Andy Murray, the great British hope come Wimbledon time, is not a man to mince words. On 25 May, almost a month before this year’s Championships, the 35-year-old took to social media to state his position.
“In a few weeks’ time wouldn’t know or care about how many ranking points a player gets for winning a 3rd round match,” he wrote on Twitter. “But I guarantee they will remember who wins. @Wimbledon will never be an exhibition and will never feel like an exhibition. The end.”
It came to this—Murray defending Wimbledon’s prestige, in the centenary year of Centre Court no less—because before the battle on its grass courts could resume, Wimbledon was turned into a diplomatic turf war.
Taking a cue from British politicians, who have imposed sanctions on Russia owing to the war on Ukraine, the All England Lawn Tennis Club, which governs Wimbledon, decided to ban players from Russia and Belarus, which is supporting Russia. It didn’t want to entertain the possibility of a Russian, including the current men’s World No.1, Daniil Medvedev, ending up with the trophy on the final Sunday.
“In the circumstances of such unjustified and unprecedented military aggression, it would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with The Championships,” Wimbledon stated on 20 April. “It is therefore our intention, with deep regret, to decline entries from Russian and Belarusian players to The Championships 2022.”
Wimbledon, which begins on 27 June, is the only Grand Slam to have taken this view. Tennis governing bodies—the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and the men’s Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP)—had banned Russia and Belarus’ national federations. But they allowed individual players to compete under a neutral flag.
Wimbledon’s unilateral decision saw these associations withdraw ranking points from The Championships. In the normal course, the winner of a Grand Slam event earns 2,000 ranking points, the maximum on offer. Rankings are not mere numbers in a meritocratic sport like tennis. They decide seeds, and players’ eligibility for tournaments.
Not many players may subscribe to Wimbledon’s politics but none of the marquee names has pulled out of the tournament.
Staying in the game
“Nobody wants to miss Wimbledon,” Rafael Nadal said after winning his 14th French Open, which saw him take his Grand Slam singles tally to 22. After playing the second week of French Open with a numb foot, Nadal sought further medical help to keep his calendar Grand Slam quest alive. The 36-year-old has won the first two majors of the season—the Australian Open and French Open—for the first time and is keen on continuing the hot streak.
At the start of 2022, the odds were heavily stacked against Nadal. He had called off his 2021 season early due to a foot injury and tested positive for covid-19 in December. But he exceeded all expectations by winning the Australian Open, his least successful Grand Slam till then, in January.
The foot injury resurfaced at the Italian Open (2-15 May) and persisted through the French Open (22 May-5 June). Though he had to inject anaesthetics and painkillers to stay in the tournament, a vintage Nadal battled to his 14th title at Roland Garros. Just a few days later, he underwent radio-frequency ablation (RFA) treatment, a minimally invasive procedure that uses heat to destroy nerve tissue and thus prevent pain.
It remains to be seen how his creaking body will hold up on grass, where the ball skids off the surface and low bounce can be taxing on the knees. The last time Nadal won Wimbledon was in 2010. This is his first crack at The Championships in three years and he arrived at Wimbledon after a week’s practice on Mallorca’s grass courts and only an exhibition event in Hurlingham, UK. The way 2022 has shaped up so far, the “Spanish Bull” will take some stopping.
At the other end of the spectrum is Novak Djokovic, whose downfall after unsuccessfully chasing a calendar Grand Slam last year has been dramatic. Djokovic, who topped the year-end rankings in 2021 for a record seventh time, won the first three Grand Slams of 2021 and made it to the finals of the US Open. But he faltered at the final hurdle, against Medvedev.
Earlier this year, Djokovic’s trip Down Under to defend the Australian Open title turned him into an international figure of hate. The Serb’s anti-vaccination stand saw him being deported from Australia ahead of the Grand Slam after a long legal drama. Though Djokovic gained some momentum ahead of the French Open, he looked off-colour during his quarter-final defeat to Nadal.
