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The return of the old guard at Wimbledon

Following a year’s hiatus owing to covid-19, The Championships returns, looking for a new start with the stars of old

With 19 Grand Slam titles, Novak Djokovic is now eyeing the “Golden Grand Slam” (the four majors and the Olympics gold.) (Getty Images)

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It began on 27 April, with Wimbledon’s annual spring press conference, when the All England Lawn Tennis Club’s (AELTC’s) chairman, Ian Hewitt, declared, “Wimbledon will be back this summer.” It was the only Grand Slam cancelled in 2020 owing to the covid-19 pandemic—the first time Wimbledon had been cancelled since World War II.

Signs of the times were visible through the press conference, in details like the “social distance” Hewitt maintained, the only other member on the dais being AELTC’s first female CEO, Sally Bolton. The total prize money has been lowered by 5.2%—from £36,919,000 (around 380 crore) in 2019 to £35,016,000 in 2021. Players will be kept in a bio-bubble (official hotels) and won’t have access to private housing. The Grand Slam will begin with 50% capacity crowds on 28 June. People queueing up overnight for tickets, one of the more unique things about the tournament, will be missing this year. Tickets can only be bought online through “Ticketmaster” and resale in the grounds is prohibited.

Most importantly, however, the show will restart in the sport’s most hallowed stadium.

Over the past two decades or so, especially in men’s tennis, grass has become the domain of the GOATS (Greatest of All Times).
Over the past two decades or so, especially in men’s tennis, grass has become the domain of the GOATS (Greatest of All Times). (Getty Images)

Very few sporting events are as visually striking and alluring as The Championships. Tucked away in the posh Wimbledon “village” in South West London is a world of sun-kissed green courts, players in neat whites, plump red strawberries sitting in beds of cream, and green and purple trims through the grounds. “Wimbledon, I think it’s very special for every country. Here the tennis was born, let’s say,” 2019 ladies champion Simona Halep had said in the press conference, summarising the event’s global appeal.

There are four Grand Slam tournaments in tennis but Wimbledon is the first among equals. Even though it has tried to stay in touch with the present, embracing technology and offering equal prize money for male and female players, it is built on traditions. Former champion Jimmy Connors, drawing comparisons with the US Open, once noted: “New Yorkers love it when you spill your guts out there. Spill your guts at Wimbledon and they make you stop and clean it up.”

An illustration of The Lawn Tennis Championship Meeting at Wimbledon from ‘The Graphic’ magazine, 1881.
An illustration of The Lawn Tennis Championship Meeting at Wimbledon from ‘The Graphic’ magazine, 1881. (Getty Images)

Though it can be stifling for some players (most famously Connors’ fellow American, Andre Agassi, who skipped the event in the first few years of his career), Wimbledon’s unbending customs are a nod to the world as we knew it. After a year of pandemic-induced tumult, The Championships feels like an oasis of old in a new, hastily altered reality.

The decision to cancel the event last year, difficult though it was, was perhaps made a little easier by the fact that the tournament had had—through sheer genius or a remarkable stroke of luck—insurance against a pandemic since 2003. But since they were given an insurance payout of $141 million, they do not have that luxury this year—owing to the covid-19 outbreak, they have been unable to get a similar insurance policy as yet. Yet circumstances, it appears, have improved enough to celebrate the sport at its sacred home.

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In another attempt to resume normal service, the organisers have said that while attendance for initial matches will be limited to 50 %, the semi-finals and finals will have 100% spectator attendance (15,000) on Centre Court. Spectators will need a negative covid-19 lateral flow test result (taken in the 48 hours prior to attending The Championships) and proof of full a vaccination, at least two weeks earlier. It is set to be the first sporting event in the country to be staged at full capacity since the pandemic.

Grass is for GOATS

In the 1960s, before he became the first Spaniard to win Wimbledon, Manuel Santana had famously dismissed it, saying, “Grass is for cows.” Over the years, it has become some sort of urban legend, with players like Ivan Lendl (for whom Wimbledon remained the only Grand Slam he couldn’t conquer) and Marat Safin repeating it. But over the past two decades or so, especially in men’s tennis, grass has become the domain of the GOATS (Greatest of All Times). This is where Pete Sampras won seven titles and Roger Federer, eight.

Federer will return to the site of his 2019 heartbreak this year.
Federer will return to the site of his 2019 heartbreak this year. (Getty Images)

For the past 17 years, starting with Federer’s first Wimbledon title in 2003, Andy Murray is the only player outside the Big 3 (Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic) to have won the trophy. The Brit won it in 2013 and again in 2016, briefly peaking high enough to share the same rarefied space as the other three. But even as Murray’s powers have waned, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic continue to be locked in the race for most Grand Slam titles. While Federer and Nadal are tied at 20 apiece, Djokovic is at 19, closing in fast.

