For two weeks every year, Wimbledon reminds the world of tennis of its traditional roots. A certain romance is associated with those traditions and the memories of the great players who have observed them.
A perfect memory bouquet of Wimbledon
The rich history of Wimbledon is littered with memorable matches. From the Arthur Ashe final, to the McEnroe-Borg duel to the Nadal-Federer epic, the All England Club conjures up some wonderful vivid images, writes Ahmed Rizvi
For two weeks every year, Wimbledon reminds the world of tennis of its traditional roots; the men's competition is still graciously referred to as the "gentlemen's singles" and the women were called "Miss" or "Mrs" until not so long ago.-
A certain romance is associated with traditions at The Championships, an old-world charm of days when horse-drawn carriages filled the streets outside SW19. Strawberries and cream share attention with the serve and volley; competitors pack their many-coloured attires from Roland Garros and rummage through wardrobes for pure whites; spectators are expected to dress and behave impeccably at this bastion of royalty, ritual and convention.
To add to that aura, Wimbledon commissioned an official bard last year, a former barkeep named Matt Harvey, to compose a poem each day of the tournament. Martina Navratilova, a nine-time singles champion at the All England Club, thought that was "quirky and British and very Wimbledon".
In one of his first tributes, Harvey wrote:
For the game of lawn tennis there's no better symbol than Wimbledon
The place where the game's flame was sparked and then kindled in
Where tough tennis cookies have cracked and then crumbled in
Top seeds have stumbled, have tumbled, been humbled in Wimbledon
There's one word for tennis and that one word is Wimbledon.
Jimmy Connors, the maverick and quintessential rebel of tennis, begged to differ. "New Yorkers love it when you spill your guts out there," the American, a two-time Wimbledon champion, said once of the US Open. "Spill your guts at Wimbledon and they make you stop and clean it up."
Perhaps he gave this opinion in a rage following the four-set loss to Arthur Ashe in the Wimbledon final of 1975. This match is one of the epics and figures prominently in the lore of the hallowed tournament.
Writing in his memoir Days of Grace, Ashe said: "That match was the biggest of my life. It was also one that just about everybody was sure I would lose, because Connors was virtually invincible.
"I was the sacrificial lamb."
Connors was the overwhelming favourite, but the lamb turned into a lion. Ashe changed tactics and pace, putting a spin on his shots that disturbed the rhythm of his opponent. At the end, the underdog stood triumphant 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4, becoming the first, and, as yet only, black man to win Wimbledon.
The tournament, which started in 1877, had seen it all, but never a black man holding aloft that cup, with a distinctive silver pineapple on top. Spencer Gore was the first winner of the trophy, from among 22 gentlemen, watched by 200 spectators who paid a shilling each for the final.
Gore employed the novel idea of approaching the net and volleying the ball to the left and right of his flabbergasted opponents, who played from the baseline. That style remains the staple of grass-court tennis to this day.
The first tournament, according to Cameron Brown's book Wimbledon: Facts, Figures, and Fun, was held largely to raise money for "a pony-drawn roller" for the then All England Croquet Club. Since then, the tournament has kept a tenacious grip on its time-honoured traditions and ceremonies.
There were a few impromptu modernists rebels along the way. Gertrude Moran shocked the tennis world in 1949 with her lace-trimmed undergarment; Bunny Austin turned up in shorts at the 1933 event, but at least he wore white. John McEnroe and Anna Kournikova were asked to leave the courts when they appeared in black shorts, and Anne White received a scolding for playing in a skin-tight catsuit.
Andre Agassi, a bit blingy in his youth, took exception to Wimbledon's strict dress code, calling the tournament "stuffy and obsolete". He stayed away in a self-imposed exile, but returned to play one of the greatest matches in Wimbledon history, a 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 win over Goran Ivanisevic in the 1992 final. Sprawled on the court after the game, he wept. His opinion about Wimbledon changed.
"This tournament has given my life so much and it's a shame I didn't respect it earlier," the American said later. "This was the greatest title in the world and this was my greatest achievement. I never realised what it all meant. Nothing compares to winning Wimbledon."
Ivanisevic, Boris Becker, Pat Cash and many others share a similar opinion. Becker entered tennis lore when he defeated Kevin Curren to win the 1985 title. He was unseeded and, at 17 years and 227 days, a few months younger than the boys winner, Leonardo Lavalle.
