Novak Djokovic and Kevin Anderson during the 2018 men’s singles final
Novak Djokovic and Kevin Anderson during the 2018 men’s singles final

The grass is always greener at Wimbledon

  • Wimbledon is back with fresh challengers, a new tie-break rule and a possible farewell. Lounge serves up the action
  • At this year’s Championships, fans might be watching Andy Murray one last time, seeing a new women’s champion, and witnessing fewer rain delays

On television, the contrast is striking. The red court turns pristine green. The coloured kits turn white. The accent of the announcers becomes more familiar. For those clued into Grand Slam tennis in India, the switch from the clay courts of the French Open to the grass of Wimbledon provides a comforting and distinctive transition.

So far, in 2019, the first two Grand Slams have had different winners, which is not surprising in the women’s category. Among men, the domination of the Big Three—which used to be the Big Four till earlier this year—continues and will likely remain for the rest of the year, experts believe.

So what do this year’s Championships at Wimbledon, which will be held from 1-14 July, have in store for fans? Besides the usual dose of exciting tennis, there are changes, challenges and chatter.

End of an era?

Kirsten Flipkens, Coco Vandeweghe, Casey Dellacqua, Barbora Strycova, Jennifer Brady, Naomi Broady (willing to swap for brother Liam), Maria Sharapova and 75-year-old Billie Jean King, winner of 39 Grand Slam titles, who said she was “available and lacing up".

These are just some of the players (or former ones) who raised their hands when Andy Murray said he was looking for a partner for this year’s Wimbledon after freshly-crowned World No.1 Ashleigh Barty, the French Open champion, turned him down. These players—and perhaps others—either hinted or stated directly that they were willing to play with the former world No.1, who is returning to competitive tennis after a serious injury threatened to end his tennis career.

Andy Murray’s movement and ability to change speed have been among his greatest assets
Andy Murray’s movement and ability to change speed have been among his greatest assets

The deluge of interest in him is a tribute to Murray’s popularity among women players, for the Scotsman has long been a vocal supporter of gender equality and equal pay. This came through in his actions as well, like when he employed Amélie Mauresmo to coach him from 2014-16, much to the chagrin of some male players. As the only top pro to be coached by a woman, he set a precedent, which has been admired but not widely emulated.

On his return to competitive tennis this month, Murray won the Fever Tree Championships at The Queen’s Club on 23 June, partnering Feliciano Lopez—Murray’s first ATP Tour doubles title in eight years. He played the Nature Valley International at Eastbourne this week with Marcelo Melo, losing in the Round of 16 and will partner Pierre-Hugues Herbert for Wimbledon.

Before his first-round defeat at the Australian Open, Murray announced that Wimbledon would be his last tournament. He underwent a second hip surgery in late January, a year after the first, and started practising gingerly in May. He decided to try out with doubles—which is less taxing on the body and will put him under less pressure to achieve results. Whether he returns to competitive singles or continues to play doubles remains subject to his fitness, but Murray admitted to being “pain free" after a long time.

“I just won the doubles with Feli, with a metal hip. It’s mental, really," he told reporters after the Queen’s title win. During the week, he was different from his normal, serious self on court, laughing with Lopez during changeovers and smiling more often.

Murray’s chances of returning to the level of tennis that saw him win 45 ATP Tour singles titles till 2017 remain slim, considering the nature of his injury and the impact it’s had on his body. “He (Murray) can take some confidence from Bob Bryan (the 16-time Grand Slam winner in doubles), who is nine years older, and went though the same surgery and is coming back in doubles," says coach Brad Gilbert over the phone from California, US. “Nobody has come back in singles from this injury. It has ended careers, but obviously surgery and medicine have made advancement."

“He is making a smart call doing a bit of doubles first, see how it goes and play singles at the end of the year," adds Gilbert, who coached Murray early in his career. “It’s possible he can get back to play, but I don’t know if we will see him in the top 4 again. We are yet to see someone with a steel hip being able to come back."

The tenacious 32-year-old Murray, who won two Wimbledon singles titles in 2013 and 2016, will certainly be remembered as the player who was No.1 during a generation that had three of the all-time greatest players—he made his mark in an era dominated by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who have won 53 Grand Slam titles between them. If the Scotsman’s three Grand Slams seem few in comparison, it needs to be seen in the perspective of a player who punched above his weight. “He is somebody who gave it all," says Gilbert. “He competed unbelievably hard and was incredibly passionate about the game."

Murray had an interesting counterpunching style, and was able to play that game to frustrate players with his movement and ability to change speed, says Gilbert. “He was a difficult guy to play against because of his unbelievable defence and he had a great backhand too. He was a clever player."

