By Rahul Jacob
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Wimbledon this year has seemed as if it were a republic in permanent revolution. The seedings have been turned on their head for the most part; as if in a coup, foot soldiers on the tennis tour have mowed down decorated generals and established leaders. The weekend before the tennis started the women’s top seed Iga Swiatek, who arrived at the All England Club on a hot streak of 35 consecutive wins, which included the French Open on clay and the prestigious hardcourt event in Miami, was reminiscing about highlights of her win at Wimbledon as a junior a few years earlier.
On Saturday, however, the likeable Pole was thrashed by Alize Cornet 4-6, 2-6 in the third round and looked as if she were experiencing a throwback to her less experienced days. The women’s second seed, Anett Kontaveit, had been trounced in the second round in straight sets, losing the second 0-6. By the quarter-finals, only two of the top 16 seeds had not been mowed down—Ons Jabeur, the Tunisian third seed, and Simona Halep, the Romanian Wimbledon winner in 2019, who is seeded 16 this year.
The men’s seedings were a better predictor of form but even so revolutionary carnage was the norm. The two top seeds, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, seemed as imperial as ever but Covid struck like a medieval plague: Matteo Berrettini, last year’s finalist, and Marin Cilic, a finalist in 2017, had to pull out because they tested positive. Before the pre-quarterfinals, Norwegian Casper Rudd and Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, had lost as well.
THE FUTURE OF TENNIS?
Amid the carnage, beacons of hope emerged. The five-set battle of winners struck so hard they seemed like gunshots on Sunday between 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz and the gangly Italian, Jannik Sinner, 20. Sinner lost to Djokovic in the quarterfinals but put up a strong fight against the Serb and took two sets off him at the start of the match. Amidst all the concern about what will happen when the Big Three retire, and the inability of the likes of Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev to mount a consistent challenge, Alcaraz and Sinner look like more convincing heirs. The Big Three have been in control for so long, that perhaps it will require skipping to the highly charismatic Alcaraz and Sinner, to fill the gigantic void when Nadal, Djokovic and Federer retire.
Sunday’s marchpast of champions to celebrate Centre Court’s 100th anniversary, tellingly featured the loudest cheers for Roger Federer. He hasn’t played competitive tennis since crashing out of Wimbledon last year and is battling a recurrent knee injury. Crowds at Wimbledon are significantly below pre pandemic levels, and Federer’s absence is being blamed. He promised to be back “one more time" after his appearance prompted a standing ovation, but dressed in a suit and tie, the Swiss already seemed from another time.
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A TRULY INTERNATIONAL SPORT
Is there any sport quite as international as tennis? The two likely finalists on the women’s side could be the Romanian Simona Halep from Romania versus the Tunisian Ons Jabeur. The last eight in the men’s event feature a Chilean, a British citizen who grew up in New Zealand, an Italian and a Serbian who trained as a young boy in Spain and Serbia.
Then there is Nick Kyrgios who is Australian but of Greek and Malaysian origin. He seems perpetually tennis’ definitive bad boy, a throwback to the era of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, and was accused by Tsitsipas of “bullying" after he beat the Greek on Saturday. I encountered Kyrgios after a BBC interview in the press area on Monday. Accompanied by his fiancée, he was a picture of amiability and charm, shyly waving to the noisy crowd of Australian fans.
A SLOW COURT
Several years ago, I wrote an article for the Financial Times bemoaning the death of serve and volley tennis. Wimbledon’s use of a new kind of hard-wearing grass since the early 2000s made the courts slow and the bounce more predictable, allowing baseline play to dominate as it does at other tournaments. The All England Club had made that hugely significant without much transparency. As John McEnroe observed this year, the courts are now playing so slow that the clay courts at Roland Garros may be faster. He said his great rival, Ivan Lendl, might well have won Wimbledon if he had played on today’s courts.
Looking at the parade of former champions, one could indulge that game of ‘what if’ and wonder if the great Australians such as Rod Laver, who looked just a little shaky on his feet as he came on to court, John Newcombe and Margaret Court would have been as successful. Legendary champion of women’s rights Billie Jean King would almost certainly not have won six Wimbledon singles and a record 20 Wimbledon singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles in total. Without that, she might not have had the platform and the celebrity she enjoyed to fight for women’s rights on the tennis court and off it.
For me, a tennis world without McEnroe and King as heroes when I was a child is hard to imagine. I might never have become a tennis obsessive. King and Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon playing alternately explosive and delicate serve and volley tennis in 1975, the first Wimbledon I followed closely. That year, my eldest brother wrote out the entire draw for the men’s and women’s events and pasted it on our bedroom wall in Kolkata. Watching many monotonous baseline slugfests this year in Federer’s absence that seemed as if they were an extension of clay court tennis made my mind wander more than occasionally.
It often seems these days that the grass is merely an optical illusion. Wimbledon’s charms, therefore, seem heightened as an allegory—an undefined yearning for a sporting event where advertising billboards do not impose on the view like skyscrapers in a modern metropolis. Instead, boxes of purple, mauve and cream flowers are everywhere.
Despite thousands of fans milling the grounds, it still seems like an English garden party. The roof at Centre Court, introduced more than a decade ago, still preserves the illusion of an outdoor event. It seems as it too is a wedding veil playing its part in preserving the venue’s old world charm. But to embellish its reputation as the world’s premier tennis event, Wimbledon needs to return to its roots and be more hospitable to serve and volleyers such as the next generation's Federers. Wimbledon’s courts need to be faster and not just because crowds are dwindling but because diversity and artistry is what makes the world—and tennis— interesting.
Rahul Jacob was the travel, food and drink editor for the Financial Times in London and is the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.