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Sunday, July 8, 2012
Fed, Serena back on their thrones

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- The story of England is one of royalty, order, tradition and history. And it is also of tennis and Wimbledon, where the proud championship past refused to bow to the future.

Over a spectacular fortnight that included a stolen hawk, a Golden Set and a valiant, unattained quest amid a swelling national pride, Roger Federer and Serena Williams regained their championship thrones. The grounds at the All England Club serve as something of a living museum to them, with photographs of past champions adorning the hallways and stairwells, photographs of them at their best holding hardware aloft. The five-time champion Williams and seven-time titleholder Federer have dominated the past decade, and while each in some way has been challenged by the inevitable combination of health, age and an army of younger, hungry challengers, they made the loudest and sweetest sound in this terrific tennis symphony.

Neither Williams nor Federer had won Wimbledon since 2009, but both are the greatest of all time, or at the very least in an extremely exclusive group. Both are 30 and had heard constantly that another Grand Slam was beyond them. But by the end of the tournament, no questions existed about whether the best players won. Williams overpowered the tournament with 102 aces against 10 double faults. Federer, now with 17 majors and again the world No. 1, dethroned defending champion Novak Djokovic with surprising ease in the semifinals. He then finished a game Andy Murray, securing his title with a marathoner's kick and a clinic in footwork, serving, court sense and desire.

Serena Williams
Who knew how the script would play out for Serena after a first-round French Open loss? But she showed us her championship heart.

For the first time since 1975, when Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe won the women's and men's titles, both Wimbledon champions were at least 30 years old. As the tournament progressed, and Federer and Williams began to solidify their championship prospects, the timeless themes of age and rejuvenation, struggle and pride began to define these two weeks of games on the grass.

When it all ended with Federer and Williams again champions, a nation was nonetheless heartbroken for the gifted, defeated Murray but also elated for the surprise gift of British doubles champion Jonathan Marry. It was a tournament not soon to be forgotten by the people who care enough to sit in the rain and camp out for tickets, or by the participants whose lives have been invested in the pursuit of an endeavor so unimportant globally, yet so emotionally compelling.

A Grand Slam becomes, for two weeks, its own self-contained universe, its rhythms and narratives oblivious to the world outside. Though each snapshot of the tournament becomes a memory now as the staff closes up the gift shops and kiosks and the grounds crew begins preparations for the upcoming Olympics, what occurred will have a bearing on the coming months.

There was Maria Sharapova, coming off her French Open title, but listless in a loss to Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round. There was Williams' thorough dispatching of Victoria Azarenka, who in defeat became the world No. 1 again -- even though, like Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki before her, Williams is the best, most dangerous player in the game. She owns 14 major titles. The next closest player in the top 10 is Sharpova -- with four.

From the beginning of the tournament, the London newspapers were ripping five-time champion Venus Williams, who snuck in as a wild card only to be destroyed in the first round by Elena Vesnina. They couldn't help but slam Serena for being anything but her vintage self. There was an air of nostalgia and wistfulness. "Serena is back, but the shock and awe is gone," read one headline.

By the end, the wistfulness was still present, for the sisters may not appear together again at Wimbledon. But it was also accompanied by the acknowledgment of a mandate: Venus and Serena have won 10 of the past 13 singles titles here. They have five Wimbledon doubles titles. The exclamation point came in the doubles final, when Venus powered a 122-mph ace wide on triple match point. Fitting that she, of all people, will not be forgotten. Earlier in the day, Richard Williams, the victorious father, was presented with the belief that his daughters just might be the greatest, most accomplished siblings in the history of sport.

"I can't argue that," he said softly. Serena and Venus have combined for 21 singles and 13 doubles Grand Slam titles, three gold medals and two mixed-doubles majors.

The magic sprinkled onto Court No. 3 in the third round, when Yaroslava Shvedova played French Open finalist Sara Errani and won all 24 points of the first set. It was a Golden Set, a feat never achieved in Grand Slam play, the equivalent of a perfect game, only 10 times rarer since it is only known to have happened once before, nearly 30 years ago. Errani was terrific in Paris, and what made Shvedova's accomplishment all the more remarkable wasn't simply its freak nature, but the level of competition and the difficulty of not making a silly mistake, a double fault, a dumb unforced error, a bad bounce on an unfortunately placed tuft of grass. Everything needed to fall into place, and it did.

The magic of the game, and of the whole tournament, was reserved, naturally, for the grandness of Centre Court, where Lukas Rosol, the 100th-ranked player, buried two-time champion Rafael Nadal in the second round.

A moment should be taken to discuss the Nadal odyssey: Eighteen months ago, he was an Australian Open title away from holding all four Grand Slam titles at once. David Ferrer beat him in the quarterfinals and then Djokovic roared through the year. The following January, Nadal fell, again, to Djokovic in an epic 5-hour, 53-minute Australian Open final.

The rest seemed settled -- until now: Nadal found himself on clay and reduced Djokovic back to a mortal by defeating him three times, in the Monte Carlo, Rome and French Open finals. Nadal had been restored. He had a record seventh title at Roland Garros. He was surging into Wimbledon.

Yaroslava Shvedova
Yaroslava Shvedova did not have a perfect tournament. But she played one absolutely perfect set.

Then, Rosol blew him off the court. Around the grounds, the easy explanation was that globally, the victory was insignificant: Rosol simply enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Every serve was fast and perfect. Every return was reckless and beautiful and on the line. The delay after the fourth set, when Nadal was making his comeback, was the little dash of luck and magic required for an upset.

But similarly, there was another view buzzing around the tournament that Nadal had lost that special energy he rediscovered during the clay season. He is now the world No. 3 and needs a victory -- perhaps here back at the All England Club during the Olympics or at the U.S. Open in order to keep from spiraling into a similar abyss created by his losses to Djokovic. His journey continues.

The final day is for the champions, but the combatants who fell short of their goals should not be so quickly erased. Agnieszka Radwanska, the new world No. 2, made certain Williams' coronation was not an easy one. She admitted to nerves in losing her first set but then show tremendous fight, resolve and resources, proving that her underpowered game does not deserve sympathy.

There was the curious emotional lull of Djokovic, and the surge of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who throughout the tournament appeared championship ready until reaching the tournament's semifinal, where he was outclassed by the superior Murray. Tsonga showed during Wimbledon that he has the talent to win a major title, but not yet the in-match tactics or ferocity. And for the first time since his transcendent run, Djokovic allowed an opponent -- the inspired Federer -- to strip him of his indomitable will.

Fittingly, however, the postscript of these Championships should belong to Murray, who lifted a nation that wanted desperately to erupt for him as he took the champion's journey. Federer was better, but Murray will be haunted for weeks by the multiple missed break points in the second set and the lack of execution on his serve in the third and fourth sets, when he needed it most. At the end of the long quest, Murray still does not know if he can win a major.

His voice broke as he attempted to address his nation. His mother wept as her son stood tall, exhaling in tears. His girlfriend, Kim, covered her face as she cried. And Murray, often the object of ridicule for his emotional outbursts, grew closer to a public that perhaps finally understands there is only one winner, and that defeat is the natural condition of life. Perhaps the ones in the crowd who cried themselves also had children and tried to imagine Murray's current truth: The work -- the training, the dedication, the spirit and the fight -- is the only guaranteed reward.