Wimbledon is upon us again. The usual mix of genuine fans and corporate junketeers will be descending on SW19 to watch the world’s tennis stars strut their stuff on the hallowed grass of the All-England Club. Sportswriter Tony B gives us the lowdown on what is set to be another fantastic season of strawberries, uncertain sunshine and edge-of-your-seat serves.
For the first time since God was a boy there is no Englishman in the Men’s draw. The last Englishman to entertain a hope of lifting the title was Tim Henman, a mild mannered, Home Counties lad, adored by the fans and a serial semi-finalist who has retired and moved into the commentary box. Now the repository of the nation’s hopes is the lugubrious Scot, Andy Murray. He may not be English, has occasionally raised boorishness to an art form, but at least he’s a Brit and we can expect another bout of “Murray Mania” as long as he lasts in the tournament. In the women’s draw, it is hard to look further than the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, for the eventual winner. They have met in many finals over the years with the younger Serena generally having the edge but there is something vaguely uncomfortable about watching siblings trying to wipe each other off the court. You sometimes sense some ambivalence on their part too.
However, for me and many aficionados, Wimbledon affords a renewal of one of the most compelling sporting rivalries in this or any other generation. Roger versus Rafa. Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal have achieved a near total hegemony in the men’s game for the last half dozen years. In fact since the beginning of 2004 only four out of 26 grand slams have slipped from the grasp of these twin colossi. Federer has won 16 slams, more than anyone in history, to Nadal’s seven but in their head to head matches, the Spaniard leads 14-7 and also has an Olympic gold medal to his name. There have been other great tennis rivalries in the past. Readers of a certain age will remember Bjorn Borg battling it out with John McEnroe. Then as now the battle could be seen in cultural terms as one between classicism represented by the imperturbable, rock steady Borg and the romanticism of the outrageously gifted but emotionally incontinent McEnroe (as an art gallery owner in Manhattan the latter would hopefully appreciate the analogy).
Federer is the personification of classicism on a tennis court. Unlike the vast majority of players he has a single handed backhand which when it is firing well is a thing of beauty although against Nadal it has occasionally proved his Achilles heel. He is graceful, stylish and like all sublimely talented sportsmen, rarely seems hurried. Even after four hours on court he looks as if he has hardly broken sweat. Against this Nadal is a force of nature. I remember the first time I clapped eyes on him. Idly channel hopping one afternoon, about seven years ago, I dropped into Eurosport where a Spanish clay court tournament was in progress. A dark, athletically built sixteen-year-old dressed unlike any tennis player I had ever seen, in an orange sleeveless top and “pirata” trousers below his knees was belting his ground strokes with unbelievable top spin so that the ball fizzed off the clay like a rocket, well out of reach of his bemused opponent. The way he ran down every ball was jaw-dropping and he already had the trademark tics on service, taking ages wiping the sweat off his forehead picking his trousers out his backside and leaping into the air pumping his fists and yelling “vamos” after a particularly spectacular shot. “You’ve got to see this guy,” I called out to my wife, “he’s incredible.” She popped her head round the door to take a dutiful peek and stayed till the end of the match, mesmerised like me, by the magnetic intensity of this rising star. We have been passionate fans ever since.
As with Borg and McEnroe, fans are firmly in one camp or another. On the blogosphere you will find your “Fedheads” and your “Rafniks” usually displaying a lot less respect to the opposing camp than their impeccably behaved heroes show one another.
Like all great rivalries there have been periods when one or other of these great players has been in the ascendancy. Two years ago, Nadal marmalised Federer in the French Open final for the loss of four games and then went on to beat him in the Wimbledon final on his centre court manor (Federer had won the five previous Wimbledon finals). This epic, rain interrupted contest which finished in near darkness, is generally accepted as the greatest match of all time and anyone who watched it will know that this is not the usual sporting hyperbole. When Nadal again prevailed in the Australian Open final six months later and Federer was left blubbing like a baby on the podium, it looked like the great Swiss hero was on the way out. However, injuries to his knees and his parents divorce, led to Nadal losing at the French last year and not defending his Wimbledon title. On the blogs the Fedheads were writing that Rafa was a busted flush. This year Federer won the Australian Open in January but has done nothing since then and had a very close call in his opening match at Wimbledon against a Columbian journeyman. Nadal, meanwhile, came back and won the four major clay court tournaments, including the French Open, for the loss of one set and is now the number one ranked player in the world.
Has fatherhood, age (he is almost 29 years old) and the fact that he has already won 16 slams, led to a loss of desire on Federer’s part? Has the great man lost his mojo? All will be revealed in the next fortnight. In the meantime, let’s hear it for the boy from Mallorca.