June's real sporting magic
Forget soccer: From the longest match to the Queen to Maria Sharapova, you'remissing an epic Wimbledon
Nothing beats Wimbledon in June. The first day of summer, strawberry season, and even my birthday all pale in comparison.
Every Wimbledon is a Wimbledon to watch (and maybe now that the U.S. is out of the World Cup, people will start paying attention to the tourney they've been missing).
Wimbledon makes good players great, great players legendary. It’s hard to forget the recent dominance of the Williams sisters, the epics between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (who said no thanks to meeting the Queen this week to focus on his game), and last year’s marathon between Federer and Andy Roddick.
Even better, Wimbledon is a huge relief from the French Open. To be charitable, the French Open is fickle.
The relief of Federer’s win last year and the supremacy of Rafael Nadal put a spring in one’s step at Roland Garros. But how many one-hit wonders, who should have been no-hit wonders, has the French Open produced? On the men’s side Gaston Gaudio and on the women’s side Anastasia Myskina, Ana Ivanovic, and this year’s surprise winner Francesca Schiavone.
Don’t believe me? Schiavone dive-bombed out of Wimbledon with a loss to Vera Dushevina on the very first day of the tournament. Schiavone is a real scrapper — deeply dedicated, very athletic, and willing to fight for every point. But you can’t expect an opponent on grass, especially a superior opponent, to sink into the fickle red clay.
Even six-time winner Federer very nearly lost on the first day to unranked Alejandro Falla in five hard-fought sets. Too many spectators and commentators see the death knell of a career in the slightest wobble in Federer’s game.
Federer may be rusty, waning, distracted, or disturbed by the prospect of a resurgent Nadal. But if Federer, the wizard of Wimbledon, nearly tumbled out in round one, chalk it up to the rigor of this tournament: Tennis’s greatest testing ground.
If that isn't evidence enough, America's serving sensation John Isner and opponent Nichloas Mahut of France completed an 11-hour-and-five-minute match with a mind boggling score of 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68. That's right, readers: 70-68. The match stretched over two days. The players outlasted the light one day tied at 59-59 in a truly epic fifth set that took over eight hours.
That final set taken by itself would rank high on the list of the longest matches in tennis history. The statistics are just shocking but here's my favorite. Isner served 112 aces while Mahut served 103. And that was still the first round. Just imagine what's next. (Isner can't, he promptly lost his next match, which turned out to be the shortest match at this year's Wimbledon.)
Wimbledon's clearly for warriors, and what’s special about this year is the kind of uncertainty that surrounds it — a swimmer stuck in shark tank with blood in the water could relate.
This is not a question of red clay or green grass. Rather, there's a “Twilight of the Gods” feel about the court. The old guard is fading, perhaps done in by persistent over scheduling that leads to exhaustion and injury. Change is on the way, but a new order has yet to emerge. This is as true of the players as of the sport.
Over this next week, many storylines will emerge. On the women’s side, emergent challengers of the last years Jelena Jankovic and even Maria Sharapova, seemed to be in various states of disrepair. But both are through to the fourth round with Sharapova set to met Serena Williams in an epic Monday match. Belgians and major winners Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin have returned to good form after brief retirements, but now they have to play each other in the fourth round.
So it seems we should all be grateful for last year’s champion Serena Williams and her sister five-time champion Venus Williams. Maybe not too grateful: It can certainly go to their heads. But these two may represent the last great swan song of American tennis. Watching them work at Wimbledon is a privilege.
Venus more than anyone of late has been queen of this court. She’s designed for grass — lanky, swift, and decisive with a booming serve. Her statistics here are just plan sick. It may be greedy to want her to win a sixth title because she’s been the best player this whole year.
In both the Australian and French Open, Venus was clearly the one to beat. In both tournaments, her will or concentration or energy lapsed at just the wrong moment. So, my vote’s for Venus and my hope is that the women’s side of the sport straightens itself out, and new stars, with some lasting power, arrive.
As for the men? It’s hard not to root for a Federer-Nadal final again, but many are predicting this is Federer’s year to be knocked out early.
Americans are rooting for Andy Roddick to repeat his trip to the final, even if he has to go through Federer. But as healthy as the men’s game seems to be — with hungry challengers everywhere — it’s hard to see who will emerge to seize the crown from Federer and Nadal. One or the other seems odds on favorite this year.
When I started watching tennis, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, and Monica Seles were still dominant. Federer and the Williams were waiting in the wings. I’m excited to watch yet another Wimbledon unfold with favorite players I’ve watched for years.
But, in spite of Isner's inhuman display of stamina, I’m left wondering who’s waiting in the wings now. And I’m wondering even more what the United States Tennis Association is doing about it.