Wimbledon this year has seemed like a republic in permanent revolution. The seeds have been inverted for the most part; Like a coup, foot soldiers on the tennis tour have brought down decorated generals and established leaders. The weekend before tennis began, 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 court event tough in Miami, she recalled the highlights of her win at Wimbledon as a junior a few years earlier.
On Saturday, however, the charming Pole was defeated by Alize Cornet 4-6, 2-6 in the third round and seemed to be experiencing a flashback to her less experienced days. Her forehand, in which she uses an extreme western grip, which makes it difficult to deal with cut balls on the turf, looked like it belonged to another player. Second-seeded women Anett Kontaveit had been beaten in the second round in straight sets, losing the second 0-6. By the quarterfinals, only two of the top 16 seeds had not been knocked off: Ons Jabeur, the third-seeded Tunisian, and Simona Halep, the 2019 Wimbledon winner from Romania, seeded 16th this year.
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The men’s seeds were a better predictor of form, but still revolutionary carnage was the norm. The two top seeds, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, looked as imperial as ever, but Covid hit like a medieval plague: Last year’s finalist Matteo Berrettini and 2017 finalist Marin Cilic had to withdraw because they tested positive. Before the quarterfinals, Norway’s Casper Rudd and Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas had also lost.
THE FUTURE OF TENNIS?
Amid the carnage, beacons of hope emerged. The battle of five-set winners hit so hard it looked like gunshots on Sunday between Carlos Alcaraz, 19, and lanky Italian Jannik Sinner, 20. Amid all the worry about what will happen when the Big Three bow out , and the Given 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, it may be necessary to skip over the charismatic Alcaraz and Sinner, to fill the gigantic void when Nadal, Djokovic and Federer bow out.
Sunday’s march of champions to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Center Court had the loudest applause for Roger Federer. He hasn’t played competitive tennis since he crashed out of Wimbledon last year and is battling a recurring knee injury. The crowds at Wimbledon are significantly below pre-pandemic levels, and he blames Federer’s absence. He promised to return “one more time” after his appearance drew a standing ovation, but dressed in a suit and tie, the Swiss already seemed from another era.
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A TRULY INTERNATIONAL SPORT
Is there any sport as international as tennis? The two likely finalists on the women’s side could be Simona Halep of Romania against Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur. The final eight in the men’s event feature a Chilean, a British national who grew up in New Zealand, an Italian and a Serb who grew up in Spain and Serbia as a child.
Then there is Nick Kyrgios, who is Australian but of Greek and Malaysian descent. He perpetually seems like the ultimate tennis bad boy, a throwback to the era of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, and was accused of “bullying” by Tsitsipas after beating the Greek on Saturday. I met Kyrgios after a BBC interview in the press box on Monday. Accompanied by his fiancée, he was the picture of friendliness and charm, sheepishly waving to the noisy crowd of Australian fans.
A SLOW CUT
Several years ago, I wrote an article for the Financial Times lamenting the death of serve and volleyball. Wimbledon’s use of a new type of hardy turf since the early 2000s made the courts slower and the bounce more predictable, allowing the baseline game to dominate as it does in other tournaments. The All England Club had made it hugely significant without much transparency. As John McEnroe observed this year, the courts now play so slowly that the clay courts at Roland Garros can be faster. He said that his great rival, Ivan Lendl, might well have won Wimbledon if he had played on today’s courts.
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Watching the parade of former champions, one might indulge in that game of ‘what if’ and wonder if Australian greats like Rod Laver, who looked a bit shaky when he walked onto the pitch, John Newcombe and Margaret Court would have had the same success. . Legendary women’s rights champion Billie Jean King would almost certainly not have won six Wimbledon singles titles and a record 20 Wimbledon singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles in total. Without it, she may not have had the platform and celebrity that she enjoyed to fight for women’s rights on and off the tennis court.
For me, a world of tennis without McEnroe and King as heroes as a child is hard to imagine. I may have never become a tennis obsessive. King and Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon alternately playing an explosive and delicate serve and volley in 1975, the first Wimbledon I followed closely. That year, my older brother wrote the entire draw for the men’s and women’s events and pasted it on the wall of our bedroom in Kolkata. Seeing a lot of monotonous baseline fights this year in Federer’s absence that seemed to be an extension of clay court tennis made my mind wander more from time to time.
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It often seems these days that grass is simply an optical illusion. Wimbledon’s charms thus seem heightened as an allegory: an undefined longing for a sporting event where billboards don’t command the eye like skyscrapers in a modern metropolis. Instead, purple, mauve, and cream flower boxes are everywhere.
Despite the thousands of fans packing the grounds, it still looks like an English garden party. The center court roof, introduced more than a decade ago, still retains the illusion of an open-air event. It seems that it is also a wedding veil which plays its part in preserving the old world charm of the place. But to embellish its reputation as the world’s premier tennis event, Wimbledon needs to return to its roots and be more hospitable to serving and volleying, like the next generation Federers. Wimbledon courts need to be faster and not just because the crowds are thinning out, but because diversity and artistry is what makes the world, and tennis, interesting.
Rahul Jacob was the travel, food and drink editor of the financial times in London and is the author of right of travela collection of travel essays.
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