Wimbledon... The Perfect Grand Slam
June 22, 2009 -- Players show a particular reverence for The Wimbledon Championships. To a great extent, their sensitivity of all things Wimbledon reaches fans and media, drawing them inside their world.
As visitors and fans pass through the gates of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club a slight breathless sense of why players elevate this Grand Slam above the other three becomes somewhat apparent, although they cannot know firsthand what it feels like to play a match on any one of these courts that are perfectly manicured by those committed to this hallowed venue and to the game of tennis. Signs abound, though, to capture and transform into personal and eternal memories of enjoyment for those aware enough and eager enough. They can hear the hollow sound of the ball striking the string bed. They can watch players move around the court, but hear practically nothing. The grass muffles things. It is a silence known only here.
All seventeen courts used for play are now solid green, wall-to-wall grass carpeting. In a week or more, this pristine reality will have changed especially along the baseline. It will be almost barren, as if a whirlwind had swept through one night without anyone's notice or protest.
In the 1970s and 1980s, courts showed signs of wear toward the net, too, because players served and volleyed. Today, the graceful perfection of a forgone Wimbledon dance has been altered by racquet and string technologies, ultra fit players, and the composition of the grass itself, almost forcing players to hug the baseline and wait for the exact moment a drop shot will catch someone off-guard and off-balance. It has become the millenniums 'gotcha shot' on grass. Its effectiveness is devastating because the grass cuddles the ball, cushioning its landing spot. There is little to no bounce. The ball dies quickly. The most nimble man or woman cannot run fast enough to return this shot.
Wimbledon points to perfection because no advertisements vie for attention on the walls rimming any court. And for all its advancements in retractable, translucent roofs Wimbledon is the least commercialized of any Grand Slam by choice and, ironically, attendance today was higher than in years past.
You have to wonder if the big corporate sponsors of the U. S. Open ever considered cutting back on persuasive promotional attempts that attract attention, sell, and impact revenues. Maybe less is more, if the venue and substance of entertainment outweighs the promise of the newest and shiniest gadget you cannot, or should not, live without for one second longer. This one Grand Slam equates to days in church for all the holiness it possesses and contributes to people who walk between Courts 8 and 9, buy tickets the day of a match, and sit quietly knowing history will speak of what they witness -- their bonus subscription to a day at The Championships Wimbledon.
At Wimbledon players are addressed formally: Mr. Federer; Miss Sharapova; and Miss Serena Williams. There's none of the familiar. The two top categories of the fortnight are Gentlemen's Singles and Ladies' Singles. No wonder the audience is so well mannered and quiet. The players have transformed their Wimbledon into a royal garden of sport. Tradition lives on.
And speaking of tradition, Roger Federer debuted on the new Centre Court early this afternoon, officially becoming the first man to play a match on the redesigned site. Two thousand additional fans were able to see Federer play the type of tennis that exemplifies the more graceful end of the player spectrum.
Mr. Federer wore a three-piece white suit upon entrance, casting minds ever backward to the days of Bill Tilden and Fred Perry. Federer's ensemble was complete with vest, jacket and pants, each accented with a stripe of gold -- the color of wealth, good health, and the highest of achievement. He wore the vest and pants as he warmed up with his opponent Yen-Hsun Lu, the sacrificial lamb of the round. But when he got down to business, he shed the layers provided by his corporate sponsor and dazzled the audience with a straight set victory over the man from Chinese Taipei 75 64 62.
The score line could be read as a casual day at the office. However, Roger Federer seeks a fifteenth Grand Slam title here, which he has already won five times. With Rafael Nadal at home in Majorca and Andy Murray on the opposite side of the draw, Mr. Federer's chances of taking top honors again are very good. He is relaxed, confident, and hungry. His breakthrough victory at Roland Garros just two short weeks ago was an accomplishment he had struggled to attain for his entire tennis career. He has no reason to be nervous. He's home.
Maria Sharapova, seeded 24th, struggled initially against a heavy-hitting and brittle-squealing young lady from Ukraine named Viktoriya Kutuzova. Their styles were similar. They hit flat balls. They didn't waste time returning. Sharapova looked lost when she was down 1-4 in the first set. But, like always, she fought back to win the set on a break of serve 7-5 and then went on to win the match, closing it out in the second 6-4.
Maria's white dress with organdy ribbon accents separated her, in a design sense, from the remainder of the ladies in this draw. At six-feet-two-inches any ole white dress probably would look divine on Miss Sharapova. But it is this dress that matches her stately physique and aggressive game on grass. Some predict she will hoist the Venus Rosewater platter in two weeks time. A few will try to stop her, especially Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams: two of the seeded players in Maria's quarter of the draw.
American James Blake wishes he had another chance at this year's Wimbledon. But Andreas Seppi defeated him. Blake had a golden opportunity in the third-set tiebreak, after having lost the first two sets to the Italian. James was up 5-0. All he needed was two points, and the match would have continued. Instead, Seppi ran off the next seven points, bringing to an end a dismal performance for the #17 seed and American hopeful.
Mr. Blake couldn't say exactly why his performance was so off. He'd gotten to the finals at Queen's and had had a great week of practice on grass. Today his stomach was a bit upset, but it wasn't debilitating. His fitness, too, was right on. However, he pointed to the ATP and its scheduling of tournaments as problematic for all players -- an interesting comment at the tail end of his press conference.
"There's really not many ways to mess with the schedule, to take tournaments away," James began. "But it would definitely help the players' careers be a little bit longer. I don't want to sit here and say there's an easy solution, because I know it's tough. I've been on the Player Council. I know how difficult those meetings are, how much the tournaments want to hold on to their sports. But for the players' longevity, something should be done."
Even though Wimbledon will command history's attention for the next two weeks, the issues that underlie the game percolate no matter the locale. Missing this year is the defending champion Rafael Nadal. The hallowed halls of Wimbledon will miss this remarkable champion, given the historic match he played last year against Roger Federer. Mr. Nadal's knees are not well. His aggressive, physical game and astonishing drive to win could be his formula for a shortened career. Everyone who knows him and has watched him play hopes this is not the case, and that with rest and rehabilitation the world's number one player will return to Center Court next year.