LONDON -- Welcome to the secret season, the post-Wimbledon return to the clay courts -- a segment embraced some years ago by both tours partly to protect the health of the players. The prospect of moving from cushiony grass to punishing hard courts immediately after Wimbledon and staying on them through the US Open and beyond did not appeal to anyone.
These July clay events also help balance the number of tournaments available on clay and the majority surface, hard courts. Europeans in general and clay experts in particular have fought to keep the clay tradition alive. Seven of the nine tournaments leading to the North American hard-court swing that climaxes at the US Open are on clay, including the most resonant of them all, the ATP 500 in Hamburg.
So this is a good time to sit back, take a deep breath after that amazing Wimbledon men's final, and process some of the things we learned from "The Championships."
It's a GOAT hunt!
Roger Federer stood one swing of the racket from the Wimbledon title on two occasions in the final, but Novak Djokovic foiled him both times. The truly amazing part: Major title 21 might have put the men's Grand Slam singles title record out of reach for the two men chasing Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. But Djokovic's win will supercharge the next handful of Grand Slam events -- as if they needed it in this age of the Big Three.
Djokovic has 16 major titles, Nadal has 18. Given Nadal's conspicuous superiority at the French Open, where he already has a mind-boggling 12 titles, it's easy to see him winning Roland Garros two more times no matter whom he faces. At 32, Djokovic is not only a year younger than Nadal, he also has a more well-rounded game that makes him equally dangerous on all surfaces. But here's the big thing: Djokovic already leads the series with both men (28-26 vs. Nadal; 26-22 vs. Federer).
All other things being equal, Djokovic ought to be able to maintain his dominance. Federer is already 37, Nadal is injury-prone and hasn't won a major anywhere outside Paris since he won his third US Open in 2017. Federer seemed to have the GOAT title locked up after he won the 2018 Australian Open, but Djokovic could well end up dominating his peers and bagging the most major titles. Is that of concern to Federer?
"The chase [for the record] is in a different place [now]," Federer said after the Wimbledon final. "I take motivation from a different place, not so much from trying to stay ahead because I broke the record, and if somebody else does, well, that's great for them. You can't protect everything anyway. I didn't become a tennis player for that. I really didn't."
A last stand for Serena?
The question on everyone's lips following Simona Halep's surprisingly easy 6-2, 6-2 win in the women's final was, "How many more chances does Serena have?" It's a reasonable ask, given that Serena Williams, the sporting world's most famous mom, will turn 38 in September. She hasn't won a tournament of any kind since the 2017 Australian Open, and faltered at Wimbledon despite announcing that she's fully healthy again. She benefited from a surprisingly manageable draw as well.
Halep and Angelique Kerber, who snatched the Wimbledon title from Williams' hands last year, both played extremely well in those finals. But Williams, who has been perhaps the most intimidating overall presence in the WTA since Steffi Graf, played a part in their success. Williams described her bearing in the most recent final as that of a "deer in the headlights." That's very un-Serenalike.
Many have suggested that Williams ought to abandon her peripatetic activities as a spokesperson and celebrity. Many believe she should play more events to prep for majors. She doesn't seem to be inclined to do either. Rivals now meet her with greater confidence. The pressure on her to lock down No. 24 only grows more intense with each failure. It will take a majestic effort to overcome the obstacles. If this wasn't Williams' last best chance, the US Open might be.
Time to rethink 'Next Gen' hype
The main storyline out of the first round at Wimbledon was the flameouts of No. 5 seed Dominic Thiem, No. 6 Alexander Zverev and No. 7 Stefanos Tsitsipas. Thiem, 25, just missed out (by age) on being part of the catchy ATP "Next Gen" campaign, but Zverev, 22, and Tsitsipas, 20, did not. The pair have loomed large in that branding effort.
But it's time to let go of the idea that there's a fleet of highly talented, ambitious young players ready to move in and take over from the Big Three and their cohorts in the top 10. For one thing, the Big Three simply aren't getting out of the road, which makes the shortcomings of the Next Gen players somewhat understandable. But many of the better known Next Gen players simply seem far from contending at majors, never mind winning.
