Another Wimbledon fortnight, as the Brits so quaintly call it, is drawing to a close, another fortnight in which the players have pledged their undying affection for the tournament. “There’s no event like it,” Andy Roddick said this week, later adding that “You can kind of feel Wimbledon inside you.” “If I could win 10 Wimbledons and not another Grand Slam I’d take that,” defending champion Maria Sharapova gushed. Even Rafael Nadal, a player far more at home on clay than grass, says Wimbledon is the title he’d most like to win.
Wimbledon is unquestionably a great tournament—the grass is a majestic shade of green, Centre Court positively regal. Still, judging by all the bouquets being tossed to the tournament, one gets the impression that tennis players don’t travel to London to play Wimbledon so much as to praise it.
What’s fascinating about all this Wimble-philia is not just that it overstates the tournament’s importance—it’s a major, yes, although it is now arguably the least consequential of tennis’s four grand slam events—but that it stands in such bizarre contrast to the way the previous generation of players felt about Wimbledon. (To read about an entity that is richly deserving of all the praise it gets, click here.)
As it happens, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the greatest match ever played on Centre Court, the 1980 final between Björn Borg and John McEnroe. The milestone has occasioned retrospectives in various British papers and a nice piece in the New York Times. Naturally, most of the articles make reference to McEnroe’s combustive personality and his disdain for the stuffiness of the All England Club, a venue that once inspired him to shout, “This place stinks, it reeks.” But what is often forgotten is that it wasn’t just the rebellious McEnroe who chafed at the stuffiness; back then, the locker room rattled with the sound of Wimbledon-bashing.
Practicing work-avoidance one recent afternoon, I came across Sports Illustrated’s account of the 1981 Borg-McEnroe final. In addition to being a terrific summary of the match that ended Borg’s five-year run as Wimbledon champion, the article touches on some infamous examples of the club’s gratuitous rigidity—Stan Smith’s very pregnant wife getting tossed from the members’ tearoom, and the Italian star Adriano Panatta being defaulted merely for requesting a delayed start to his first-round match after reaching the finals of a tournament the weekend before. “We get no consideration here. The players are nothings,” Jimmy Connors fumed. “It really isn’t much fun to play here,” added McEnroe’s doubles partner Peter Fleming.
Wimbledon hasn’t changed in any dramatic way; fusspots ran the place 25 years ago, and they’re still in charge. So, why do today’s players spout such effusive paeans to the tournament? Stars have become far more careerist and scripted since the days of McEnroe, Connors, and Borg. But the praise they lavish on Wimbledon isn’t calculated; it’s genuine, which suggests that there is more to it than just a desire to show the world (and potential sponsors) a happy face. I suspect a bigger reason for all this veneration, especially for the male players, may be the lingering influence of Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, and Pete Sampras, all of whom made a fetish of the lawn tennis championships.
Lendl’s Ahab-like pursuit of a Wimbledon victory was tennis’s dominant storyline in the late 1980s. Though he never did win the tournament—the best he managed was to twice finish runner-up—he did succeed in elevating the tournament’s already lofty stature. Becker, who thwarted several of Lendl’s title bids, treated Wimbledon with the reverence Muslims accord Mecca; he did everything but kiss the ground every time he stepped on court. Sampras, who won Wimbledon seven times, fancied himself a throwback to a quieter, pre-McEnroe, pre-Connors era and made clear throughout his career that the austere All England Club was his kind of place. If the world’s No. 1 thinks Wimbledon is heaven’s gate, it reverberates down the ranks.
The irony, of course, is that Wimbledon grows in prestige as it declines in importance. Grass is to tennis what vinyl now is to music. No one grows up playing on grass anymore, and apart from a few Thurston Howell-types in Newport and Haverford, hardly anyone plays on grass, period. The pros wouldn’t set foot on the stuff but for Wimbledon, and the grass-court season, such as it is, now consists merely of two weeks of Wimbledon tune-up events.
Taken purely as a test of tennis prowess, England’s major has become the least significant of the grand slams. True, with fewer players than ever venturing to the net, and with the courts clearly playing slower, there are more rallies at Wimbledon these days than a few years ago. Nonetheless, it remains the case that in an era of graphite rackets and gargantuan players capable of vaporizing the ball, grass-court tennis demands far less shot variety, endurance, and intelligence than the other three majors. (It also produces fairly dull tennis; when was the last time Wimbledon had a match as entertaining as, say, this year’s French Open final between Nadal and Mariano Puerta?)
That Sampras, the greatest player of the last quarter-century, was at his most dominant on grass, and that the same is true of his successor, Roger Federer, doesn’t mean Wimbledon is better than the other majors at sorting the champs from the chumps. It just means Sampras and Federer have certain skills (lethally precise and powerful serving, great volleying) that translate particularly well on grass. The U.S. Open, played on an equal-opportunity hard-court surface, is a much better indicator of who’s really No. 1.
(Tellingly, amid all the hosannas, one of the most prominent figures in British tennis, former Davis Cup captain David Lloyd, said last week that the grass should be ripped up and replaced with hard courts. “A championship as good as Wimbledon is not great because it is played on grass, but because it is a great tournament with aura and tradition,” he said. “That is the fallacy that they need to get past. If the grass went that would not change. It might be greater if they got rid of the grass.”)
But say this for Wimbledon: It knows how to civilize a man. Back in his rattail days, Andre Agassi skipped Wimbledon several times, in part because he didn’t like the fustiness. He finally showed up in 1991, won the tournament the following year, and has been a clean-cut model citizen pretty much ever since (though premature balding also helped in that regard). Then there are Connors and McEnroe. They’re no longer cursing Wimbledon and cursing each other. Instead, they’ve spent this year’s tournament doing joint color commentary for the BBC. In suits and ties. At Wimbledon, the players are called gentlemen and ladies for a reason.