The annual ritual of charm

Nirmal Shekar

Federer all set for ascent of Mount Sampras

London: Much of popular modern sport screams for attention; it makes an unabashedly full-frontal assault on the senses. You are not allowed the time and space to discover its subtleties, its hidden charms; instead, it often comes at you hollering ‘lap it all up, there is nothing better.’

With their eyes always on the fast buck, and forever seeking to feed the ravenous appetite of the lay fans, modern sport’s producers and directors, revelling in their role as arbiters of popular taste, have turned the packaged-for-television brand of sport into the egregiously mediocre.

Islands of sanity

Fortunately, there are islands of sanity still to be found in the fast-changing world of modern sport. And none quite as magically elevating as the All England Lawn Tennis Championships in a leafy south-western suburb of London.

If sport, more often than not, screams, then Wimbledon whispers. It leaves your senses unmolested, yet slowly builds a lasting and hugely meaningful intimacy with everyone who is a part of it — fans, officials, media, players.

Special allure

Boris Becker, champion in 1985, 86 and 89, called the Centre Court his “living room.” Pete Sampras, inarguably the greatest grass court player of all time and a seven-time winner, might have felt the same in the 1990s, as much as Roger Federer does now.

Yet, it is not only the multiple-champions who are captivated by Wimbledon’s charms and experience a wonderful sense of belonging. In their own way, almost everybody who is a part of the annual summer ritual gets to experience that feeling.

For sport to evoke spiritual states akin to those activated by the best of music, try sitting in the Centre Court stands on a lovely summer afternoon even as Rafael Nadal forces Federer to dig deeper than ever before. Borg and McEnroe, Becker and Edberg, Agassi and Ivanisevic — if you have been there and seen it, you will know all about Wimbledon’s special allure.

What is more, the 122nd Championships, beginning on Monday, appears to have the potential to match the very best of the past; this, not only because a Swiss genius is attempting to do what no man has done in over a 100 years — win six titles in a row — no matter that the mere realisation that Federer can actually accomplish this feat in two weeks’ time creates dizziness and disbelief.

Special meaning

If Federer were a listed company, then his stock would now be trading at a five-year low and this is the main reason why this championship is invested with special meaning, particularly in the context of the men’s game.

Time’s arrow travels only in one direction and a slightly wobbly Federer knows that his ascent of Mount Sampras and beyond will depend heavily on his reinventing himself as an all-time great champion on the velvety green carpet here, a surface that seems to endow the great man with wings, making him miraculously weightless.

Narrowing gap

What once looked like the Grand Canyon — the gap between Federer and his main challengers on grass — now appears bridgeable and Nadal, for one, seems ready to make those last few strides after having won at Queen’s rather handily.

The last time Federer lost on grass was six years ago, to Mario Ancic here in the opening round of the 2002 championship. Since then, he has won 59 straight matches on the surface, 35 of them at Wimbledon at the cost of just eight sets.

“I haven’t lost in such a long time on grass. Obviously my confidence is really, really high,” Federer said on Sunday. “Then again, other players are around to challenge me. That only motivates me.”

In the event, despite everything that has happened this season, the Swiss maestro will start the clear favourite.

“I feel like I am the big favourite at Wimbledon,” said the defending champion.

“It’s a huge year for me, going for my sixth title. I also hope that I can match Pete’s record of seven.”

There are no big favourites in the women’s championship. Venus Williams is aiming for her fifth title but her sister Serena, the new World No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic will all fancy their chances.

The latest odds from William Hill: Men: Federer 5/4; Nadal 7/4; Djokovic 9/2; Roddick 16/1; Murray 20/1.

Women: Sharapova 9/4; Serena 3/1; Ivanovic 4/1; Venus 9/2; Jankovic 12/1.

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