Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Wimbledon | Tennis engenders more sympathy for the loser

The historian Theodor Mommsen, beloved of Nirad C. Chaudhuri, wrote that one of the differences between ancient Greeks and Romans was their dressing at sport.

The Greeks “allowed full play to the limbs in the sports of the naked youth", while the Romans “made it a duty even in the boy modestly to cover the body".

This is the 50th year of Wimbledon’s decidedly Roman dress code. It was in 1963 that the rule for players was first written. “For all matches (except the warm-up period), and for practice sessions on Championship courts, each individual item of clothing must be almost entirely white in colour," says rule 9, adding “any competitor who appears on court dressed in a manner which is deemed unsuitable by the Committee will be liable to be defaulted."

The rule is the reason why when I think of tennis players, from Rod Laver, Björn Borg, the Martinas—Navratilova and Hingis—Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras to Roger Federer, I can only imagine them in white.

Even within the confines of white, Wimbledon often had a problem with the cut and shape of clothing. Older readers will remember the scandal caused in 1985 by a female player, the fetching Anne White, who was instructed by the umpire to change from a leotard-like bodysuit that was too much for the gentry in the members’ stand.

The British upper class has sustained the traditions of Wimbledon, just as it has those of cricket. Lord’s and the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club are the most famous and defining bodies of both sports, and this is because of the fastidious adherence to the wisdom of the old.

At Wimbledon, the club has also imposed a dress code on its members. No jeans, flip-flops, hoodies or short skirts. Now I’m in favour of tradition, but am not sure about the ban on short skirts. Anyway, all of this will no doubt evaporate in a few decades, and it is nice to still have it around in our time.

One thing that is different at Wimbledon from the recent past is the absence of the duchess of York. The patrician and elegant duchess has stopped being part of the ceremony at the end, and has also apparently given up being referred to as her royal highness.

This is quite remarkable as dukes and duchesses are the highest-ranked aristocrats outside the immediate royal family, and Europeans take protocol seriously. The duchess’ style was to slowly walk up after the final, chatting with the ball boys and, after 1977, ball girls who lined up to make an aisle. She enjoyed their company and a few years ago, she was sent a letter by the club instructing her not to invite children to her box.

She had dignity and never spoke to the media or the audience, keeping a royal reserve. What she said to the winner as she shook the players’ hands is also a mystery. It always seemed to me that she spoke longer to the runner-up than to the winner, and that made me like her more.

What happens to the man who loses the final? These days, he goes back a rich fellow with over 6.5 crore. Much is made of those who never won Wimbledon, though this is rarely mentioned of the other Grand Slams. My interest is in those fine players who made it to the precipice of fame and then faded. For example, the South African Kevin Curren looked like a proper champion, athletic and with a robust style, when he played and lost to 17-year-old Boris Becker in 1985. But he was not heard of again. If I am not mistaken, this was the first tennis tournament shown live in India, and this happened because one of the Gandhi children, I think Priyanka, told her recently-installed prime minister father she had to watch it.

The following year, 1986, Becker dispatched Wimbledon’s most famous loser, Ivan Lendl. The Czech cannot be described as being unknown or having faded away, of course. Nor can the other big man of our time never to win the title, Jim Courier. The other thing interesting about Courier, a baseline player like Borg, is that he played with the heavy, steel Wilson T2000, the same racquet that Jimmy Connors used in the 1970s. How astonishing.

To return to the runner-up, because tennis is not a team sport, one doesn’t have to take sides strongly when watching it. I think it engenders more sympathy for losers than do cricket or football.

Sometimes, very rarely, a man who looks like a classic loser changes the script. Runner-up in 1992, 1994 and 1998, the mercurial Goran Ivaniševicć won in 2001, and what a relief that was, to him and all of those who regularly watch Wimbledon.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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