Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Did the annual trip to Wimbledon yesterday in the company of my grand slam buddy SG, who was over from France.

In the past couple of decades we’ve done Roland Garros twice, the US Open once, and now Wimbledon. We talk vaguely about completing a personal grand slam and visiting the Australian Open at some point in future.

And so much for all that – what about the tennis?

We started on an outside court where Jarkko Nieminen (seeded 24) was playing unseeded American Wayne Odesnik. Nieminen is a Finn and had attracted his own slightly bonkers fan club along. We found their chanting a bit irritating; if I were him I’d have told the fans to shut up. I love the outside courts at Wimbledon. Particularly in the first few days of the tournament you can see some really wonderful players compete at a distance closer than the hotshots in your local park. It’s also odd to see tennis courts without any form of chain-link fences; at Wimbledon they are have an immaculate sparse kind of beauty. I once crept to the edge of one of the outside courts at the end of a long day and ran my palm over the grass. It felt as smooth and level as a good quality carpet.

We stuck around for the best part of an hour and then drifted over past court No 9 where a women's singles match was in progress (see picture) and took our not particularly wonderful seats in Court No 1. Despite being up near the roof the view was good. Tennis stadiums (with the exception of the awful “Ashe Heap” in Flushing Meadows) have an intimacy that for obvious reasons football and cricket grounds lack.

First up was the brilliant but inconsistent Richard Gasquet, who at the age of nine featured on the cover of the French tennis association’s magazine. See him play when he’s on form and you can see why.

SG, who plays tennis to much higher standard than me, was seriously impressed by his languid ground strokes. His opponent was the bizarrely named Mardy Fish, a cool young dude who looks as if he’s left his surf board in the changing rooms.
The match set a pattern that became familiar for the rest of the afternoon. For four or six or even eight games, the unseeded Fish looked every inch the equal of seeded Gasquet. Then something happened and there’s a particularly outstanding shot followed by an unforced error or two and suddenly the break of serve is there and set is gone. Fish wasn’t humiliated or crushed or rolled over; it was more a case of a point here and a point there that were lost, followed by games followed by sets. Gasquet won 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. I later learned he reckoned it had been one of his best performances ever.

Next up was the icon of the WTA, the face and image of women’s tennis, Miss Maria Sharapova. A Russian with an especially creepy controlling and manipulative tennis dad called Yuri, she has the looks and height and figure of a catwalk model, something her many sponsors and the WTA exploit to the full. Interestingly, she’s far from popular with us tennis heads and two short sets in her company was more than enough for everyone on Court No 1.

So why is she so hard to like?

There’s the irritating shriek that accompanies every shot; this is probably gamesmanship as an important element of tennis is the sound the ball makes as it hits the opponents racquet. Flat hard shots make a loud POCK! slice shots make a kind of a zipping noise, and topspin is a mixture of both. Expert players use their ears as well as their eyes to anticipate the direction and speed of a shot. Maria’s theatrical shrieks drown out the sound of the shot and generally irritate.

Then there's her ugly habit of glaring at her opponent just before she serves; in fact the glare seems to be an intrinsic part of her serve action. It's a nasty unpleasant habit, unworthy in a player of Sharapova's status and ability.

Finally there’s her style of tennis, which is completely one dimensional and mindless. The tactic is to serve hard and fast, and hit shots hard and fast. And that’s it. No wonder opponents like Justine Henin were able to outplay and out think and out guess her.

Just to put the icing on the cake, Sharapova’s opponent was the unseeded Stephanie Foretz, once ranked 62 in the world and now down at 105. She was no match for Sharapova’s power and speed, at least not in this match, and was crushed 6-1, 6-4. Proponents for equal pay for women’s tennis (a battle the women have won) would have a hard time defending this ridiculous mismatch which seemed designed to highlight the lack of depth within the women's game now that Hingis has been forced into retirement and Henin and Clisters have both voluntarily hung up their racquets.

Back to the blokes, and had the ever charming and popular Andy Roddick was up next, playing a young Argentinian called Eduardo Schwank who was coming fresh from an impressive 3rd round at Roland Garros. He managed to give Roddick (whose serve was scary it's so fast and powerful) a good match, Roddick eventually winning 7-5,6-4,7-6. The match could easily have gone to four sets and both SG and myself feel we’ll be seeing more of Schwank soon – you heard it here first.

Women’s tennis was redeemed a little by the final match we saw on Court No 1, which featured the beautiful and charming Jelena Jankovic. She has a sense of humour and is almost unique among elite professional tennis players in that still seems to enjoy playing the game (separate from the joy of winning). Playing a decent opponent called Olga Savchuk, the match was a bit closer than the scoreline of 6-3, 6-2.

And that was that for another year. We dawdled back past the outside courts where a few matches continued in the dusk and made plans to visit again next year.

Wonderful game, wonderful institution, wonderful day. Lucky me!



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