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L. Jon Wertheim
July 01, 2002
Modern rackets and a scarcity of grass events weaken the tournament's cachet
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July 01, 2002


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Modern rackets and a scarcity of grass events weaken the tournament's cachet

Shame on Gustavo Kuerten, Alex Corretja and French Open champ Albert Costa for deeming Wimbledon too unimportant to bother with this year. All tennis players worth their courtesy cars ought to compete in the four Grand Slams. But will those stars be sitting out the most significant event on the tennis calendar? No, not unless they're going to bail on the U.S. Open as well.

What makes Wimbledon unique is also what makes it increasingly irrelevant: the grass underfoot. Wimbledon's anachronistic surface transforms a fluid, nuanced game into a mindless shootout with staccato points. The slick greensward punishes steady baseline players and bestows an unfair advantage on those like Goran Ivanisevic—ranked outside the top 100 when he won last year—who come armed with a serve, a prayer and an ultramodern racket.

Tennis has clay-court and hardcourt specialists, indoor and outdoor players, but by now no pro has been weaned on grass. Wimbledon is one of the few grass events left. A generation ago several significant tournaments, including two Grand Slams, were held on turf. That seven-time champ Pete Sampras—who hasn't won a tournament in two years and enters Wimbledon in the throes of a disastrous slump—has been mentioned as a favorite speaks volumes about just how fluky and specialized "the Championships" have become. In short, using Wimbledon as the sport's ne plus ultra is like holding a dunk contest to determine the NBA champion.

No question Wimbledon is dripping with charm, and the venue will always be "tennis's cathedral," as Sampras calls it. But times change. If tradition and history were so sacrosanct, the players taking the court this week would be brandishing wooden rackets. And the Williams sisters might not be allowed through the gates.
—L. Jon Wertheim

It's time to celebrate a surface that makes everyone equal and defines the elite

Those weak-minded players who complain about the quick points and unforgiving surface of Wimbledon (as well as those cowards who skip the tournament entirely) get no sympathy in this space. Favoring the courageous serve-and-volleyer, that most noble of tennis warriors, over an endless brigade of boring baseline bashers, Wimbledon's lush and venerable lawns are the aficionado's best friend. True, players rarely if ever compete on grass during the rest of the season, but really: Should Wimbledon be faulted for forcing the latest crop of millionaire athletes out of their comfort zones? How perfect that a 125-year-old tournament has become all about coping with the shock of the new. Grass, as 1992 winner Andre Agassi says, "is the great equalizer."

And yet history shows it is also the surface that defines the elite. The champions of Wimbledon tend to be the champions of all tennis and of all time: Wills, Tilden, Borg, Navratilova, McEnroe and Sampras just to name a few. Nor should we forget that the sport's most memorable match—the epic 1980 final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe—was played on Centre Court.

The oldest of the four majors remains the sport's main bridge from the past to the present. It is a perfect mix of Old World values (the Royal Box, the strawberry stalls and commoners camping out nightly during the fortnight to snap up the few remaining match-day tickets) and new millennium sport (short rallies and eye-poppingly fast serves). Those with no respect for history, who can't appreciate the absence of stadium lights or rejoice in a rule that players must wear predominantly white clothing, need not worry. The U.S. Open, with its overpriced hamburgers, witching-hour tennis and Wall Street royalty, is just two months away.
—Richard Deitsch