Wimbledon 2012: A Tournament For The Aged

And so we come to the end of this year’s Championships.  For the first time since 1975 the men’s and women’s (or in Wimbledon parlance “gentlemen’s and ladies'”) champions were both in their 30’s.  Actually, both are 30.  By tennis standards this is ancient, and yet both Roger Federer and Serena Williams looked like they can go on for years.  They may be the greatest two players to have ever played the game.  If not, they are at least in the conversation.


Serena Williams actually won two titles, the singles and the doubles with her sister Venus.  With these wins Serena and Venus joined the “5 and 5 Club,” which I had never heard of, but which was discussed a few times during the final couple days of this tournament.  To be in the 5 and 5 Club means that you have won both singles and doubles five or more times.  As of yesterday, both Venus and Serena have five singles titles apiece and five doubles titles which they won together.  (Just in case you are interested, the only other members are Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Suzanne Lenglen, William “Willie” Renshaw, and Lawrence “Laurie” Doherty.  If you never heard of these last two, they played before World War I.  Renshaw played in the 1800’s, almost at the very beginning of Wimbledon.)

Serena is perhaps the most fascinating player, male or female, since Suzanne Lenglen and quite possibly the only player whose personality could compete with that of La Divine.  Like Lenglen, when Serena turns on the competitive urge, she is practically invincible.  Unlike Lenglen, Serena does not turn it on all the time.  It is entirely possible that Serena is the greatest player ever (although Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova may dispute that) and also the greatest underachiever ever too.  Serena won her first major title 13 years ago at the 1999 US Open.  Now she has 14 singles titles.  Discounting the time lost to a severe life-threatening injury and the mental trauma of her sister’s brutal murder (neither of which could she be faulted for), Serena let a lot of her potential victories slip away by being distracted with outside interests–the acting career being one infamous example.  And yet when Serena plays her best, could even Graf or Navratilova compete with her?  I don’t know for sure, but it would be fascinating.

The Williams sisters are a tennis oddity.  The rules that govern how most players spend their careers just don’t seem to apply to them, especially Serena.  Look at the sisters’ doubles victory.  The last time they played together competitively was 2010.  Yet this fortnight, they swept aside the best doubles players in the world en route to the title.  For mere mortals this is impossible, but for the Williams sisters this is normal.  (One thing though that unfortunately cannot be overcome is that Venus suffers from the autoimmune disease Sjögren’s Syndrome, which went undiagnosed for years, and which kept her out of the game for a significant period of time recently.  That also explains why Venus’s form mysteriously fell.  This is an immense loss to tennis.)  The sisters have practically owned Wimbledon.  Venus first won Wimbledon in 2000.  Of the last 13 tournaments at Wimbledon, the House of Williams has won 10.

As for Serena, if she can hold her form–which at 30 and with her history is never a sure thing–she could equal or surpass the 18 titles won by Navratilova and her arch-rival Chris Evert.  (The 22 of Graf and the 24 of Margaret Court is probably unreachable at this point.) How badly does Serena want it?  That is the eternal question.  But both Ever and Navratilova know that Serena is breathing down their neck.


In the men’s tournament, Roger Federer ruthlessly broke the collective hearts of Andy Murray, his family, the nation of Great Britain, and Pete Sampras (probably) by winning his 7th Wimbledon title.  Not only has Federer now won 17 major titles, not only has he won a record-tying 7 Wimbledon titles (Sampras and Renshaw), not only has he regained the #1 ranking, but he is now going to tie and probably surpass the record for number of weeks at the top spot (286 weeks, held by Sampras).  Federer stopped chasing history a couple of years ago; history is now chasing him.

Federer’s game is the perfect combination of silk and steel.  Tennis has had a few (a very few) players who inspire art and poetry with their game.  It’s not just that they have all the shots and the intelligence to use them, it’s that their form is perfect while making those shots.  Freeze these players mid-stroke, and their position is sculpture-worthy.  The problem is that most of these players don’t have the mental fortitude or physical health to be truly great champions.  It is rare among the women, and practically unheard of among the men.  Federer is perhaps the lone man who was able to turn his perfect style into worldwide domination.  Even for Federer it took years to put it together, and along the way he had to suffer embarrassing first round losses and the dreaded “brilliant headcase” label.  But when he did put it together, it was like a bolt from the blue.  Nothing like Federer had ever been seen before, at least not in recent memory.  Silk and steel.  Perfection and utter ruthlessness.

