“For Mr. Wodehouse,” wrote Evelyn Waugh, “there has been no fall of Man. The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”
To most fans of sport, Wimbledon evokes similarly warm emotions, a yearning for the familiar comfort of a simpler time. Nostalgia affects people powerfully, no doubt, but it doesn’t explain entirely the appeal of The Championships.
It’s quite remarkable that a lucrative tournament which began as a commercial activity — it was started in 1877 so the All-England Club could buy a pony-drawn roller for its croquet lawns — can manage the discreet hauteur of being above such base matters.
It’s even more extraordinary that something as ever-changing can appear timeless. Only at Wimbledon can an introduction such as the retractable roof — which begins to cover the arena as if a dragon were unfolding veined, diaphanous wings over Centre Court — seem like it was always there.
The most conspicuous change, certainly the change most commented upon, has been in the style of tennis. Where players once made for the net as soldiers do for high ground — and for precisely the same motives — modern-day grass-court tennis is fettered to the baseline.
The reasons are many. The decision, in 2001, to reseed the courts differently was significant: a durable strain of grass, cut less closely, and a different soil mix, compacted more firmly, has allowed players more time on the ball, benefiting the baseliner.
Tim Henman said in 2002, the year the men’s final between Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian featured not one serve-and-volley point, that he hadn’t been on a slower court all season. The AELTC denied that the pace had slackened, saying instead that the higher bounce had made it seem that way.
Accentuating the effect were bigger, fluffier balls that didn’t skid and fly as readily.
While the change in courts and balls made it easier for the backcourt player, the improvement in racquet and string technology and the evolution of stroke technique further compromised the serve-and-volleyer.
With wider frames and grippier string beds, extreme grips and loopier strokes, players could, with topspin, get the ball to dip so quickly at the feet of the net-rusher that the volley, unless expertly hit, was no longer a point-winner; it now popped up more often, a gift trussed in ribbons, for the passing shot.
If Roger Federer, who made frequent visits to the net in 2001 during his passing-the-torch match with Pete Sampras and in 2003 when he won his first Grand Slam title, had retreated to the baseline, why would the next generation bother with the intricacies of serve-and-volley tennis?
Unlike Ivan Lendl, who went to incredible lengths in the 80s to develop a grass-court game, there wasn’t the need any longer to play markedly different tennis at Wimbledon.
And yet this forgotten need will make at least a walk-on appearance at the 2012 Championships, which begins here on Monday.
Federer, a six-time Wimbledon champion, hasn’t won a Slam since the 2010 Australian Open. He has reached a final, five semifinals, and three quarterfinals in the nine majors since, so he hasn’t faded away.
But if Federer is to defeat Novak Djokovic, the defending champion, and Rafael Nadal, winner in 2008 and 2010, runner-up in 2006, 2007, and 2011, he can’t do it just from the baseline. More to the point, he realises this.
Djokovic and, to a lesser extent, Nadal have shown the value of approaching the net as a tactical switch-up; given how evenly matched and familiar with each other’s game they are, surprise is a coveted edge. Perhaps others too will appreciate the possibilities of such play.
Rounding up the list of contenders are Andy Murray — Brit when he wins, Scot when he loses — and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, both of whom can play all-court tennis. Neither has broken through, however. John Isner and Milos Raonic are threats on grass, which might have slowed but continues to favour big serving and first-strike tennis.
On the women’s side, the strongest competitors are Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova — the former looking to make up for her early French Open exit, the latter looking to draw from her triumph — Petra Kvitova, the defending champion, and Victoria Azarenka, who started 2012 so strongly.
But not even favourite-spotting, usually such an engaging pursuit, exerts as much fascination as Wimbledon, the fortnight in all its many glories. And the addicts haven’t to wait another year for their next — albeit slightly different — fix: tennis at the Olympics will be played here three weeks after the men’s final.
Keywords: 2012 Wimbledon Championships