The Only Game In Town
Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer.
My favourite cricketer hasn’t changed since I started following cricket. My favourite football team will always be Manchester United. But my loyalties in tennis have changed over the years, in the chronological order noted above.
It was impossible to not like Edberg. He might not have evoked the kind of raw passion that a rabid Nadal fan is likely to show today, but I have never come across a tennis fan who actively disliked Edberg. I don’t think I ever will, either. He was, and remains, one of the most likeable of tennis players – a consummate gentleman on and off the court. Also, he could whoop his opponents posterior all day long at serve and volley when he was in the mood. Sure, he would do it politely and self-deprecatingly. But he would whoop it for sure.
I just turned 30, and I’m sure there’s some law somewhere that prohibits me from using the word now, but Sampras was awesome.
He was awesome.
One can still imagine him, 0-40 down, having served a fault on his first serve. He’s just about charged the net on that fault, in anticipation of an easy volley, but the harsh call from the linesman draws him back. His shoulders slump, and his tongue juts out. He passes a hand over his curly hair, and he slouches back all the way to the baseline. The ball-boy gives him new bullets, and Sampras walks across to the exact spot from which he will serve. Clark Kent becomes Superman. Boom, boom, boom, boom. Game, Mr. Sampras.
And one of the reasons I think Federer is the best player on the planet is because he combines, in my eyes, the best qualities of both of these players. The grace and chutzpah of Edberg with the power and feline agression of Sampras. Watching Federer chow down opponents at Wimbledon (2003-2007) made for excellent viewing. Sure, there were things that you would rather he didn’t try to pull off. The rakish jacket(s) in particular. Whichever Nike marketing genius came up with that should be made to stand against a wall at eight in the morning as soon as possible. But minor sartorial quibbles aside, Federer at Wimbledon has been one of the highlights of the past decade.
Which, really, is what tennis is, or should be, all about. Not just about Wimbledon and its glorious traditions, but about Federer, and players of his ilk, at Wimbledon. Federer at Wimbledon is how God meant tennis to be. Good tennis (from a viewer’s standpoint, since that is all I am qualified to talk about) is about serve and volley. It is about the brute force of a serve that whooshes away from the court, dragging the opponent far wide, and it should be followed up by an ethereal volley that gently drops the ball on the other side of the net. Something that Edberg, Sampras and Federer could do day in and day out.
Today’s Wimbledon is about bare grass around the baseline in the second half of the tournament, and about modern day gladiators who will pound away at each other from the baseline, unleashing mind-numbingly monotonous ground-strokes that yank the opponent around the court until one succumbs. It’s almost as if Ivan Lendl has been poking away at a little voodoo doll called Serve-And-Volley for twenty years, and his prayers have finally been answered.
The players socks remain a pristine white throughout the match, which is about the only thing differentiating London tennis from the Parisian version these days. I don’t expect this will change this year either. More likely than not, everybody, including Federer, will try and use the bludgeon-to-death strategy as a primary weapon, with only the occasional foray to the net.
I’m not the first to moan about the decline of artistry at Wimbledon, of course. People have been haughty and sniffy about these ‘young-and-upcoming’ players since Becker at Wimbledon ’85. And I won’t be the last, I suppose. But that too, I suppose, is a part of the charm of Wimbledon. Yearning about the good old days when the Wimbledon Champion really and truly epitomized the true spirit of the game and all that.
So I’ll still sniff away in dejection when Federer is taken out by a modern day baseliner, and I’ll still pine for wizardry at the net when Nadal and Djokovic pound away at each other in two weeks time.
But secretly, in spite of all my grumblings, I’ll still be having a darn good time during the 14 glorious days that lie ahead.
It’s Wimbledon, after all.