That is why Federer inspires such awe and devotion among tennis fans.  It is also why his fans are ecstatic when he wins and devastated when he loses.

In all this, one has to really feel for Andy Murray.  This was his best shot yet to win that elusive major title.  The weight of his entire country  was behind him and unlike Tim Henman, he appeared to be able to deal well with the pressure.  Murray has grown as a player.  He is poised and composed.  His game was looking very sharp, and he did not get down on himself when things got rough.  Ivan Lendl was coaching him now, and the player he was meeting in the final is one that he actually had a winning record against.

But he wasn’t just meeting some top player, he was meeting Federer.  Federer, although Swiss not British, fully believes Wimbledon is his house and the trophy his property.  Murray actually played exceptionally well for the first set and most of the second, but then Federer remembered who he was.  He found a tiny opening and drove a truck through it, completely devastating Murray (who, to his credit, did not lose the match; he was just beaten).  To quote Omar Little of The Wire, “If you come at the king, you best not miss.”

Center Court at Wimbledon is where Federer is at his greatest.  It was where he met Sampras for the first and only time, and ended the champion’s reign in 5 tough sets.  It was the site of Federer’s first title.  It was the site of his apotheosis, where he won his record-breaking 15th title and made his case for best ever–a match made all the more dramatic by taking place under the stoic gaze of the other three major men’s tennis gods: Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, and Sampras (with demigod John McEnroe commentating in the booth).

Roger Federer’s game is tennis’s gift to the world.  Wimbledon, the holiest site in tennis, is where we were given that gift and where we kept receiving it.  Long may the king reign.

On Monica Seles

I have no quantifiable data to prove this, but I suspect that if one were to poll tennis fans as to who their favorite player of all time was, across the world  the runaway answer would be Monica Seles.  Once a world-beating teenager, Seles, through no fault of her own, became her sport’s tragic heroine.  In doing so, she won over fans by the legion. and her name became a shorthand for dignity and class–a trait all too seemingly rare among famous athletes.


Tennis matches are most enjoyable to watch when opponents’ styles contrast.  The classic example, the one that goes back to 19th century Wimbledon, is that between the baseline player and the serve-and-volleyer.  That contrast produced some of tennis’s most exciting rivalries: Navratilova/Evert, McEnroe/Borg, and to a lesser extent Sampras/Agassi.

There is another battle, less classic and far rarer, that has made the hearts of tennis fans beat all the faster, and that is the battle between athlete and artist.  The serve-and-volley game is nearly extinct, destroyed by modern equipment and training, but at least it had a good run.  The tennis “artist” on the other hand, a player of uncanny intelligence, near perfect shot making ability, and effortless mobility on the court (practically dancing), is as rare and as precious as a blue diamond.  For decades in the women’s game there was only the holy Trinity of Suzanne Lenglen, Maria Bueno, and Evonne Goolagong.  In recent years, only Martina Hingis and Justine Henin could lay claim to an artistic ideal.  Although neither had the fluidity of Lenglen, Bueno, or Goolagong, Henin’s backhand and Hingis’s intelligence are easily the equal of their predecessors.  (In the men’s game, Roger Federer stands alone among tennis artists although lesser mortals such as Gustavo Kuerten and Manolo Santana have approached Federer’s Alp.)

In contrast to the rarity of tennis artists, there has never been a lack of “athletes”, players whose superior physical ability augment their formidable (but not Platonic) tennis abilities.  In any era, there will always be such athletes at the top of the game; Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams are the quintessential contemporary examples.  This is not to say that the artists lack athleticism–although Hingis was harmed by her inability to cope with the physicality of her competitors–or that the athletes lack an aesthetic quality, but when the great artists meet the great athletes, then tennis fans are rewarded with great battles.


