“The King is dead.”
— Dijana, Novak Djokovic’s mother, on her son defeating Roger Federer in the Australian Open semi-finals on his way to winning the title in 2008
The world awaits the 126th edition of Wimbledon, which the logo of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club calls “The Championships”, commencing on June 25. Many would agree with the definite article testifying to its uniqueness. Any tennis player would be willing to sacrifice anything to get the title there.
For one thing, it is the oldest of the Grand Slams with a great history and tradition. Two, its surface is grass, which once prevailed in many parts of the world but no longer does. Its prestige is derived from the fact that it is the fastest surface. The ball bounces to the knee level. On hard courts it could be between the knee and shoulder and on clay courts it is above the shoulder. Consequently, the technique of play on grass is different from what it is on other surfaces. I have a feeling that men like grass because it is a medium for projecting their macho image — the searing serves, the surging power of the ground shots, the volatile volleys and half volleys and, above all, the final arbiter of many points, viz., the overhead smash.
Hard courts do replicate some of the features of grass but not to the same extent. Having slided on clay courts for returns over several weeks, players find it difficult to avoid it on grass, leading to unforced errors.
The transition from the clay courts at the French Open to grass in Wimbledon is short — just two weeks unlike in the case of other Grand Slams where there is enough time to tune up for a different surface. In the entire history of tennis, only six players have won back-to-back titles of the two Grand Slams: Rene Lacoste (1925), Fred Perry (1935), Budge Patty (1950), Bjorn Borg (1978, 1979 and 1980), Rafael Nadal (2008 and 2010) and Roger Federer (2009). Unlike in the past, when points were decided in four or five shots, long rallies are seen now. It is baseline play and not serve-and-volley. Wimbledon authorities deny that they have made any changes in the grass or the ball.
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In the fortnight between French Open and Wimbledon, there are six warm-up tournaments on grass, of which those at Queens Club, London, and Halle in Germany are relatively better patronised by leading players. But the probability of finalists from there winning the title at Wimbledon is not as high as in the case of the Rome Masters vis-à-vis French Open. All the top players participate in Rome Masters. On the other hand, the high-ranked players are distributed between London and Halle. In this year’s championships, Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray did not win; Djokovic did not participate. But it does not preclude one of them from winning Wimbledon, going by past experience.
This year’s Championships have an added significance since the AELTC grounds will be the venue for the tennis competitions at the Olympic starting on July 28. It is very probable that whoever wins at Wimbledon may also become the gold medallist at the Olympics. Nadal is the defending Olympic champion. After the recent French Open, the question foremost in the minds of many tennis aficionados is whether Federer, the King of Grass who won Wimbledon six times between 2003 and 2009 with a break in 2008, can do it again. He missed breaking Borg’s record of five consecutive titles due to Nadal.
Dijana Djokovic, whose statement is quoted at the beginning of the article, was rather hasty in writing the obituary of Federer’s tennis career. After her statement, Federer went on to win four Grand Slam titles, two year-end Championship Performance titles and a number of other ATP world-tour titles. However, his last Grand Slam success was at the Australian Open in 2010.
Federer is no doubt a master of all the shots in the tool kit of a tennis player. Jimmy Connors had said: “In an era of specialists, you’re either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist, or a hard court specialist...or you’re Roger Federer.” I am afraid, however, that Federer is past his prime, going by his recent performances. For a long time he was known to win titles without losing a single set. In recent matches it is not so. I think his reflexes are getting somewhat slower due to age. I do not expect him to be in the last four at Wimbledon. In other words, we are not going to see the resurrection of the King of Grass on a Good Sunday. “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”. Federer may gradually withdraw from the sport rather than be humbled by players much junior to him.
As for Djokovic, who raised great hopes of winning the non-calendar year Grand Slam at Roland Garros, the problem seems to be his physical fitness and motivation. When the match resumed on the second day in the French Open final, his body language showed that he was tired after a couple of games. Despite staging a comeback in the third set he gave the impression of being demotivated. I am not sure whether Djokovic can recapture the spirit and form that propelled him to win three Grand Slam titles in succession — a feat achieved by only four others in tennis history: Jack Crawford (1933), Tony Trabert (1955), Lew Hoad (1956) and Nadal (2010). In all of them he defeated Nadal. He may find it difficult to defend his title at Wimbledon. Nothing spoke more about his demoralisation than the ignominious manner in which he delivered a double fault on championship point in the final of the French Open.
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Murray seems to be a spent force, suffering as he does from a back problem. I believe that Nadal will win at Wimbledon and the Olympics. He is tough both in body and mind. His height and weight, as also those of Federer, are 185 cm and 85 kg, respectively, with a Body-Mass Index of 24.8, just on the margin of becoming overweight. But it is all muscle as can be seen from his bulging biceps. He has given enough evidence of his mental toughness in the most difficult and adverse circumstances. My forecast is that the semi-finals will see three from the following short-list, apart from Nadal: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, Nicolas Almagro, Philipp Kohlschreiber, Milos Raonic and Janko Tipsarevic.
On the ladies front, I see Maria Sharapova carrying on her momentum after achieving the Career Grand Slam at the French Open. However, her speed and power of serve are hampered by her shoulder surgery. Double faults could be her undoing. Depending on the draw, her only challenge may be from Kim Clijsters who plans to quit tennis at the end of the year. P Kvitova, the defending champion, was defeated by Sharapova at the French Open.
There is no hope for any Indian singles player moving beyond the second round. But either Leander Paes or Mahesh Bhupathi may be among the finalists in men’s doubles and/or mixed doubles and possibly win.