A timeless lesson is something which exists in any point of human history. However, when talking about tennis or baseball or a few other sports, the idea of “timelessness” is more specific, since those sports aren’t played against the backdrop of a clock.
Baseball players and solo-sport athletes — and any other athletes in sports not governed by clocks — do not have to be better than an opponent over 40, or 48, or 60 minutes in order to win. You can be worse for an hour, even two, as long as you can be better in the right moments. Sports not governed by time clocks last as long as the number of opportunities a team or athlete creates.
Tennis, of course, is even more unique among untimed sports. Golf’s scoring system is simple: the smallest number of shots in a tournament wins. Clean, linear, not subject to explanation. Baseball is simple, too: Hit the little ball between the white lines (kinda like tennis) where the other guys can’t catch it. Run around the bases. Score. Don’t allow the other team to do the same.
In tennis, though, you can lose more points in a match but still win the larger competition. If you lose five games at love in a set but win seven deuce games in that same set, you lead, despite a minus-6 point differential. For this reason, tennis matches are easily misunderstood, and this leads into an appreciation of what Wimbledon 2015 has taught us. It’s a truly “timeless” lesson.
Last year, Petra Kvitova demolished Eugenie Bouchard in a laser-quick Wimbledon women’s final. Kvitova blasted her way to a 55-minute win. This was the most prestigious and important women’s match of the whole tennis season (Wimbledon being the most prestigious major), but it was over almost as soon as it began. Yet, Kvitova’s tennis was so overwhelmingly awesome — accurate, powerful, imposing, unrelenting — that Bouchard never had a chance. Kvitova played tennis as well as it could be played. Accordingly, the match was a legitimately great match, even if the opponent couldn’t play her best — Kvitova did not allow Bouchard to do much of anything.
It goes against our instincts to say that a brief competition is a great competition, but tennis can and does create that.
Similarly, long matches can be dull and uninspiring, and for four sets on Wednesday at The All-England Club, the men’s quarterfinal between Stan Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet was just that. Sure, the two men worked into a fifth set, but not by being great throughout those four sets. The two men largely took turns playing well in sets. They also took turns double-faulting away sets, Gasquet in set two and Wawrinka in set four.
So many five-setters at majors — particularly those in the early rounds, even more especially grasscourt matches between clay specialists or other similarly mis-matched surface pairings — are the result of up-and-down tennis. The length of the match is proportionate to the degree of inconsistency on display, not the level of quality. This is what we had in sets one through four of a clash between players with two of the most beautiful and potent one-handed backhands on the ATP Tour.
Then, however, in the fifth set, Wawrinka-Gasquet became the kind of match which — though prolonged because of its relative mediocrity — took strength from the fact that it had been prolonged in the first place. Two men trying to establish a high level of form and retain it were able to use the urgency of the scoreboard to create their best tennis at the same time. What resulted was a magnificent set of tennis and a result that harkened to the 2007 Wimbledon quarterfinals — also on Court No. 1, or as the locals would like you to call it, “No. 1 Court” at The Championships.
In 2007, Richard Gasquet made his first major semifinal at Wimbledon. On No. 1 Court, he defeated Andy Roddick, 8-6 in the fifth set, to register what was then a career breakthrough. Gasquet’s fabulous shotmaking and his glorious backhand were evident even then, and when he won that quarterfinal against a highly accomplished grasscourt player, it seemed Gasquet was going to attain great riches in his career. However, it would be more than six full years until Gasquet reached another major semifinal, at the 2013 U.S. Open. Since that moment in New York in September of 2013, Gasquet hadn’t even made another major quarterfinal.
It was one of the strangest statistics in sports (with a small sample size, yes, but still fascinating): Gasquet entered this match against Wawrinka with a 2-0 record in major quarterfinals, both of them in five-set matches. The record is amazing because Gasquet is 3-16 in fourth-round major-tournament matches. He has hit a brick wall so many times when playing a higher-ranked player midway through a major, and he has also lost too many five-setters to count over the years. His moments of profound inspiration do emerge, but only once in a great while. As he stepped onto the court for the start of the fifth set against Wawrinka — the man who had just won the French Open championship — Gasquet could not have been the favored player in most eyes.
Yet, it was time for another French surprise at Wimbledon, eight years later.