“He has done everything he needs to do at Wimbledon and in winning two Olympics gold medals," says Vijay Amritraj, a former player and commentator, over the phone from the US. “There is no reason for him to press on if his body does not allow it. Anyone who wins a major and becomes No.1 has fulfilled his potential in more ways than one."

Murray admitted in an interview to The Telegraph recently that he wouldn’t mind if he didn’t play tennis any more. “Now I realize I don’t need tennis. I don’t need tennis to be happy any more," he said.

But the sporting world would be better off if the smart, articulate and opinionated tennis ambassador, whose focused intensity often made him appear dour on court, continues to trouble the game’s greatest with his tenacity.

Wimbledon may yet see the lighter side of Murray on court. If his understated sense of humour needs validation, it comes from his choice of Feliciano Lopez as partner. Judy Murray, Andy’s mother, had years ago gushed about Lopez’s good looks, giving him the nickname of “Deliciano", much to her son’s embarrassment.

Breaking the tie of tradition

John Isner of the US may have contributed significantly to changing a tradition at the strictly old-fashioned All England Club, which has been holding this event for more than 140 years.

At the 2019 Championships, a fifth-set tie-breaker is to be introduced at 12-12. Wimbledon’s chief executive, Richard Lewis, has said that though it may be tempting to think that the attention is mostly on Isner, it’s not about him.

The American giant, close to 7ft in height, has played two of the longest matches at this venue, the reason he may have got the English to alter their stand vis-à-vis the last set. Last year, Isner played a marathon semi-final against 33-year-old Kevin Anderson, who went on to win 26-24 in the fifth set—the second longest match in Grand Slam history at 6 hours, 36 minutes.

The longest? Isner’s first-round match against Nicolas Mahut in 2010, which Isner won 70-68 in the fifth set. The match lasted a little over 11 hours and was played across three days—from 6.13pm local time on 22 June to 4.47pm on 24 June. The fifth set alone took over 8 hours.

“I hope this is a sign for Grand Slams to change," Anderson had said after last year’s match. The South African had less than 48 hours to get ready for his second Grand Slam final the next day, which he promptly lost to Djokovic.

Since 2000, there have been 28 men’s matches at Wimbledon in which the fifth set has gone beyond the 20-game mark. According to The New York Times data, only once did the winner go on to win more than one more round.

Lewis told BBC Radio 5 Live that most players favoured a final-set tie-break because they recognized that the quality of tennis goes down and the focus is more on not losing than on winning. “A final-set tie-break will be incredibly exciting in its own right," he said.

Lewis’ opinion is backed by some historical statistics. Some of the best men’s finals ever at Wimbledon have seldom gone beyond the 12-12 margin in the fifth set. In the 2008 final, when Nadal finally broke Federer’s hegemony over the trophy in a match played out over 7 hours because of rain delays, the score was 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7. When rank outsider and wild card Goran Ivanišević pulled off an improbable title win in 2001 over Patrick Rafter, the final score was 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 2-6, 9-7. Björn Borg’s fifth straight title came after a 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6 win over John McEnroe in 1980—the other contender along with 2008 for the greatest final ever played on these grass courts.

The rare exception was the 2009 final in which Federer beat Andy Roddick 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 16-14.

Tie-breaks, which were introduced in the 1960s, made it into Grand Slams gradually, till the current system was put in place in 1979. The US Open has a fifth-set tie-break at six games all for singles. A first-to-10 points tie-break at six games all in the final set was introduced at the Australian Open earlier this year. So, now, only the French Open will keep the final set going.

Isner now gets to keep his record of the two longest Grand Slam matches played, and a chance to avoid setting more. As a fan tweeted during last year’s semi-final: “It’s May of 2039, Djokovic has just announced he’s become a grandparent. Federer has opened a chain of Pineapple Pizza bistros, Andy Murray is running for MP. And Isner has finally broken Anderson to lead 5,588-5,587."

The tall and short of it

If the 6ft, 10 inches-tall Isner has inspired a change in Wimbledon, the 5ft, 2 inches-tall Ashleigh Barty would probably like to as well.

Barty is up against history as she heads to SW19 this week. First, none of the last 13 players who have won a title here across 38 years have been under 5ft, 5 inches in height. Barty is also the shortest player among the current top 30 ranked women, with No.7 Simona Halep running her close, being just 2cm taller. On grass, where the ball is faster than on clay, height makes a difference in the amount of power a player can generate, particularly off the service.

