Friday, July 07, 2006

The death of Wimbledon

Take a close look at that first photo above, from the McEnroe-Connors match in 1984. Notice the wear and tear between the service line and the net.

Now look at the two photos below, taken at the final weekend of Wimbledon 2005.

Observe the almost total absence of wear and tear in the middle of the court. As a tennis fan, I find this devastating.

There are those who believe that tennis is at it's best on the clay of Roland Garros. I am certainly not one of them. Tennis, for me, was at it's best at Wimbledon many years ago. Tennis is not just about baseline slugfests. It's potentially the most poetic of sports, and it's greats have wielded their rackets as Michaelangelo wielded his brush.

Wimbledon has caved in to populist media over the years, and slowed down it's courts and introduced heavier balls. Watching the 2006 tournament unfold, I am struck by the fact that I could really be watching the Aussie Open. And that's decidedly not what I want to see on the hallowed turf.

Serving and volleying is tennis at it's purest and most exciting. The aggressor follows his serve in, and prowls the net, while his opponent looks to create the angles for the most exquisite of passing shots. Occasionally, both find their way into the centre, and a fusillade of volleys can ensue. The entire court is the player's canvas, and the champions are those with total mastery. Witness Federer.

Pete Sampras claimed the other day to be a serve and volleyer, and that he would continue to be one until the day he died. He wasn't. McEnroe, Edberg, even Pat Rafter - those were genuine serve and volleyers. No co-incidence that they are amongst the finest artists to play the game. Roger Federer too, served and volleyed through his first Wimbledon. He's an exception of course, he can win beautifully anywhere, anytime. The likes of Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisivec, Tim Henman and others have played the game the way it was meant to be, even if they weren't all natural volleyers.

I wouldn't be surprise if grass court tennis disappears in another few years. It's already nothing more than a pretence. The game and the world will be much the poorer for it, but apparently it's only some of the players who recognize just how special Wimbledon really should be. Personally, I'd like to see a shift in the opposite direction. Extend the grass-court season, and watch the art of tennis mount a revival.

Yes, baseliners can occasionally be great to watch, when they have that something special. Martina Hingis played beautiful tennis, and Roger Federer does whether he stays back or comes in. But a Federer comes along once in a lifetime, and what the game sorely lacks are the Edbergs, Beckers, McEnroes, Navratilovas and others of their ilk.

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