to be worked around. The list includes Nadal’s knees, his grips, his positioning and his brain.

Other than that, he’s still good to go.

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WIMBLEDON: One Player Still Scared of Serena Williams: It’s Serena Williams

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Serena Williams’ fear factor isn’t gone. It has just found a new victim. She isn’t scaring other players anymore. Instead, she’s scaring herself.

It happens. Your name, your history, your age, your reputation, your legacy. It can pile up and be frightening This is my take, anyway, from watching her lose 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 Saturday to Alize Cornet in the third round at Wimbledon.

That makes three majors this year, and Williams hasn’t even made it to the quarterfinals of any of them. She has a serious problem, and deep down, she realizes it. Most likely, that’s what’s scaring her.

After losing at Australia, somehow it slipped out that she had an injury and almost didn’t play. At the French? Well, that’s her worst surface. At Wimbledon?

Sorry, no more excuses. Not there, where Williams has won five titles and Cornet is still figuring out how to play on grass.

What stood out about this match was Williams’ complete lack of joy, even when things were going well. Never one smile, never even an upbeat hint of body language. There was emotion, anger, near tears. Williams looked as if she just did not want to be there.

That might be the scariest thing of all.

This is a stepladder going down for Williams. The shocking losses the past year have built up and gradually led everyone, Serena and the other players on tour, to the next step. The message is this: Serena can be beat. Over the past few months, we saw her opponents start to believe. Williams’ ability to bully was fading.

But in this match, it looked as if Williams had taken another step down. It is not just that her opponents believe they can beat her, but also that Williams is afraid to lose.

Martina Navratilova used to talk about this as she got older. She’d say that younger players could swing away without fear, that they didn’t grasp how big things are or what could go wrong.

Even Roger Federer, who, at 32 is the same age as Williams, said on ESPN Saturday that when you get older, the losses seem to be bigger. The important thing, he said, is that you continue to believe that the outcome of your matches is in your hands, on your racquet. Not on your opponents’. He said he feels that way and is sure Williams does, too.

I think Williams is grappling with this entire formula. Part of her still seems to think that sooner or later, she will win these matches. But part of her can’t figure out why her opponents aren’t eventually buckling.

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WIMBLEDON: Sloane Stephens Loses in 1st Round. Hype was Wrong, Unfair

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Sloane Stephens isn’t living up to expectations. First there was the loss to Simona Halep in the battle of Generation We-Got-Next at the French Open, and on Monday she lost to Maria Kirilenko 6-2, 7-6 (8-6) in the first round at Wimbledon.

Just 17 months ago, she beat Serena Williams at the Australian Open. Now, while doing well in several majors, she has never even won a pro tournament at any level.

What is wrong with Sloane Stephens? There are things for sure, things that make me wonder if she can be a major champion. But she’s still in the development stages of her career. And the narrative about her shortcomings is revolving around a timetable that was based on expectations that should never have been put on her in the first place.

The point is this: She is not living up to the hype and expectations, but it was the hype and expectations that were wrong.

Here is an example. Earlier this year, a writer at ESPN.com wrote about Stephens’ failure to live up to her hype, yet also ripped the “hype machine” over and over. The article said the goal of reaching greatness is made difficult by the public’s and media’s desire “to anoint.”

All great points, except for one thing: When Stephens had beaten Williams in Melbourne, that same writer wrote that “Sloane Stephens is ready” and “She may not be ready yet to be favored to win a slam, but that doesn’t mean she’s not ready to win one.”

No, she wasn’t ready. She still isn’t. We don’t know if she ever will be. I’ll get into that in a minute. But whose hype was she failing to live up to, anyway?

Even at the time, and shortly after, I warned people not to make too big a deal out of that win over Williams, as Williams’ back was so hurt so bad she could barely move. Stephens’ arrow was pointing up, though.

Now, she has flown too high on borrowed wings, to steal a phrase. And the media desperation to always find something new, something fast, something first, has only threatened her career. We overhype these kids, and they aren’t ready for it. Adults aren’t ready for it, either, by the way.

But Donald Young and his parents did not need to hear, when he was a little kid, that John McEnroe thought he’d be the next, well, John McEnroe. It threw off everything and it has taken Young a decade to get his head on right.

Michelle Wie won golf’s U.S. Open Sunday, and is one of the most

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