The true Big Four (not Wawrinka) has been such an impregnable fortress for Gasquet because it has become so practiced in the art of attritional tennis. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — both comfortably into Friday’s Wimbledon semifinals, Djokovic against Gasquet himself — are experts in grinding down opponents, as is Rafael Nadal. Roger Federer isn’t really cut from the same stylistic cloth, but he wears down opponents with consistent serve placement and constant variety on his shots. Gasquet faced Federer in the 2007 Wimbledon semifinals and did not win a set. He met Nadal in the 2013 U.S. Open semifinals and did not win a set. He now gets Djokovic on Friday in the semis and will be hard-pressed to win a set. However, against Wawrinka — easily the best player in men’s tennis beyond the true Big Four — Gasquet found enough magic and hustle to pull off the victory.
Gasquet’s defense, just as much as his offense if not more so, won this match for him. Gasquet constantly withstood Wawrinka’s power — the very weight of shot which propelled him to a Roland Garros title — and made the Swiss hit an extra ball. More specifically, Gasquet was able to retrieve shots and slice them back low and short. This is where Wawrinka’s weakness on grass (he’s still never made a Wimbledon semifinal) was exposed.
Wawrinka’s defense, interestingly enough, accompanied his offense en route to that stirring and stunning Rolanda Garros title. However, Wawrinka benefited on clay from a higher bounce which fit the shape and style of his shots. On grass, slices can skid and stay low, which takes the ball out of Wawrinka’s wheelhouse. Gasquet repeatedly drew Wawrinka toward the service boxes and the net with those low, short slices, and that’s precisely what created the match-clinching break at 10-9 in the fifth set. Wawrinka fought gamely in that final set, overcoming several 15-30 situations and breaking when Gasquet was serving for the match at 5-3, but Gasquet calmly absorbed that dispiriting moment — something we’ve rarely seem from him — and proved to be worthy of a spot in the semifinals.
There were five sets to watch in Wawrinka-Gasquet. Four of them were rather ordinary, but one of them was special, and the fact that it was the last one is why this match will endure in time… and timelessness.
The reality that time lengths in tennis have little to do with quality exists in accordance with another particularity: The extent to which top seeds do or don’t advance in a tournament cannot automatically be linked to the health of a sport, one way or the other. A case-by-case basis is the only way to go about this.
Consider everything we’ve written over the past week about the women’s half of Wimbledon here at Attacking The Net. We’ve expressed concerns about the long-term prospects for women’s tennis and some of its non-Serena/Sharapova/Azarenka competitors, especially the younger faces in the crowd. Yet, for all those concerns, stop and realize that the four women’s quarterfinals provided copious quantities of great tennis.
Two quarterfinals — Sharapova versus CoCo Vandeweghe and Madison Keys versus Agnieszka Radwanska — were messy, and yet both matches were still compelling, loaded with a number of bright moments throughout. The Timea Bacsinszky-Garbine Muguruza match was excellent. The Serena Williams-Victoria Azarenka blockbuster, also excellent (a word which seems inadequate in describing that contest), more than exceeded the advance billing and will very probably remain the match of the tournament.
More to the point: The WTA kicked the ATP’s rear end up and down the street in the quarterfinals, even though the ATP placed each of its top four (ranked) players in that round, five of its top 10 guys, and six of its top 13. The WTA, by comparison, put just two of its top four in the quarters, along with only three of its top 13 and four of its top 19 players.
Sure, the heavyweights (minus Wawrinka) have made their way to the men’s semifinals. The Federer-Murray clash should be great. However, through five rounds of tennis at Wimbledon, the women’s tournament has been far better than the men’s tournament.
When we think of the health of a given sports league or collective, we are conditioned to think that depth matters, but we are also conditioned to think that brand-name title contenders (think of New York or Los Angeles teams in American sports) are important. Sure, it’s good for men’s tennis that big names occupy the marquee in the semifinals on Friday, but that has occurred due to relatively easy draws and a lack of stiff challenges. Ironically, the one semifinal slot not occupied by a top-four player is a slot filled by great tennis — the great tennis that was generally missing from the men’s quarters on Wednesday.
Yes, the women are in search of annually consistent players other than Serena, Sharapova, and Azarenka (Timea Bacsinszky is becoming that kind of player; we’ll see what she does in 2016), but if you provide such high-quality tennis in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, just how much of a problem is it to lack a lot of top-10-ranked players?
In tennis, you just can’t judge quality or health strictly by looking at rankings, match lengths, or the names in a drawsheet. The caliber of tennis is the measure, and time has very little to do with it. Such is the timeless lesson of tennis’s most timeless tournament, at SW19 in suburban London.