Grass-court Grand Slam is more important than ever
Posted: Monday June 20, 2005 5:40PM; Updated: Monday June 27, 2005 9:56AM
Maria Sharapova was the third youngest champion -- male or female -- in the 118-year history of Wimbledon.
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
WIMBLEDON, England -- Why does Wimbledon matter? It gets harder and harder to explain, because it makes less and less sense. No one grows up playing tennis on grass anymore, and if Wimbledon ended tomorrow, no one would play on it ever again. The weather is horrible, the ticket queue stretches forever and that purple-and-green color scheme turns everything it adorns into a bad Halloween costume.
And yet, when they threw open the gates of The All-England Tennis and Croquet Club Monday morning, the world again came streaming in. I flew into Heathrow, and the man at passport control asked my purpose for visiting and then for my tickets. I started fumbling for the airline stubs. He shook his head, no, no, and smiled. "Tennis tickets," he said. "You are lucky."
Yes. Because in 2005, Wimbledon, the Grand Slam growing increasingly outmoded as a test of tennis aptitude, is more important than ever. Its anachronistic quirks should be rendering it irrelevant, but just the opposite has happened: Precisely because of its history, because of its uniqueness, Wimbledon is becoming indispensable. At a time when, especially in the U.S., tennis viewership has fallen into an abyss, Wimbledon is the signal to the most casual fan that a player matters. It confers instant class. The Australian Open happens too early in the calendar year, and the French Open produces too many clay-court geniuses who never produce anywhere else. But Wimbledon's champions are almost never flukes, and their title runs always provide the necessary bones for an otherwise endless season. Last year's champions, Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova, lost no luster by losing in Melbourne and Paris this year, but if they lose here, now the murmurs will begin. Wimbledon made their names. Wimbledon will decide how they are discussed next.
And not just those two. Injuries have devastated the women's game the last two years, but at this year's Wimbledon, the top players are healthy at last. "It's going to be," says No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, "one of the toughest Slams we've had in a couple of years." This Wimbledon will show whether she really deserves to be ranked No. 1. It will show just how far Venus Williams has fallen, and how interested Serena is in competing. It will show whether French Open champ Justine Henin-Hardenne is ready to take over the game again. It will give a big hint as to Rafael Nadal's versatility, and maybe, just maybe, do the impossible and reveal Marat Safin for the player he's supposed to be.
POINT OF THE DAY
Taylor Dent outlasted Belgian Dick Norman in a classic five setter to advance to the second round.
On the 20th anniversary of Boris Becker's breakthrough here as a 17-year-old, and the 25th anniversary of the epic Wimbledon clash between John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg -- the one aired during every rain delay since -- we have no choice but to turn to the day's turn-back-the-clock match. Taylor Dent and Belgian Dick Norman squared off in a classic serve-and-volley duel in Monday's sweltering conditions, trading huge serves and -- mostly -- speedy points until Norman buckled horribly at the end, 7-6, 7-6, 4-6, 6-7, 6-1. It was mesmerizing to see two players, all in white, ripping clean, one-handed strokes, then rushing the net to drop fluttering volleys. Then with Dent up 2-1 in the second-set tiebreak, the two men abruptly backed off and engaged in a gripping 17-stroke rally. Norman won it with one of the toughest shots -- a high backhand volley -- that dropped like a stone to the grass. The packed crowd on Court 13 exhaled, and then let go its loudest cheer yet.
PLAYER OF THE DAY
Safin. For a guy who has vowed more than once never to play here again, the mercurial Russian for one day, at least, looked quite at home on the turf. After warming up with Karol Beck on the Aorangi practice courts -- and at one point volleying the ball over the net with his head -- the '05 Australian Open champ manhandled the increasingly lost-looking Paradorn Srichaphan, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4. With his humidity-frazzled hair the only wild thing about him, Safin stayed patient and calm, and served-and-volleyed with surprising effectiveness when he chose to. His surprising run to the finals at Halle clearly has boosted his confidence. But, he said, "it's more actually [that] I need to hold it. I need to hold these feelings and I need to hold it for a long time, as long as I can. Because now it looks like I found my game, I found the confidence that I was missing for past six months. I'll try not to lose it again."
MATCH TO WATCH
I want to see how Nadal does -- mentally, physically and sartorially -- against Vince Spadea on Tuesday on Centre Court. He's third match on, after Sharapova and Tim Henman, but the bet here is that the tennis-savvy crowd is thinking the same thing: We know exactly what we're going to see from Maria and Tim-bledon. Nadal, though, lost in the first-round at Halle just after his win at the French Open. What will we get today? A meltdown or a revelation?