The best 21-and-under performers at Wimbledon were relatively unknown Ugo Humbert, 21, of France and No. 19 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime. The former lost to Djokovic in the fourth round -- after beating F2A (who is still just 18), in the previous round.
No. 10 seed Karen Khachanov and No. 11 Daniil Medvedev, No. 25 Alex De Minaur, No. 29 Denis Shapovalov -- all current or former Next Gen staples -- were gone by the fourth round. The reality is that the "young" (22 and under) players are all over the board, no more or less likely to crash the top 10 than anyone else.
'Simo' is Primo
Throughout the Wimbledon fortnight, Simona Halep has had to explain that her ambition to be "chill" this year, after making her Grand Slam breakthrough at Roland Garros in 2018, didn't mean that she was mailing in her results. It might have seemed that way, though, because Halep hadn't won a tournament all year, and fell from No. 1 to No. 7 just weeks before Wimbledon -- a tournament where she never felt comfortable despite having been a semifinalist five years ago.
That all changed dramatically as Daniel Dobre, the 27-year-old Romanian's unsung coach, helped her master the grass fundamentals in the weeks leading up to Wimbledon. After winning her quarterfinal, Halep declared: "Everything changed. I have a lot of experience now. I'm more confident. I love grass. It's first time when I [can] say that."
In beating Williams, Halep committed the fewest unforced errors (3) ever in a Grand Slam title match. Halep, who has struggled throughout her career with a deep streak of negativity, said: "I just came here relaxed. I came here motivated to see how good I can be on grass. I'm happy on court. I think this helps me a lot." That's fair warning to her WTA rivals.
A new wave of ATP contenders?
Some of the familiar names missing from the Wimbledon quarterfinals this year: Milos Raonic, Tomas Berdych, Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic, John Isner, Kevin Anderson, Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Grigor Dimitrov ... all but Wawrinka are one-time semifinalists (or better), out before the quarters due to bad luck, injury or slump, sometimes age-related. Only Kei Nishikori, the No. 8 seed, held the fort for the old guard.
The players who took their places in the fourth round or better were a surprising mix, suggesting a reshuffling of the ATP deck below the Big Three. The most familiar Next Gen stars were notably absent. A number of experienced, underrated campaigners helped fill the void: Sam Querrey, Guido Pella, No. 21 seed David Goffin, and No. 23 Roberto Bautista Agut were quarterfinalists. All but Pella have shown top-10-level talent -- if not always results -- for long enough to make them viable contenders at majors.
Andy is just dandy
The Andy Murray-Serena Williams mixed doubles pairing was a highlight of Wimbledon -- for "Serandy" or "Murena" (Williams' preferred moniker for the pair) as much as for fans and the media. It's unlikely that we'll be seeing too much of this squad, though, as Murray seems to have his heart set on playing singles again, and it's hard to imagine Williams forming a team with as much curb appeal as her partnership with the British star had at Wimbledon.
Murray's career hung in the balance early this year when he chose to undergo hip "resurfacing" surgery. It was so successful that Murray played doubles at Queen's Club (he won the event with partner Feliciano Lopez) and men's doubles and mixed at Wimbledon. "At some point I started feeling a lot of pressure. Oh, my God, I have to do well because this match is so hyped," Williams said after the team won their first match. The partnership lasted two rounds.
Murray and partner Pierre-Hugues Herbert lost in the second round of men's doubles. Murray said he was pleased with his progress but reluctant to rush his return to singles, rejecting the idea of a return at the US Open.
"I think it's pretty unlikely just in terms of timing," he said. "The amount of work I need to do on the court to get ready for singles, the amount of work I need to put in off the court to get myself strong enough to play best-of-five sets, it's still quite a ways away unfortunately. I would love to play. [But] I need to look pretty long-term with this. I don't want to be having to go through another big operation in a few years' time."