It is these attributes that make for the great tennis players, yet Monica Seles was none, which makes her success all the more remarkable.  She preferred the baseline (perhaps out of necessity; her lateral movement was good, but ability to move forward left much to be desired), but she was no classic baseliner like Evert, Borg, or Connors.  She was not an athlete, certainly not like Steffi Graf or Martina Navratilova.  Fitness was never her strongest point, and it an Achilles heel after her return to the game in 1995.  From 1990-1993 her shotmaking ability was arguably the finest in the world, but if anything she completely subverted the artistic ideal.  Her ground strokes were just, and there is no other word for it, odd.

Seles had no forehand.  This is not a derisive remark about the weakness her shot; it is a factual assessment of the way she gripped her racket.  She held the racket with both hands, thereby creating a second two-handed backhand instead of a forehand.  It was a not a particularly attractive shot (especially to the tennis purist, who can barely tolerate a two-handed backhand), but it was an extremely effective one.  What she lost in reach, she more than made up for in power and control.  It also allowed her to hit angles that other players could not reach and with incredible pace and precision that opponents could not match.  This was such an effective tool for Seles, that one wonders why it was never copied.  Perhaps a lesser player could not get away with such unorthodoxy.  Nevertheless, Seles’s influence on today’s game cannot be overlooked.  She nearly single-handedly (no pun intended) initiated the power game in women’s tennis.

Seles was born in Tito’s Yugoslavia to an ethnic Hungarian family (her prime years coincided with the disintegration of her home country and the ensuing chaos and war.)  Her father Károly, a cartoonist, showed her how to play by drawing pictures for her–thus the development of unique style.  She joined the professional tour in 1988 at the age of 14, and beat Chris Evert in 1989 to win her first tour title.  Immediately afterwards, Seles reached the semifinals of the 1989 French Open where she met the reigning champion Steffi Graf and lost in a tight match.


In 1989, Steffi Graf ruled tennis with an iron fist.  Graf conquered all in 1988, demolishing all opponents en route to a Grand Slam.  For good measure, she won the Olympic title too thereby achieving the Golden Slam, a feat unique in tennis history.  Although she lost her French Open title in 1989 due to the combination of another teenager (Aranxa Sanchez Vicario) and menstrual cramps, 1989 was actually a more dominant year than 1988.  Graf’s seemed completely unbeatable.

Then came 1990.  It started off well with another victory at the Australian Open.  Then the German tabloids discovered and revealed an extortion attempt against Graf’s domineering father Peter for allegedly fathering an illegitimate child with a model.  It was crushing for Graf personally, and the media was brutal.  Graf also suffered a host of physical injuries, including a sinus operation.  Seles was the first beneficiary, beating Graf at the 1990 French Open.  Graf’s year was not bad by mortal standards (a semifinal loss at Wimbledon to Zina Garrison was followed by a final round loss at the US Open to Gabriela Sabatini), but by Graf’s own exacting expectations, it was a horrific year.  However, the worst was yet to come.

1991 was the year Seles truly arrived.  She won the Australian Open, successfully defended her French title, skipped Wimbledon, and then won the US Open.  Her absence from Wimbledon caused a stir, particularly among the scandal-crazed British tabloid press (who sparked ridiculous “Seles is pregnant” claims), but the truth was far more mundane; Seles suffered from shin splints.  In hindsight, Seles probably regrets that she skipped Wimbledon, because it remained the one title she never won.  Graf benefited from Seles’s absence and won her first major title in a year and a half.


There are two aspects of Seles’s early career that must be noted because–for better or for worse–she was the trailblazer in what are now ubiquitous to the women’s tour.  First, Seles a giggling teenager with an infectious smile, was a star as well as a champion.  She spoke openly of her admiration for Madonna and had a strange friendship with Donald Trump.  She was tailed by the paparazzi, and wore wings and sunglasses trying to escape them.  The tennis dress designer Ted Tinling claimed that Seles was the first legitimate star tennis produced since Suzanne Lenglen (a friend of his from his youth.)  To Tinling, all the other greats in the women’s game never transcended the sport the way that Lenglen did until Seles. Because of the stabbing, Seles never fulfilled Tinling’s vision, but she led the way for player/celebrities like Anna Kournikova and the Williams sisters.