Everything, all my strengths get amplified (on grass): the slider wide, the slice, taking the ball early, and the returns.... It’s a good surface but you have to be very creative on this surface, a positive thinker. —Roger Federer

Nadal will be absent this year and Murray, ranked outside the top 120, has been awarded a wild card into the main draw. The 34-year-old has played only five matches this season, lost three of them, and is more of an emotional contender at this point. World No.1 Djokovic made possibly the biggest statement of intent this month when he dethroned 13-time champion Nadal at the French Open. In a high-quality, high-octane encounter, the Serb broke through Nadal’s defences for a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2 win in the semi-final of Roland Garros. It was only the third time Nadal had lost at the French Open, a fortress he has guarded for the past decade and a half.

Djokovic then went on to defeat Stefanos Tsitsipas, 12 years his junior, in five sets to win the French Open. That made him the first man in the Open Era (since 1968) to win each of the four majors at least twice. Having won the first two Grand Slams, Djokovic is now eyeing the “Golden Grand Slam” (the four majors and the Olympics gold.) “Everything is possible,” he said after his French Open win. “I can say that what I have been through in my career, in my life, this journey has been terrific so far. I have achieved some things that a lot of people thought it would be not possible for me to achieve.

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“Everything is possible, and I did put myself in a good position to go for the Golden Slam. But, you know, I was in this position in 2016 as well. It ended up in a third-round loss in Wimbledon,” said the 34-year-old, a five-time Wimbledon winner. “This year we have only two weeks between the first round of Wimbledon and the finals here (the French Open), which is not ideal because you go from really two completely different surfaces, trying to make that transition as smooth as possible, as quickly and efficiently as possible. I don’t have an issue to say that I am going for the title in Wimbledon. Of course, I am.”

The Serb will enter Wimbledon as the two-time defending champion. In 2019, he handed Federer the latter’s most devastating loss, even greater than the Swiss’ 2008 defeat to Nadal, in the final. With the crowd cheering Federer on to the finish line, Djokovic fought back from two championship points down, 15-40 on Federer’s serve, to snatch a 7-6, 1-6, 7-6, 4-6, 13-12 victory.

Roger Federer's fans at Centre Court during the The Championships.
Roger Federer's fans at Centre Court during the The Championships. (Getty Images)

Less than two months shy of his 40th birthday, Federer will return to the site of his heartbreak this year. A lot has happened in the world and in his career since the 2019 defeat. The Swiss maestro missed most of the 2020 season—in fact, he only played the Australian Open last year—due to two knee surgeries. His return was delayed as the recovery was slow.

Federer withdrew from a Grand Slam mid-way through for the first time in his career when he pulled out of the French Open after the third round. Playing his first night session at Roland Garros, he was given a much tougher fight by Germany’s Dominik Koepfer than he had anticipated. Though he scraped past Koepfer 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, 7-5, he was spent.

“The goal is grass,” Federer had said even before the French Open. The lawns of tennis are where he is happiest and his game most dazzling. “Yesterday, as I was hitting balls, Ivan (Ljubicic), my coach, was telling me, ‘It’s amazing how clean you hit the ball on grass. How easy it comes to you,’” said Federer, starting his grass season at the Noventi Open in Halle, Germany, which began on 14 June.

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“Everything, all my strengths get amplified (on grass): the slider wide, the slice, taking the ball early, and the returns. Where many players think these are difficult things to do, for me it comes naturally. For that reason, it’s a good surface but you have to be very creative on this surface, a positive thinker,” he said.

But Federer’s good mood going into Halle didn’t translate into good results. He lost in the second round to 20-year-old Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-4, 3-6, 2-6. The Swiss has won 10 titles in Halle, more than he has won anywhere else, and after the disappointing loss, said he could not “accept” his performance in the third set.

“It’s a huge challenge for me. Everybody who has been in multiple surgeries or a tough surgery knows what I am talking about,” he said. “Things don’t come simple. You second-guess yourself rather quickly unfortunately and that’s sometimes the biggest worry: the worry of pain or the worry of how you are going to feel the next day or when you wake up, the first steps, how did they feel? All this stuff, it takes a little bit of a toll on you sometimes…. I just think the consistency point for point has not been easy for me in the comeback.”

As Federer showed at Roland Garros, he is still a different, and pretty difficult-to-beat player at the majors. But he doesn’t have too many matches under his belt and the doubts over whether his body can hold up will be at the back of his mind when he arrives at Wimbledon. Considering the four tournaments he has played so far, we already know Federer’s comeback in 2021 will be vastly different from the resurgence in 2017. But he will still hope to save his best for Wimbledon. If not here, then where?

The record quest of Serena Williams

The immaculate grass courts, trimmed at exactly 8mm, demand a level of exacting perfection that can be difficult to live with. Just like the men’s draw, it is the most dominant player in women’s tennis who has ruled in the past two decades. Serena Williams, with 23 majors, is the current Open Era record holder. She has been crowned Wimbledon champion seven times. Her sister, Venus, has won it five times.

Serena Williams, with 23 majors, is the current Open Era record holder.
Serena Williams, with 23 majors, is the current Open Era record holder. (Reuters)

“Like Roger Federer, I would give Serena a better chance at Wimbledon because the grass is perfect for her game,” former champion Chris Evert recently told Eurosport. “It favours power and speed and big first serves.”

Ever since she won her first title at the US Open in 1999, Serena Williams has been in a league of her own. Over the years, she has carried the burden of expectations, of being the leading lady in women’s tennis, with ease. But history has weighed on her since she made a comeback after childbirth in 2018. She had taken a break in 2017, winning the Australian Open when she was already a few weeks pregnant. Her majors tally stood at 23, one short of the all-time record held by Australia’s Margaret Court.

Many believed the legendary American, also 39 now, would slip right back on to her throne. And she almost did it. Having returned in the spring of 2018, after complicated multiple surgeries following the birth of her daughter Olympia, Williams reached the final of Wimbledon and then the US Open 2018. Inexplicably, Williams, one of the best big-match players around, lost both the finals in straight sets. She suffered the same fate in 2019.

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Angelique Kerber, Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep and Bianca Andreescu (in that order) were runaway champions against the greatest player in the world. Andreescu and Osaka, were playing their first major final. Was the once all-conquering Williams too slow? Too nervous? Too old? The record, which seemed within touching distance at one point, has become more elusive with every Slam. Her record in the last five majors: record: third round, second round, semi-final, semi-final, fourth round.

Williams will be relying on experience more than form at Wimbledon. She hasn’t played since the French Open in early June and has skipped grass- court warm-up events. But as Evert stated, Williams will rekindle hope at Wimbledon. “On the grass, if Serena is fit and that serve is working, then that’s half of the match right there,” 18-time singles Grand Slam champion Evert added. “I think she has confidence on the grass she could do well. She has that experience and flexibility.”

Too green for the young ’uns

As tennis’ epicentre, in terms of players, has shifted from the US and Australia to Europe, Wimbledon has become the most difficult Slam to win. Youngsters are now bred on clay or hard courts. The grass-court season has shrunk to five weeks in a year (this year it was only four as the French Open overlapped with the first week on grass), making the surface more alien than ever.

The days when teenagers like Boris Becker could dive-bomb their way to the title seem well over. Wimbledon hasn’t seen a first-time Grand Slam winner since 2003 (Federer) and 2013 (Marion Bartoli) in the men’s and women’s fields. In 2019, the brightest new talents were swept away on the opening day. Osaka, Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev all fell in the first round. That year, Osaka had won the Australian Open, where Tsitsipas had defeated Federer en route the semi-final.

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“When I am playing out there, I don’t really play my game the way I want to play because the grass just forces you to change,” Tsitsipas said after the defeat. “You have to stay lower. You have to kind of make these micro changes in your game, the way you serve, because the ball is sliding, the ball is staying low. That’s what I am really frustrated about. I don’t play my game. I play someone else’s game. I had a lot of miss-hits today during the match. It felt like I couldn’t deal with the ball. It felt like I was lost, going for too much or going for nothing. There was no balance in what I was doing.”

It’s a surface the younger players have struggled with. The turf demands subtlety, nuance and an expertise they haven’t spent enough time honing.

Osaka will be missing in action this year as she is still on a break from tennis and the mandatory media requirements that come with it. Tsitsipas made it to the French Open final but doesn’t have form on grass. He has a 3-3 win-loss record at Wimbledon and has not played any of the warm-up events. World No.2 Daniil Medvedev has never gone past the third round at the Slam. Of the younger players, Matteo Berrettini, who won the title at Queen’s Club on 20 June, is the only one to have gone as far as the Wimbledon quarter-finals.

Sport always craves new champions and fresh narratives but it is the storylines of the enduring greatness of Federer, Djokovic and Serena Williams that will dominate ahead of Wimbledon 2021. The stars of the pre-pandemic world may well end up dominating the tournament that is the ultimate throwback to the world as it was before 2020.

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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