Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Legs Feed the Wolf

As France's Marion Bartoli neared the conclusion of her straight–set triumph over Germany's Sabine Lisicki in Saturday's Wimbledon women's final, the announcing team — which included 10–time Wimbledon finalist Chris Evert — looked for explanations for Lisicki's apparent collapse.

It was suggested that Lisicki, who gained a reputation as a "giant killer" in this year's tournament, simply couldn't maintain that level of intensity. She knocked off Serena Williams in the fourth round, then defeated fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the semifinal. Bartoli wasn't the big name that the other two were, but she was seeded in the top 20 (Lisicki was 23rd) — and, as always in a Grand Slam tournament, when you're in the final, you can count on facing an opponent who has been playing very well for at least the last couple of weeks.

It isn't impossible, the announcers agreed, for a player to remain focused against three more highly regarded opponents in the same week. It's just very hard to do, especially at the Wimbledon level.

I agree, but for a different reason.

Women's tennis matches are best–of–three–sets affairs. Men's matches are best of five. A quick start is essential in women's tennis because it is a comparative sprint. A fast start is important in men's tennis, too, but it is easier to overcome a bad set in men's tennis — unless it is the fifth one. It's more of a marathon.

If you have a bad first set in women's tennis, your back is against the wall.

And that was the situation Lisicki faced today. She lost the opening set to Bartoli, 6–1, and knew right then she would have to go the three–set distance to win the title.

She had done it before in this tournament.

Two days earlier, she beat Radwanska in three sets. That third set was a doozy, too, a marathon, and Lisicki finally prevailed, 9–7. Epic.

On Monday, Lisicki beat Williams in three sets. She won the first one, then lost the second one and had to turn back the champion in the third set, 6–4.

A few days before her match with Williams, Lisicki needed three sets to beat the lesser known but just as dangerous Samantha Stosur from Australia.

To reach the finals at Wimbledon, it was necessary to win six matches. Lisicki needed three sets to win half of them.

Bartoli, by comparison, won all six of her previous matches in straight sets, just as she did today, and she never faced anyone who was seeded higher than she.

As late U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks allegedly said, "The legs feed the wolf." I don't know if Brooks really said that, but, whether he did or didn't, it was appropriate for his U.S. hockey team in 1980 and it is appropriate for this year's Wimbledon women's final.

It speaks to endurance. Strong legs permit a wolf to outrun its prey.

I think Lisicki ran out of gas. It wasn't a matter of motivation or emotion. She showed plenty of emotion when the match was over, and Bartoli accepted the trophy Lisicki had dreamed would be hers. The spirit was willing, but the flesh, worn down by seemingly endless tests in the earlier rounds, was too weak.

Killing the other giants had taken too much from her.

Bartoli, on the other hand, was fresh. She hadn't lost a set in the whole tournament. She had more left in the tank. A lot more. Once she got over her first–set jitters — and there weren't many of those — she could have gone into cruise control against the increasingly frantic but ineffective Lisicki.

The legs feed the wolf.

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