Saturday, 14 July 2012

30 the new 20 for the King and Queen of Tennis

[The Wimbledon 2012 Singles Champions, tennis's own royalty - King Roger Federer and Queen Serena Williams.]
As I have mentioned before, 30 years old in a game of tennis just stand for 'old', nothing more. A game that is physically challenging, where there are no teammates, at least not in singles, where the match has no time limit, and you have a gruelling packed season. It becomes difficult, well nearly impossible to achieve what you did in your 20s. No wonder you have such few champions who are in their 30s. But then again, that is what describes them - Champions are those who defy age barriers to redefine the game's barriers. They fine tune and adjust their games so that they can continue to gun for glory. Just as Sachin Tendulkar may no longer be whacking sixes off the cricket ground like he used to in his 'Master Blaster' days, but he continues to shatter records and cement his position as the greatest cricketer of all time, the greats of the game of tennis too did the same, making subtle changes in their games to achieve victory. Last week, at the Wimbledon Championships, which were marred a bit by the rain and controversy surrounding the £ 80 million roof on Centre Court, two players, both past champions but of late written off by most to never again win a Grand Slam, did just that, proving all those people wrong and making it the first time in the history of the 126 year old Championships that both the winners of the men's and women's singles were over 30 years of age; just the third time at any Grand Slam. Incidentally, the winner of all the doubles titles, men's, women's and mixed were over the age of 30, with the exception of Frederik Nielsen. So much for the old tag!

[Serena thundering yet another ace.
Don't mind the exposed purple rear.]
On Saturday, Serena Williams trumped the timid Pole, Agnieska Radwańska (how can she even play tennis when she has just no power whatsoever! She is a pusher!), to pocket her fifth Wimbledon crown, her fourteenth Grand Slam Singles title. She also became only the second tennis player after the legendary Martina Navratilová to win at least one Grand Slam in three different decades. The gutsy American, who bowed out of the French Open in the first round in both singles and mixed doubles, was written off as being tool old and fat to win. However, she silenced her critics with a powerful performance all through the tournament; maybe the early exit at the French Open motivated her to muscle through the draw here. She started off her hunt for the title a little slow in the earlier rounds, but picked up pace in the third round match against the Chinese player Zheng Jie, in a great three-setter where she thundered with 23 aces, a new Wimbledon record, and picked up her game in the quarter final to send the defending champion, fourth ranked Petra Kvitová of the Czech Republic, packing in tight two sets, again firing 23 aces. She bettered her own record by serving 24 in the semis, against second ranked Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, a new Wimbledon record, and probably for most aces in a woman's match, even though they played only two sets. That is a whole set of aces! Her service motion, often described as the best and most consistent of any tennis player, male or female, was the talk of the tournament, and it did not disappoint her, with a bag-full of of unplayable serves and a plethora of massive unreturnable serves and again a bunch of aces, 17 to be precise, (and that includes one particular game in the third set where Williams fired down four aces back to back to finish the game) in the final against the third ranked Pole, Agnieska. That meant Serena finished the tournament as the ace leader with 102 aces, more than even any man (Philip Kohlschreiber, the men's leader, finished with 98), which is unbelievable, given that she was stretched to three sets only thrice, while the men play best of five sets!

[The amazing Williams sisters claiming their fifth Wimbledon and thirteenth Grand Slam Doubles crown.]
Serena played an amazing versatile game, abundant with drop shots and lobs, and did not shy away from coming to the net and volleying, something the doubles play has improved in her. She is also one of the finest returners of serve in the game and hit blazing returns, not even giving the server to complete their service motions on some occasions before she has hit a winner. She also moved much better and hung in those longer rallies, but of course she played her usual heavy ground strokes and as Vijay Amritraj rightly describes, 'first-strike tennis', where she pounds the ball as if she wanted to tear it apart, swinging her racquet wildly at the ball the way an aborigine would have his bow at an explorer. The rain-delay at the end of the first set put a halt to Serena's momentum, just when it looked like she would run away with the final, which had only one-way traffic, and allowed Agnieska to win the second set. However, that just pushed Serena to grab the decider and with it the title. She was ecstatic on winning her fifth Wimbledon, tying her with her sister Venus, Charlotte Cooper Sterry and Lottie Dod, and her first Grand Slam since the 2010 Wimbledon, which is extremely impressive, especially considering that just a couple of years ago she was battling a respiratory disorder and even holding a tennis racquet was doubtful. All that time off court has further boosted her hunger for victory. She jumped higher than her flowing skirt, which has revealed far more purple than anything Thai Airways, and then went on to hug her coach and father Richard and sister Venus, who always cheers her on and is genuinely happy in her younger sister's victory and her younger sister matching her own Wimbledon achievements; quintessential caring elder sibling! The two of them also played that day to clinch the doubles title at Wimbledon, their first tournament together since the 2010 Wimbledon. This gave them their fifth Wimbledon together and thirteenth Doubles Grand Slam. That is thirteen wins in thirteen Grand Slam finals! In the Doubles' Final, Serena seemed to be the one pulling the team through most of the match, but Venus also picked up her game in the second set and played exceptionally well on their serves. The win must have given Venus some much needed confidence after her first round loss to Elina Vesnina. They instilled my belief in them and I most certainly was right in saying this isn't the end for the Williamses. They shall return stronger during the Olympics and defend their titles and scoop up some other ones as well. What I did not like about all the doubles finals at Wimbledon was that the finalists were given no opportunity to address the rather sparse crowd gathered post their matches! Hope they change that soon. And why were a lot of Serena's early matches scheduled on Court while players who hadn't even won a title at Wimbledon or were not even ranked number one ever graced the Centre Court? That is disrespect shown to a former Champion, one who has notched up four titles there. They should avoid such instances.