Pat Cash enjoyed pop-star status after his conquest of 1987, while Ivanisevic and Patrick Rafter produced one of the finest matches ever at Wimbledon in 2001.
Ivanisevic, making his fourth appearance at a Wimbledon final, was a wild-card and ranked No 125 in the world after being plagued by a shoulder injury for the previous two years. That Monday evening, though, he felt like a million dollars.
"I don't know if Wimbledon has ever seen anything like it and I don't know if they ever will again," said the Croatian after his win. "Everyone just went nuts."
Ivanisevic was, of course, wrong on both counts. Wimbledon's list of thrillers run as long as their scroll of traditions. Pancho Gonzales and Charlie Pasarell figure there prominently. They played a five-hour match in the first round of 1969. Gonzales won 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9.
Nicolas Mahut and John Isner spent more than double that time on court last year. Their first-round contest lasted 11 hours and five minutes across three days and 183 games before Isner prevailed 6-4, 3-6, 6-7, 7-6, 70-68. The deciding set was eight hours and 11 minutes, and 138 games.
"This is absolutely amazing. This is beyond anything," Roger Federer said after that match. "I was watching this. I don't know if I was crying or laughing. It was too much."
Tennis connoisseurs would also easily recall other Wimbledon classics like Venus Williams's 4-6, 7-6, 9-7 win over Lindsay Davenport in the 2005 final, or Steffi Graf's 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 triumph over Aranxta Sanchez Vicario for the 1995 crown, where one game in the final set lasted 20 minutes and 32 points with 13 deuces.
Margaret Court's 14-12, 11-9 win over Billie Jean King in the 1970 final would also figure prominently in their memoirs, as would the sight of Jana Novotna weeping on the shoulders of the Duchess of Kent after losing the 1993 final to Graf.
The memory of the gentlemen's final of 1980, however, transcends them all. That epic between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe is known as 'The Tiebreak' in tennis history and enjoyed an undisputed status as the greatest match of all time until three years back.
Borg, 24, showed supreme resilience to win 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6 and clinch his fifth successive crown after losing the fourth-set tiebreak 18-16 during which he had five match points. "You'd think after all these years I'd be sick and tired of the mention of it but I'm not," said McEnroe, who saved seven match points in the fourth set.
"This was violently exciting tennis in which each man made terrible demands on heart and muscles and sinews," said The Times of London. "The speed of the shots and reaction, racket-handling and timing were breathtaking."
"What separates Borg-McEnroe from any other match are the stakes involved and its fourth-set tiebreaker, easily a patch of excellence that even now is breathtaking," Neil Amdur wrote in the New York Times earlier this month. "The drama of the 18-16 fourth set tiebreaker in McEnroe-Borg was like a riveting, unscripted theatrical experience. I am tempted again to reaffirm its place as the sport's single most compelling piece of court magic."
Both Borg and McEnroe, however, prefer to give that honour to the Wimbledon final of 2008 between Federer and Roger Nadal.
"The stronger inclination is to return to SW19 and hoist a flag or plant a tree and reaffirm that here, on Sunday 6 July 2008, we not only saw the greatest tennis match ever played, we were also given, cleanly, beautifully, the very essence of all that is best in sport and in a way I had never quite seen before and do not confidently expect ever to see again," said The Independent after that unforgettable final.
In just under five hours, Nadal brought Federer's 65-match winning streak on grass to an end; the Swiss had not lost on the surface since 2002.
The Spaniard's 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10), 9-7 win kept Federer from becoming the first man to win six consecutive Wimbledon title since William Renshaw (1881-86).
"I was emotionally exhausted myself," said McEnroe, who was commentating on the match. "But I remember the first thing I said to him was something like, 'Can I just say thank you, Roger, as a tennis player, that you let us all be part of this amazing spectacle?'
"This was better than what John and I did, this match had everything," said Borg, who watched it from the Royal Box.
"I look back on our match with pride, but when you see something like that you can only applaud and say that was better.
"Now how many years must we wait for something even better to come along? It will be many, many, many years."
Fans, however, will be hoping Borg is wrong, even as soon as this year. As at the French Open, Novak Djokovic will stand in Federer's way, drawn to meet in the semi-final, but there is no guessing what outcome the world's tennis fans would prefer.
Federer and Nadal take tennis to a different realm and what better stage for another clash of the titans than this shrine of immortality known as All England.