Saturday, June 18, 2011

Of Wimbledon, Edberg, Chang and Ivaniševic

Wimbledon, which begins on Monday, somewhat peculiarly isn’t my favourite Grand Slam tournament. The honour belongs to Roland Garros for reasons explained in an earlier post. It represents, though, something more. It isn’t merely about the tennis currently on display but the tennis that was once on display. It provides an opportunity to reminisce about the past. In many ways, my life as a tennis fan can be chronicled through the history of the Wimbledon Championships.

It was at Wimbledon, after all, that I fell in love with Stefan Edberg. My family wasn’t tennis-crazy, but my Grandfather in those days watched the sport, and particularly Wimbledon with rapt devotion. It was a time when the Becker-Edberg rivalry was at its zenith. I was too young to have an idea about the mechanics of the sport, but a choice had to be made between the pair. I would be giving myself undeserved credit if I were to say that it was the regal elegance of the Swede’s play that made me chose him over the German, but I doubt I was prone to such aesthetic-minded decisions at that age. For some reason or the other, though, Edberg, playing in his classic Adidas kit, captured my imagination like none before or since. To this day, when I watch re-runs of Edberg playing, I am glad, and even proud, that I made the right choice – for no player more artistically pleasing has ever graced the sport. Somehow, my earliest memories of Edberg have nothing to do with his actual on-court skills, but the jump over the net that he made to greet his opponent who would surely have been slain with sinuous, easy grace.

To me Edberg’s tennis epitomised beauty. His classical service action – which is now used as the Australian Open’s logo – I tried replicating on the courts on many occasions, only for the attempts to end in glorious failure. His single-handed backhand was again a thing of beauty – often hit with the perfect amalgam of power, timing and placement. It was at the net, though, that he was at his finest. A more competent, finessed volley-er you will not see. He struck volleys on both wings with crisp ease that they were bizarrely both imperious and languid. To me the numbers matter little. Perhaps, his six Grand Slam titles do little justice to his talents, but it was his style of play that I was in thrall with. In fact, very soon after I became an Edberg fan, he was on the decline – he won the last of his Grand Slams in 1992 at Flushing Meadows, a tournament which I remember even if not vividly with much fondness.

The era of the Americans – Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi – had arrived. Outlandishly, though, it wasn’t anyone from this triumvirate that I supported, but it was the other American Michael Chang who caught my fancy. I am not as proud of this choice for Chang was but a baseline slugger. He retrieved balls from every corner of the court and counter-punched with magnificent vigour. His game was scarcely suited to the serene grass of Wimbledon and as I was not old enough to watch him win at Roland Garros in 1989 – ironically he defeated Edberg in the final – my time as his fan never saw him win anything substantial.

Sampras had, by now, begun to dominate tennis, and particularly Wimbledon, with tedious, yet impeccable excellence. Those around me were left in awe by the American’s play, but I remained dogged in my opposition – excellence isn’t necessarily a trait that one identifies with when growing up. I needed a player to counter his machine-like efficiency and again my choice was curious. The enigmatic Goran Ivanišević was a popular player, but one who was ultimately flawed. He could serve with monstrous power and remarkable accuracy, but his game was otherwise limited. The Croat lost in the final at Wimbledon in 1992 to Agassi – in a five set humdinger – and in 1994 and 1998 to Sampras who polished him off during the big-points like he was swatting a fly.

Tragedy and Ivanišević rarely seemed too far apart, but his tennis had a magnetic pull to it. One wanted to be attached to his solitude, to feel the catastrophe of his losses. There was something innately human about him, as much as there was something robotic about Sampras. And when in 2001, the Croat, as a wildcard entrant, hiccupped his way into the final against Patrick Rafter, the stage was set for the ultimate tennis story. After five sets of gruelling, heart-wrenching tennis, Ivanišević clinched his first and only Wimbledon, 9-7 in the decider. It was a titanic struggle, but the victory was amongst the sweetest I have experienced as a fan of the sport.

This, the last paragraph from Guardian’s game-by-game report of the 2001 final captures beautifully the concluding moments and the sweet joy of Ivanišević’s victory:

“Drama, drama. This game encapsulates Goran. A bad decision sees him go 0-15. Then a double-fault to take it to 15-30. Then a second service ace at 116mph. 30-30: he calls for the same ball. He aces it to give him championship point. The crowd have gone ballistic. Goran is weeping. Boom. Is it an ace? No, it’s out. And then he double-faults. On match point! Deuce. A big serve gives him the advantage. Guess what? Yup – another double-fault! Rafter pushes one down the line. But it’s out and Goran goes to his knees and lifts his eyes to heaven. He kisses the ball. But what nerve and presence of mind from Rafter to lob from there. And so perfectly. Deuce. But another chance for Goran. He asks for the same ball again. Rafter puts it into the net. GORAN’S WON.”

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