[Federer trumping Murray to regain his throne.
Is that a pineapple sitting atop the trophy? Just wondering...]
On the men's side of the draw, the first week brought up quite a surprise when Rafael Nadal, the world number two and my hero, bowed out of the competition in the second round itself to a hitherto unknown Czech by the name of Lukáš Rosol, who has won only a handful of matches at the professional level. Rosol played like a maniac and surprisingly, much to the frustration of dear Nadal, and whatever he touched seemed to go for a winner or an ace. The early loss of Nadal, meant that Roger Federer had a real chance, for Federer has lost seven Grand Slam finals to Nadal. As I had mentioned in an earlier post, that I wanted Federer to win for just one reason, to equal Sampras' records - of seven Wimbledons and weeks at number one, with at least 286, and maybe surpass it. He did exactly that. Like Serena, he seemed sluggish in the first few rounds and his genius seemed to have gone, especially in the third round clash against Frenchman Julien Benneteau, where Federer recovered form two sets down to win the match and thereby preventing another shocker. He pulled up his socks in the latter rounds and his master performance was against top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the semi-final, where he displayed his Midas touch and beat the Serb in four sets. It was almost certain that the winner of that match would also win the final, for on the other half of the draw, after Nadal, the best player was Andy Murray, but he just doesn't seem to have it in him to break the hold of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer at the top of the game.

I personally don't like Murray, who looks more like our ancestors from whom we evolved, and do not enjoy his game much (and despite a hint of Schadenfreude, found it exceedingly hilarious when he got dumped by his girlfriend a couple of years ago for playing virtual tennis and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 on his Play Station 3 for hours). However, in the first set of the final that he claimed, he played an amazing game and it seemed like he would beat Federer. He is the first Brit man in a Wimbledon final since Bunny Austin, who made it to the last two way back in 1938, and could have become the first male Brit to win it since 1936, when Fred Perry won it. No British player has won here since 1977 when Virginia Wade won the women's singles title, the same year the Queen celebrated her Siver Jubilee. So there was heavy hopes on him to win it for the country in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee year. He had the burden of an entire nation, and unlike other sports (where also United Kingdom doesn't seem to win the most important title be it football or cricket), he has no teammates to lighten his load. Royalty too extended their support, Prince Charles visiting Wimbledon earlier after 42 years and Prince William and his wife Katherine watching him play in the quarters, the latter also coming in the final with her sister, which saw the Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameroon, and other notable guests cheer for him from the Royal Box. Murray-mania swept over the UK and prices for the final crossed an astronomical £ 45,000! That is insane, about ₹ 40 lakh (4 million) for one match! Some cinemas were even screening the final in 3D too to cash in on the craze. Alas, they were disappointed! For all they got to see was Murray losing the final to a mastercraftsman. Federer glided on the hallowed grass at Wimbledon, with his deft touches and glorious backhand, and the shot of the tournament was his disguised off-forehand drop shot in the fourth game of the third set. That was a message that the old Federer was back.

He went on to win the match, the most crucial part being winning the monumental sixth game of the third set which lasted 20 whole minutes and which say Murray fall thrice. Federer played the final a lot better, or so it seemed. His brilliance and artistry overshadowing Murray's tenacious effort. And as Federer realised he had finally won the title, his seventeenth Grand Slam and seventh Wimbledon, equalling Pete's seven, he did his usual, collapse to the ground. His box, with his coach, parents and wife Mirka with their twin girls Myla Rose and Charlene Riva, was beyond joy, for even they knew that being over 30 in a young man's sport and performing the way he did was rare and an unparalleled effort. The win also propelled him to the world number one spot for a record-equalling 286th week and hopefully he will surpass that. Murray could not hold back his emotion and his tears as he grasped for breath while making his speech. His mother and others in his camp too joined him as did thousands in the Centre Court and millions across the nation in shedding a few tears. Your heart does feel for him. Despite what Murray himself or anyone else says, the pressure does get to you and maybe that is what prevents him from making it large at the big stages. Just to comfort him, maybe they can now re-christen Henman Hill at Wimbledon to Murray Mound or honour Federer by naming it Federer's Folly or Federer Fields.

[The cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar, with his wife Anjali, sitting behind the tennis legend Rod Laver in the Royal Box watching the men's semifinal matches on July 6, 2012, Day 11 of the Championships.]
Why is royalty making a comeback here (the Queen had visited last year, her first visit since 1977 when Wade had won)? Is it due to the increased popularity in the wake of the Will-Kat wedding? Anyway, Wimbledon did receive it's own royalty in the form of tennis greats such as Martina Navratilová, Steffi Graf, Andre Agassi, Rod Laver, Goran Ivanišević, Virginia Wade, Martina Hingis, Manuel Santana and other distinguished guests such as Kylie Minogue (and her toy boy hottie Andrés Velencoso), players of the English Cricket Team, David and Victoria Beckham, Sir Cliff Richards, and my favourite cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and his wife Anjali, among others, warming seats in the Royal Box and then enjoying some nice evening tea and snacks in the Royal enclosure. This year the event got a lot more publicity due to all those guests, Murray making the final, the controversial roof (although the sound of the tennis ball being hit under the closed roof and as its echoes is magical), and it also being a stage for the Olympics which are round the corner, for which they have already grown grass separately, to replace the worn out courts, wow! The men's final had an average audience of 11.4 million in the UK, which peaked to 16.9 million, which is tremendous, yet it fell short of the all-time record achieved during the 1980 final between Björn Borg and John McEnroe, which had an average viewership of 17.3 million. Maybe a Federer-Nadal final at the Olympics will beat that. Keep your fingers crossed.

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