Like Nadal, 35-year-old Djokovic entered Wimbledon without playing any of the competitive tune-up events on grass. The Serb is a three-time defending champion at the tournament, which has been of singular importance to his career. Growing up in war-torn Serbia, Wimbledon was the one event he always dreamt of winning.
Each of the six times Djokovic has won the title, he has celebrated by tearing off a few blades of grass and chewing them. In 2018, after spending more than a year in a confused daze, Djokovic resurrected his career on the famous grass courts of SW19. A year later, he scripted a stirring comeback win, from match points down, to beat Wimbledon’s darling, Roger Federer, in an epic contest.
It is just the kind of inspiration Djokovic, a 20-time major winner, will be looking for as he aims to get his Grand Slam run back on track. The Serb will also be aware of the fact that the US Open has a vaccination mandate which makes him, as of now, ineligible for the hard-court major. Wimbledon, then, might be his only chance to win a Grand Slam title this year and narrow the gap with Nadal.
Of the players competing this year, Djokovic has the highest winning percentage on grass: 85%. At Wimbledon, he has won 89% of his matches—79 of the 89 matches he has played at the Grand Slam.
Despite being in their mid-30s, Djokovic and Nadal, the top two seeds, will be the ones to beat at Wimbledon yet again. The men’s draw will be without the top two players in the world: While top-ranked Medvedev, a Russian, is banned, World No.2 Alexander Zverev suffered a brutal fall during his French Open semi-final against Nadal.
Zverev underwent surgery for torn ligaments in the ankle earlier this month. Though the 25-year-old played some of the best tennis of his life in Paris, he wasn’t quite a serious contender at Wimbledon. Grand Slam five-setters are not his forte and Wimbledon is by far his least successful major—he has never reached a quarter-final in London.
Return of the queen
Even though French Open champion Iga Świątek has cemented her place as the leader of the women’s tour, Serena Williams remains the queen bee. Not surprisingly, Williams’ announcement that she will compete at Wimbledon 2022 created quite a flutter.
Rumours had been swirling that the Williams sisters—Serena and Venus—had retired without telling anyone. Ranked 1,208 in the world, Serena was given a wild-card entry. Though she has not played for a year, the 40-year-old poses a real threat to the rest of the field. Grass enhances her attacking, power game. And having won seven titles on these courts may just re-awaken the competitor in her.
Williams will resume her bid for the record-equalling 24th singles Grand Slam title. Though the American has the most number of singles majors (23) in the Open Era (since 1968), she is one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record. Her last Grand Slam win came at the 2017 Australian Open, right before she took a maternity break.
Since her comeback in the spring of 2018, Williams, possibly the most dominant women’s player, has struggled to win the elusive 24th. She reached four Grand Slam finals after coming back from childbirth but couldn’t win a set in any. Losing speed was understandable, but it was the first time the American lost her nerve. Being away from the big stage for over a year may help take off some of the pressure. As she prepares to play her 21st Wimbledon, Williams will be an emotional favourite to claim the crown.
Along with Williams, veteran stars Murray and Stanislas Wawrinka are also defying age and injuries. Murray and Wawrinka have won three Grand Slams each and are the only ones who had consistently challenged the Big 3 (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic) in men’s tennis before injuries halted their march. In their bid to return to top form, both had to start at the very beginning this year.
Even though grass is not his favourite surface—Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam he hasn’t won—Wawrinka had an encouraging result at the Queen’s Club ATP event (officially called Cinch Championships). “It takes time to be back at my age after more than a year off of the Tour,” he said after a win against World No.27 Frances Tiafoe. Wawrinka, who has dropped to 290 in the world, was handed a wild card for Wimbledon and will be playing there for the first time since 2019.
Murray opted out of the French Open, and most of the clay season, to prepare for grass. In Stuttgart, he defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarter-finals to score his first top-5 scalp since 2016. He then beat Nick Kyrgios, one of the trickiest players on the surface, in straight sets to reach the final. Despite suffering an abdominal injury during the final at Stuttgart, which he lost to Matteo Berrettini, he will again lead the British charge in the men’s singles.
