Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What makes Wimbledon “Wimbledon”

For most people, June is a time of laying in the sun, eating hotdogs at barbecues and hiking outdoors, but for avid tennis fans the latter part of the month involves not much more than waking up to the green lawns of the All England Club at Wimbledon, England, and sitting glued to the television for the remainder of the day.

The Championships, Wimbledon, is often hailed as the sport’s biggest stage, and the All England Club where it unfolds, the cathedral of tennis itself. There is so much exclusive to the tournament that makes it stand out in the sporting world. Here’s my attempt to capture it in words.

In the rough-and-tumble struggle of physical will and power, sport is often about finding beauty in little things: the finely orchestrated touchdown pass from a quarterback to his receiver, the wonderful execution of a three-pointer that drops through the rim of the basket, or that magnificent diving save by an artful goaltender.

No exalted powers of observation are needed to find beauty at the All England Club, however, from the very backdrop provided by the lush green lawns with their generous share of fountains and lakes to the magicians on the courts themselves, attired in pristine white as per unwavering Wimbledon traditions. The grass surface ensures that there is little slipping and sliding that would get your shoes dirty (as happens in the clay of Paris two weeks prior), or the thumping of hard courts that sends visible shock waves through the knees.

The slick and fast surface offered by the grass demands a higher level of shot-making skill and mental prowess, as opposed to the more physically demanding and brute nature of tennis on its slower counterparts. Not that power ever hurt anyone on a grass court (except that occasional, unfortunate ball boy!)

But what makes Wimbledon special is the unpredictability of the grass that pervades its grounds. As if to defy the British insistence on proper decorum – all-white ensembles, pin drop silences and genteel salutations - the uneven surface of the blades throws up the ball in fickle bounces, low and fast, demanding nothing short of the absolute best from players in terms of footwork and anticipation. A dense carpet of velvety green in the initial week, play is dominated by shorter points and faster exchanges.

On slower surfaces, game plans are often dictated by the ball, disintegrating as they do to long, painstaking rallies till the lesser player causes an error. On grass, however, the ball isn’t waiting around to be missed, so the better players tend to dictate points, take risks and play aggressive, offensive tennis in order to keep the play short. In other words, they construct the points in their heads and write the stories themselves. In the second week of the tournament, patches of dirt begin to peek through the well-worn grass, slightly slowing down play, and adding spatial unpredictability to the already capricious turf.

Little wonder then, that it has always taken the best players to reign supreme at Wimbledon; the Championships rarely reward one-time wonders that sail through two weeks on account of dream runs and good fortunes. Down under in Melbourne, this can happen as summer fatigue, and injuries and retirements after long hiatuses often see top players bid farewell in unforeseen losses. The French Open, for its part, throws up some unlikely winners on account of a drastically different playing style.

If the carefully-manicured lawns of Wimbledon are untameable, so is Mother Nature. A familiar sight during the Championships is the ominous premonition of impending rain looming over the English skies. As behooves the country-club nature of the sport, players don’t toil through rain and snow. Hell, they can barely focus over a catcall! Heavy tarpaulin sheets are hence summoned at the very hint of a drizzle and the fastidious courts are covered for the duration of bad weather. This year, however, the big story at tennis’s cathedral is the retractable roof over Center Court, which would render this age-old tradition obsolete. Painstaking as it often proves to be, the spectacle will be missed!

As if to add to the capriciousness, there’s Court No. 2, “the graveyard of champions,” which is known to ruthlessly dismiss top dogs in a hurry; it famously eliminated three-time champion Venus Williams to a relative unknown a few years ago, and yesterday, it saw the exit of American James Blake in the first round. Past casualties of the graveyard court include such greats as Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Martina Hingis, and Serena Williams. Many reasons have been given for this seeming mystery, like distractions from the restaurant on the upper deck and the lower bounce of the ball, but the most compelling one yet is that it simply favors the underdog.

Few sporting events display the kind of panache and flair that Wimbledon does. This is the only tournament that would prompt Roger Federer – classy though he is – to show up in a custom-made blazer with initials emblazoned, or a well-tailored waistcoat to suit his sartorial style.

And why wouldn’t he? From the sharply attired club officials – in Ralph Lauren, no less – to members of the royal family in the royal box, Wimbledon is all about class. Then there are the celebrities dotting the stands, who often have no clue what they’re watching except the people watching them, hall of famers with their scrutinizing expressions and ‘pearls’ of wisdom (I’m sorry, if you’re not sitting in the ESPN box, you obviously don’t know what you’re talking about, as opposed to Dick Enberg who does), press conferences with crisp British accents intoning not-so-crisp questions and of course, nothing screams sultry, sweltering, sweaty sport like the Duke and Duchess of Kent. The strawberries and cream and champagne add flair to the fare.

The Championships are steeped in irony. About a decade ago, Tim Henman carried the hopes and dreams of an entire nation on his shoulders to Center Court. However, Henman, the former great British hope to win the tournament, famously lost to Pete Sampras in all three of their meetings at Wimbledon. And you can hardly blame him. The supremacy of the American legend on grass was such that he won 55 out of 56 matches at the All England Club in eight straight years.

Henman is now over the hill in tennis years, but his hill still exists just outside the grandest stage of the tournament. “Henman hill” is what the Brits fondly call the little showcourt area they occupied for years to root for their compatriot and watch him on a big screen outside Center Court.

Now, that pressure has shifted to young Scot Andy Murray, currently the third best player in the world. The last British man to win Wimbledon was Fred Perry in 1936, so it's hard to admonish the English for their urgency in anointing their next big hope. Murray, though a stellar player in his own right, faces his own Pete Sampras.

Roger Federer has won 41 of his last 42 matches at Wimbledon in six consecutive years. However, last year also saw Federer’s worst and Murray’s best, and the Scot has gotten the better of the Swiss in four of their past five meetings; none of those meetings, however, carried the weight and pressure of the world’s most prestigious tournament.

Even so, the dream of seeing him lift the trophy gathers steam this season and “Murray mound” has quickly been elevated to the status of a mountain, reflecting not only the 22 year old’s ascendancy in the tennis world, but also the injury-ridden absence of Rafael Nadal, Federer’s closest challenger, and incidentally the man who took that one match from him last year.

Yet, if all goes well for Murray, he may well lay hands on the coveted trophy, but still deny the Brits their one big wish. Murray is widely reported to have insisted that he is Scottish, not English, and his dislike of the British soccer team is well known.

Despite recent retractments, when it eventually happens, he may well go down in history as the Scot that won Wimbledon. And the British crowds will be left to look within themselves for their man.