The second important aspect of Seles’s early career was the grunting (for lack of a better word.)  Seles was not the first player to grunt, but she elevated it, she made it okay, and many of today’s players who grunt (including Venus and Serena Williams) cite Seles as a model.  Perhaps this is hypocritical, but while I detest the screaming of today, I tend to be less harsh on Seles.  Her grunting, a distinct “ungh-EEE!“, drove her competitors crazy, Martina Navratilova in particular, and not unjustifiably.  At the time, I always sided with Seles because (1) on television her grunts did not seem as loud as they actually were (to my ears, Sabatini was far worse), and (2) Seles took the #1 spot from Graf, a player whom I adore now, but did not care for at the time.

I also tend to be less harsh about Seles because, unlike today’s screamers, I truly believe that grunting was an important if inconvenient factor of Seles’s game rather than elaborate cheating.  Seles tried to stop after being mercilessly hounded by the British tabloids at Wimbledon 1992 (where the “Grunt-O-Meter” was introduced).  In the end she meekly fell to Graf in the final round.  Considering that Seles won all the other major tournaments in 1992, including a now-legendary three-set classic over Graf in the French Open final, it was pretty clear both to her and tennis fans that if Seles wanted to continue winning she had to continue grunting.


Early on signs indicated that in 1993 Seles would continue her march to the title of greatest ever.  At the Australian Open she again beat Steffi Graf, in another three-set classic.  However, at a tournament in Hamburg, a madman literally stabbed Seles in the back (with a boning knife) and the phrase “deranged Steffi Graf fan” entered the popular tennis lexicon.  Günter Parche, a deeply disturbed man, distraught that his beloved Graf (whom he stalked at one point) was no longer the world’s top player, took advantage of the lax security at Hamburg and altered tennis history forever.  He destroyed Seles’s career; the physical wound healed, but she was sidelined for the next 28 months, plagued with nightmares, psychological trauma, and weight issues.  Graf, whom Parche also deeply traumatized by the attack, benefited the most.  With the absence of Seles and the decline and retirement of Navratilova, Graf had virtually no rivals left, and she swept all before her.  Graf’s only real rival over the next four years was her own body, which eventually broke down.

Seles returned for the 1995 US Open, but everything had changed.  She was no longer the same player.  Her giggling was replaced by a weary and wary reticence.  But Seles carried herself with quiet dignity that won her fans worldwide.  Whereas she had once been a divisive figure in the tennis world, she was now universally beloved.  Speaking ill of Seles was akin to blasphemy.  No matter what continent she played on, no matter who her opponent was, the crowd collectively supported her.  Even some of her opponents had very mixed feelings when playing her, probably none more so than Graf.  Sanchez Vicario beat Seles at the 1998 French Open final just after Seles’s beloved father died and publicly apologized to Seles for doing so.


In Jon Wertheim’s book Venus Envy, there is a very poignant moment.  A random fan approached Seles and shared her own story of woe.  Seles, rather than trying to get away, listened to the fan’s story.  Wertheim indicated that this was not a unique occurrence.  Fans connected with Seles in a way that they could not before and on a very personal level, which was ironic because Seles was a far more private person than she had previously been.  In a way, Seles became larger than the sport; to tennis fans around the world she was the embodiment of a heroic ideal.  For all her seemingly supernatural talent, it was her humanity that attracted people to her.  It was made all the poignant by the understanding that there would be no fairy tale ending for Seles.  Nevertheless, she persevered, and she did so standing tall.

In his tribute to Seles after she announced her retirement, Wertheim wrote, “[S]he exited as perhaps the most adored figure in the sport’s history. As happy endings go, one could do worse. “

One wishes Seles happiness in life.  If any athlete deserves that, it’s Monica Seles.