Carrying the burden of expectations in the women’s field will be teenager Emma Raducanu. The London resident burst on to the scene last year by reaching the Wimbledon fourth round on her major debut. A few weeks later, she won the US Open and became the first player ever to win a Grand Slam after entering it as a qualifier.
Raducanu hasn’t been able to sustain that level of success—she has compiled a win-loss record of 10-13 since the US Open breakthrough. Quickfire changes in coaching staff, injuries and intense scrutiny haven’t helped. The 19-year-old will once again be in the glare of the spotlight at her home Slam.
One of the reasons pedigree players have endured at the most traditional of tennis tournaments is the sport’s move away from grass courts. There was a time when three of the four Grand Slams— the Australian Open (1905-1987), US Open (1881-1974) and Wimbledon (since 1877)—were played on grass.
While Europeans and South Americans persisted with clay courts, the easier-to-maintain and more cost-effective hard courts took over most of the world. Today, the grass-court season lasts a mere five weeks—including the fortnight of Wimbledon. The US Open and Australian Open have switched to hard courts. The result is, younger players haven’t spent enough time on the only living surface in the game to understand its whims.
The surface switch is particularly tough because it comes on the back of a long European clay swing which begins in the first week of April and ends in the first week of June. While the ball bounces higher and travels slower on clay, it skids off slick grass and tends to stay quite low.
In a tennis season, the switch from clay to grass is one of the most challenging tasks. That remains the case even though Wimbledon’s grass has slowed down considerably since the 1990s, when it was a haven for the big servers. The last true serve and volleyer to win the trophy was Goran Ivanišević in 2001, when he went from wild card to champion during one crazy, emotional run.
Of the younger lot, last year’s finalist, Berrettini, and Kyrgios, when he is in the mood, are the only ones who have enough expertise on grass to derail a Nadal or a Djokovic. While the Italian has a big serve and bigger forehand, Kyrgios has a varied skill set, cheeky and explosive, to call upon if he wants to. Berrettini has been the performer of the grass-court season so far. After being forced out for more than three months due to a hand surgery, he made a comeback earlier his month and has been unstoppable, picking up back-to-back titles in Stuttgart and Queen’s Club, London.
Even though Tsitsipas and Carlos Alcaraz are among the top five seeds, the dangerous floater in the men’s draw may well be Hubert Hurkacz. The Pole’s claim to fame was beating Roger Federer in the quarter-finals of 2021 and handing him a bagel (6-0) in the last set. Federer, recuperating from a third knee surgery in two years, will miss Wimbledon for the first time since his debut in 1999. Meanwhile, Hurkacz has picked up some momentum at the ATP event in Halle, where he dismantled World No.1 Medvedev 6-1, 6-4 in the final to win the title.
The women’s draw is likely to throw up more surprises. All eyes will be on Świątek, who has separated herself from the rest of the pack. The Pole, who won her second French Open title earlier this month, is on a 35-match winning streak. Though grass is not her strongest surface, the 21-year-old has grown in stature in the past few months and her opponents will be wary of the damage the best forehand in the women’s game can wreak on grass.
“I hope she (Serena) draws Iga,” joked Ons Jabuer, who won the WTA title in Berlin and teamed up with Serena Williams in doubles at the Rothesay International Eastbourne (19-25 June). “At least somebody should stop Iga a little bit.”
Świątek is pursuing a rare “Channel Slam”— Serena Williams is the only one to have achieved it in this century—but will come into Wimbledon cold; she hasn’t played any tune-up event on grass. Her best finish at Wimbledon was a fourth round in 2021.
Ready or not, Świątek is set to make the switch like the rest of her peers. The Grand Slam move from clay to grass is not just technically tricky, but visually striking. The sea of red dirt gives way to the pristine lawns of Wimbledon. Grunting gladiators don pure whites and bask in polite applause. And the best players in the world will vie for the oldest Grand Slam trophy in the tennis cabinet. If not for points, at least for prestige.
Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai