As it approaches Wimbledon, the London Underground travels overground, sweeping tennis fans across the city's rooftops as if they were Mary Poppins. Which is only appropriate, for the 1996 championships were a fortnight of sliding up banisters, an upside-down, topspin-turvy tournament in which two unseeded players reached the men's final for the first time in history. One of those men happened to be black, which is almost as extraordinary at Wimbledon, where even the dress code is "predominantly white."
But then, everywhere inside the All England Lawn Tennis Club last week, human behavior was the opposite of what it ordinarily is. When chair umpires wanted the crowd to shut up, they said, "Thank you." If the noise persisted, they snapped, "THANK you!" The sun rarely shone, but every coach, player's girlfriend and IMG-man sat grim-faced in the Centre Court guest box in sunglasses, as if recovering from cataract surgery. In the quarterfinals a groundskeeper was eaten by a Venus fly tarp, giving Pete Sampras, who had won the last three Wimbledons, an overnight reprieve. The next day he buckled to eventual champion...Richard Krajicek?
About the only eternal verity that held was that Steffi Graf is unbeatable on Centre Court. In Saturday's women's final Graf once again got the silver platter of victory, and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario got the salad plate of second place. Otherwise: "I don't think the press has had so much weird stuff to write about in a long time," said 13th-seed Todd Martin, whose own stuff was too weird for words in the men's semifinals on Saturday. Leading MaliVai Washington 5-1 in the fifth set and serving, Martin suddenly "froze up," as he put it, and quadruple-faulted on his way to a 10-8 loss. It was the longest fifth set ever in a Wimbledon semifinal, and the grisliest.
"The one thing I probably could have done better was breathe," Martin said after he and his lungs had collapsed. "I think that's probably the most important thing." Yes, as the English say, quite.
For his part Washington has always been Malodorous at Wimbledon, having lost in the first or second round in each of the last six years. His parents did not attend this year's tournament, instead watching Sunday morning's match on television at a family reunion in Mississippi. "[The festivities] had been planned for months and happened to coincide with the final," said Washington on Sunday night. "A lot of people wanted me to come, but I told them, 'Let's see what happens first.' "
What happened was that this 27-year-old who grew up in Swartz Creek, Mich., became the first black man since Arthur Ashe in 1975 to reach the Wimbledon final, and he was clearly the crowd favorite. No matter. Krajicek, the son of Czech émigrés to the Netherlands, served Washington off the court in straight sets (6-3, 6-4, 6-3) over 94 rain-interrupted minutes. Still, his appearance in the final ensures that Washington will no longer be known best for owning the tour's most mispronounced name. It's Mal-ah-VEE-ah, but it sounded like Mamma mia when spoken by the perplexed Italian journalist who asked NBC's Bud Collins if there were a saint by that name. ("There is now," Collins said.) Likewise, the 6'5" Krajicek will no longer be remembered best for having said, somewhat indelicately, at Wimbledon in '92 that 80% of women professional tennis players are "fat, lazy pigs."
Which brings us, inappropriately, to the ladies' singles championship. The last 16 times Graf has played Sanchez Vicario, it has been in a tournament final. The two women have become the game's Ali and Frazier—or, given Graf's record, the game's Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Graf was almost apologetic before this final, suggesting that it would be exciting, "even if people say it's the same match again." Indeed, given the men's tedious serve-and-volley style, Graf's matches were a joy to watch. The 27-year-old used her backhand slice as a scythe to clear the brush that was the women's field, dropping only one set all tournament.
So much time does Graf spend before the world's prying eyes that reporters were stunned when she suddenly dropped from sight, as if into a dunk tank, in the middle of a question at a packed prefinal press conference. "Uh...hello?" asked her concerned interrogator, but Graf had merely ducked behind the podium to discreetly blow her nose. For, as ever, she was fighting a cold. As well as back pain and an injury to her left knee and the thought of her father. Peter, watching the final on television in a German jail, where he is being held on tax-evasion charges. Only when she had vanquished Sánchez Vicario 6-3 and 7-5 did Graf concede that, yes, she impresses even herself. "It just seems amazing to me, really, to come through like that," Graf said of winning her seventh Wimbledon platter, 20th Grand Slam title and 100th tournament. "I don't know how I do it. I just keep doing it."
Since 1982 Graf or Martina Navratilova has won all but one Wimbledon ladies' title. Alas, Navratilova said on TV at the start of this year's tournament that Graf uses injuries as an "excuse," adding curiously on Sunday that "somebody in [Graf's] camp always lets it be known that there is something wrong with her." Of Graf's threat to her record of nine Wimbledon singles titles, well, Navratilova seemed to say that it's not ova till it's ova. The Wimbledon record "seems very close" to Graf's grasp, she conceded, "but it's still very far." Extending a last backhanded compliment to Fräulein Forehand, Navratilova added, "There are no players that really threaten her." And so we go from sour grapes to....
Seedless grapes. That's what the men's field was filled with by the time the quarterfinals came around. To be sure, the men's action had its moments. Britain's Tim Henman temporarily induced Hen-mania, which was like Beatlemania only more maniacal. As the first Englishman to advance to the quarters since 1973 (when the tournament was boycotted by nearly 80 members of the pro tour), the scrawny 21-year-old played well above his world ranking of 62, eliminating French Open champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the first round. Three of Henman's forebears had played at Wimbledon—including great-grandmother Ellen Mary Stawell-Brown, the first woman to serve overhand in the tournament—but none required five bobbies just to get in and out of the grounds.