Wherever one stands on the tripartite Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic rivalry, it’s an undisputed fact that at no point in the Open era have there been three players blessed with such undiluted genius. Nadal, up until the recently concluded French Open, represented an impregnable fortress on clay. Djokovic is the most improved player of the last three-four years, with a muscular, dominating style that demoralises opponents. And yet, for most fans and experts, it is Federer that sets the gold standard. A substantial part of this aura owes its existence to the bias towards Wimbledon, the Slam that Federer so ruthlessly ruled in his heyday. For a long time now, Wimbledon has been (unofficially) regarded as the Slam of Slams, the one tournament that every tennis player wants to win in his or her lifetime. As Wimbledon 2015 begins, Guardian20 tells you the whys and wherefores of the tennis world’s most cherished trophy.
Wimbledon is played on a grass court, which makes it the only grass court Slam (the Australian Open shifted to hard court in 1988) in the world. Think about it: it’s essentially the same sort of surfaces that players were using in the first Wimbledon, back in 1877 (in fact, this is why tennis was called “lawn tennis” to begin with). Compare that to the dozens of varieties of hard courts that you can play on around the world, and you know why purists still swear by Wimbledon. To give a separate analogy, even cricket pitches have evolved a long way from the matting or “wet dog” wickets of yore; now we have hybrid soils and “drop-in” wickets that are airlifted and deposited elsewhere. Wimbledon, though, has survived the assault of technology.
The style of play
When the tennis ball hits a blade of grass, the grass bends forward of the ball, providing a more or less even, flat surface for the ball to bounce off. From that point on, there is little resistance in the ball’s path; it keeps low and skids on quickly, resulting in shorter points and a fast-paced style of play with a greater percentage of “winners”: decisive shots that end a point.
There are two things that are obvious implications of this fast-paced style of play. The first is that Wimbledon requires the least stamina among all the Slams: the percentage of long rallies is fairly low. This goes against a player like Nadal, who revels in wearing down his opponents and beating them through his superior physicality (as the game progresses, the low, uneven bounce also reduces the potency of topspin, another Nadal staple). The second is that grass court specialists are more likely to end up with sore arms, because of the pace at which the ball is meeting your racquet. Serena Williams, for one, has made a habit of getting injured before the business end of Wimbledon. But as we know, she also has the supreme skill and mental strength required to conjure up winners and keep winning trophies nevertheless.
Where would Wimbledon (or a lot of other British institutions) be without rituals and tradition? For years and years, this thought sustained some less than savoury rules that the Big W insisted on. Luckily, better sense prevailed and some of the patently unjust rules were removed. We’ll now take a quick tour of Wimbledon traditions.
A) The Good
The food and the clothes are the most well-known Wimbledon traditions. The clothes rule is fairly straightforward: all players have to wear white (even spectators were expected to wear the suit-shirt-tie ensemble until recently). Here’s what the rulebook says: “No solid mass of colouring; little or no dark or bold colours; no fluorescent colours; preference towards pastel colours and all other items of clothing including hats, socks and shoes to be almost entirely white.” One might look at this as a little stuck-up, but we think it’s adorable and besides, the fashionistas of the tennis world have the other three slams to go crazy, haven’t they? As for the food, Wimbledon has a traditional snack which spectators are served: strawberries with cream. Other typical stand dishes are onion-and-tomatoes quiche, Lanson champagne, chicken Cornish pasties and Pimm’s Cup, a ginger-ale-and-gin cocktail served with a sprig of mint.
The clothes rule is fairly straightforward: all players have to wear white (even spectators were expected to wear the suit-shirt-tie ensemble until recently). Here’s what the rulebook says: “No solid mass of colouring; little or no dark or bold colours.”
B) The Bad
This one’s easy: until 2007, Wimbledon did not offer equal prize money to male and female champions. Back in the ’70s, Billie Jean King, one of the most famous women’s champions of all time, spearheaded a campaign to change this, but in vain. After King’s heroic but ultimately unsuccessful bid, both male and female players generally declined to talk about this topic; the hallowed status of the All England Club (that organises Wimbledon) had something to do with this, of course. And so it remained until the early 2000s, until Venus Williams (champion in 2000, 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2008) began bad-mouthing the All England Club’s old boys in every interview she gave. But it wasn’t all fire and brimstone: Williams, a highly articulate and diplomatic speaker, was able to get the All England Club to come to the table. Eventually, they agreed that their attitude on this matter was unduly stubborn and atavistic and in 2007, Williams received the same amount as men’s champion Roger Federer: 1.4 million pounds.
C) The Fabulous
The most recent entrant into the Wimbledon hall of eccentricities is “Wimblewords”. In 2010, Wimbledon, in collaboration with Poetry Trust, appointed Matt Harvey as its first official poet-in-residence, and his brief was simple: for the duration of the tournament, he would regale players and audiences alike with daily verses based on Wimbledon and the action therein. We leave you with A Lawn Is Made, a poem Harvey wrote in 2010 as part of his duties.
“They say the great players / are not made, they’re born / but this Centre Court lawn / where great players have played / was not born but made / and this lawn wasn’t laid / it’s alive / and it’s grown / it’s scarified back / to its basal node / then this lawn’s oversown / then it’s rolled and it’s mown / and it’s mown and it’s rolled / and it’s rolled / and it’s mown / and it’s not left alone / not this lawn.”