Second, Barty was the ninth different woman Grand Slam champion in the last 10 when she won the title at Roland Garros. Only Naomi Osaka has won two Grand Slams during this period, last year’s US Open and this year’s Australian Open. This is in complete contrast to the men, where the top 3—Djokovic, Nadal and Federer—have won the last 10 titles since Stan Wawrinka’s win at the 2016 US Open.

Ashleigh Barty in action during Wimbledon 2017
Ashleigh Barty in action during Wimbledon 2017

In fact, in the women’s game, the French Open has seen eight different winners in the last decade and there have been 18 different winners in the first 18 WTA events (international category and above) this season. Not since Serena Williams’ dominance has any singles player made a consistent impact.

What does this mean in the larger picture? This means that Wimbledon 2019 could well see a first-time winner. Or that Barty may buck the trend by setting a new precedent.

Before the French Open, while speaking to Lounge, seven-time Grand Slam champion Justine Henin had picked Bianca Andreescu and Caroline Garcia as two young players who had the potential to win Grand Slams. The 19-year-old Canadian Andreescu, ranked No.25, has won only one WTA title so far—at Indian Wells this year—but has pulled out of Wimbledon due to injury. Garcia, 25, has won just one WTA title this year, bringing her career total to seven. Her best Grand Slam showing has been the quarter-finals in the 2017 French Open.

“The gaps between the players are getting smaller and smaller," Petra Kvitova, the 2011 and 2014 winner, told The Guardian in an interview earlier this month, explaining the difference between the men’s and women’s games. “It’s really about the day. Sometimes you wake up and you feel unbelievable, and sometimes so crappy. We have those hormones, right? The guys can just think about the tennis—they are a little bit different to us."

If history is not on Barty’s side, it’s certainly on Williams’, who has won here seven times and is chasing a record 24th Grand Slams singles title. She is seeded 11, while Osaka is second and defending champion Angelique Kerber is fifth. If it is relatively easier to stick your neck out on possible men’s semi-finalists, the women’s game is anybody’s guess.

Rooting for the roof

It was the semi-final of the 2001 Championships and Tim Henman was on the brink of making local fans really happy. Hundreds of people who didn’t have tickets had gathered at the giant screen next to Court No.1 to watch the special moment—their countryman would make it to the final and get closer to becoming the first British player to win a title there since 1936.

The slight elevation on the grounds in front of the screen, officially called Aorangi Terrace, had been given the affectionate sobriquet of Henman Hill then (now, it’s sometimes referred to as Murray Mound, after Andy Murray took over from Henman as the next Brit hope. It has infrequently been called Edmund’s Embankment or EdMound, depending on when the other local lad, Kyle Edmund, does well). Most people believed that Henman, semi-finalist in 1998 and 1999, had the match under control against the un-seeded, luckless Croatian Ivanišević, who had lost three finals at Wimbledon.

Fans watch tennis on the large screen at Aorangi Terrace
Fans watch tennis on the large screen at Aorangi Terrace

When the covers came on due to a drizzle at 6.18pm on Friday, Henman was up 5-7, 7-6, 6-0, 2-1 in the semi-final, having won the third set in a mere 15 minutes. When the match restarted on Saturday, Henman, his rhythm broken, lost the fourth set despite being up in the tie-breaker. Ivanišević was up 3-2 in the fifth when play stopped at 6.29pm. By the time the Croat finally won on Sunday, more than 45 hours after the first ball had been hit in the match, it was believed by many that rain had denied Britain’s great hope an honest chance at the title.

That what-if question may have led the club to get a retractable roof for the Centre Court in 2009 and now one for Court No.1, which will be on display for the first time this year. Court No.1, as the name suggests, is second in the hierarchy of courts at the venue, where the best feel slighted to play and the second best feel honoured to be included.

Last year, Federer, eight-time Wimbledon champion, popular personality and someone who typically plays on Centre Court, was shunted to Court No.1 for the first time since 2015. He was reportedly not happy with the arrangement, and responded by frittering away a match point to lose a five-set quarter-final to Anderson.

A view of Court No.1 and its new roof
A view of Court No.1 and its new roof

Considering the number of matches that have been washed out in the ongoing Cricket World Cup, a covered court will give fans uninterrupted tennis, at least for some matches.

In May, the refurbished court—with an increased capacity of a well-thought-out 12,345 all-new seats—was unveiled with a galaxy of former tennis stars. Ivanišević was present along with Henman. So, naturally, it rained, which may have been all for the good since it gave the club an opportunity to test its roof.

Mumbai-based Arun Janardhan has been writing on sport, lifestyle and personalities for two decades.

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