Despite An Early Exit At Wimbledon, Serena Williams Still A 'Powerhouse'

Host Michel Martin speaks with The Guardian's Hugh Muir about the winners and losers at this year's Wimbledon tennis tournament.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we head to London, where the Wimbledon tennis wrapped up on Sunday, with Novak Djokovic beating former champ Roger Federer. On Saturday, Petra Kvitova beat out Eugenie Bouchard to earn her second Wimbledon title. It was a tournament with plenty of drama and upsets. Joining us to tell us more about that is Hugh Muir. He's an editor with The Guardian and he covered Wimbledon for them. He's with us now from a studio at the paper. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

HUGH MUIR: You're absolutely welcome, Michel.

MARTIN: So tell us about the final matches - exciting?

MUIR: Well, absolutely. We're still in the glow of an absolutely wonderful Wimbledon championship - two really brilliant finals. I mean, brilliant in different ways because in the women's final, Petra Kvitova against Eugenie Bouchard - Kvitova having won her first title a couple of years ago. When she was then said to be the future of tennis and that she would dominate the women's game for a while and she seemed to go off the ball and she had a real difficulty in coping with the fame that that brought her. And so people were a little disappointed in her. And here she came back and she was playing Eugenie Bouchard, who just - who really broke through in this Wimbledon and people predict great things for her. And many people were expecting a close match, and Petra Kvitova just played the most perfect match.

And then the men - just a great final again because, you know, in one respect, tennis is soap opera. It's a soap opera with tennis balls and rackets and sweat thrown in. And in the men's final, you had two back stories. You had Roger Federer, who has got 17 titles. He's now 32, which is getting on a bit for someone playing on that level. And he's desperate to get at least one more grand slam. I compared it in a piece that we wrote to being Mohammad Ali - do you remember when he had the Rumble in the Jungle? And everyone was saying, you know, you're too old - you should give it in now and, you know, you'll hurt yourself. Don't have that last fight. And he did and he won. I think Federer is looking at that sort of trajectory. So that was his Holy Grail was one more slam. And he was against Novak Djokovic, the Serbian who is a great player - a really dominant player at the moment, with the bugbear that of the last four grand slam finals he has appeared in, he had lost three of them. And so psychologically he was beginning to doubt himself, and to - whether he really was, you know, the kind of champion that he wanted to be and that everyone thought he would be. And so what they produced was an absolutely enthralling contest that went for five sets. And as we know, Djokovic came out on top. But Federer was mighty close.

MARTIN: So it sounds to me that you're saying that the excitement of the men's match wasn't even necessarily the physicality of it, but the emotion of it, the mental strength of it...

MUIR: So often...

MARTIN: Is that it?

MUIR: So often in tennis, the back story is what makes it exciting. And because you know why both of the players are trying to do what they're trying to do and how they're trying to do it. Psychology is so important here.

MARTIN: You know, there were some early exits from big names - previous big names - like last year's men's winner Andy Murray, five time women's champion Serena Williams. Did that change the tenor of things? I mean, how - does that make things more exciting or less? I mean, sometimes, you know, people are looking forward to seeing these stars and when they're not there, it sort of changes things. What effect do you think that that had on the tournament?

MUIR: Michel, that was responsible for a lot of the buzz around Wimbledon because, you know, we've all really enjoyed these players who've been at the top of the sport for so long. But you do want some change and you do want some unpredictability. And so, you know, certainly in Britain, when Andy Murray wasn't able to defend his title, we were very disappointed. But he lost to Grigor Dimitrov, who people call baby Federer...

(LAUGHTER)

MUIR: ...Because there are similarities between the very stylish, graceful way that Federer plays and the way that Dmitrov plays. He's box office as well because he's the boyfriend of Maria Sharapova at the moment. And so - what you kind of had was a dynamic whereby you had a lot of younger players beginning to assert themselves - and here you're thinking of Eugenie Bouchard, who I've mentioned before and Nick Kyrgios, the Australian who beat Rafa Nadal and Dmitrov. So these are places just coming through. And they were kind of saying to the old guard look, you know, it's our time now. Why don't you move aside? And the old guard was saying I don't think so.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask about the Williams sisters. Both Williams sisters were out in the third round and then Serena seemed to be quite ill. They have been so critical to the sport in so many ways. Is the Williams era finished in your view, and secondly, do you think that what they've brought to the sport will last, or is it just unique to them?

MUIR: I think they changed it, absolutely because I think that the way that kind of power game, the way that they hit from the baseline, basically has been a template for a lot of other women players. And so I think that they - if there's a mold, I think that they created that mold. I worry more in the future for Venus because she has been struggling and doesn't really look as if she has a path back to being where she was.

Serena's slightly different in that - Serena - you can never really tell what the trajectory is because one minute, she'll have an absolutely fantastic tournament and no one will be able to get near her and she'll win really quite easily. And then, the next tournament, she'll go out quite quickly. And you then wonder - well, is it about focus, is that because there are other things that she's doing? So you'll never be able to say of Serena oh, that's it. She's probably won her last tournament because she can come back and just be a powerhouse in the next one.

MARTIN: You said that you they think change the sport - how so?

MUIR: I once saw them playing doubles and I've never seen doubles like it. I mean, doubles is really - the real sort of British etiquette bit of the game. And the way they did it, with kind of just the power and the intensity - I mean, in a way it was frightening. I was watching it through my - through closed fingers. It was extraordinary.

(LAUGHTER)

MUIR: And so, you know - and I think that, you know, they've probably forced everybody to just become stronger, fitter and certainly forced everyone to play at a much higher level. Now, you can talk then about, you know, whether or not their backgrounds are important. And I hope that will be important because, you know, no one gave them what they had. They came from quite ordinary backgrounds and fought their way to where they are. And I think you want to see a bit more of that in tennis.

So much of tennis is about back story. And when you know that, you know, that people have had to fight for it. You know that Novak Djokovic in Serbia in his formative years was during the war. But I think he did a lot of practice in a swimming pool that had no water in it, and they'd have - and every time the bombers came over, they'd have to cover it up and he'd have to run inside.

These are extraordinary - we see them now as very rich, successful sportspeople. But a lot of them have been through quite difficulties. And maybe that's why they are where they are. Maybe tennis is a very difficult, attritional game in many ways. It's very hard to keep your level of intensity. It's very hard to travel the world and to produce your best when you don't quite feel as well as you might.

So I think it takes certain qualities and a certain durability. And maybe people who've had to fight their way out from a difficult start make for better tennis players. Maybe that's what we should be looking for in this country, where as you know, we yearn for champions. We have Andy Murray now - a very good example. You know, he wasn't very well-to-do. He's from an ordinary - from Dunblane, an ordinary town in Scotland. But from day one, from the first time you saw him, you just realized that he had a real fire and a real intensity about him. And I suspect that's had a lot to do with his success.

MARTIN: Hugh Muir is an editor with The Guardian newspaper in England. He was kind enough to join us from a studio there. Hugh Muir, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MUIR: You're welcome.

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