Wimbledon 2011: Reasons to be cheerful


by Peter Baulderstone

There is always much to complain about in sport and in life.  The art critic and social observer, Robert Hughes, wrote a book about it some years ago called ‘Culture of Complaint’.  I suspect that the Dalai Lama’s relentless cheerfulness in one of the main reasons why he has become so popular in the western world.  He reminds us that we have much to be grateful for.


And so I found myself strangely cheerful and engaged in Wimbledon fortnight, most particularly over finals weekend.  Tennis is not a sport that regularly engages me.  I often feel that it is somehow repetitive and elitist.  Endless tournaments won by either the ‘usual suspects’ or the ‘who cares’.  So what was different?


Let’s start with the venue.  Green grass and a sunny sky lend a certain purity and romance to a sport that can often seem like an industrial grind.  The cement of Flushing Meadow and the ballooning dusty clay of Roland Garros just don’t inspire the same spirit – no matter how high the standard of play.  Wimbledon really is the spiritual home of tennis, for fans as much as for players.  The winner captures the soul of tennis, while other Grand Slams offer only its flesh.


Purity was the constant I kept coming back to when I contemplated my sense of engagement.  Golf is played on magnificent green vistas, but professional golf is a game built on tension and fear of failure.  A mishit in tennis – no problem – serve another one. In golf, that single drive into gorse or pond can be the destruction of a week’s work.

Tennis also has the clarity of a one on one contest, which is lost in the muddied complexity of team sports like all the football codes.  In tennis you rise or fall largely on your own deeds.  There is none of the banality of “I could’na done it without the boys.”  For good or ill – you did it.


Purity is also evident in the lack of concern about drugs or cheating.  Yes you can accede to the Russian mafia’s suggestion that a convenient loss would be in your and their best interests.  But an ill-gotten win is difficult to contrive through your own endeavors.  Cycling (hmm); weightlifting (what a joke); horse racing (don’t make me laugh); athletics and swimming (OK most of the time, but…).  Other than assisting recovery from injury there seems little that a tennis player could do or take to gain an unfair advantage.


So on to the tournament specifics.  For most of the tournament I was dismissive of the Women’s contests.  All sports go through oscillations when the standard of competition rises and falls below the mean.  Like ‘red cordial’ all vintages have their appeal.  But some are more appealing and lasting than others.  The Eagles and Swans triumphs of 2005 and 2006 were deserved but hardly triumphant.  The Lions had declined; the Cats still not matured and the Pies not yet regenerated.  I have often opined that the ’92 – ’94 Eagles would have beaten the ’06 team by at least 6 goals.


Women’s tennis is currently in that trough.  The Williams sisters no longer have the strength of mind or body to dominate.  The rest are a non-descript collection of grunters, whiners and backcourt bashers.  To paraphrase Crash Davis in Bull Durham, “Stosur has a million dollar game and a ten cent brain” (perhaps more aptly its self belief and emotional control that it is missing).  Ah, the frustrations of the gifted but flaky.  I can empathise, but as the Avenging Eagle observes “it can be bloody frustrating to watch”.


But the Final was a different matter.  Not a classic – but a worthy final and by far the best match of the women’s tournament.  A good contest in any sport is one where you feel genuinely sorry for the loser.  Sharapova is a strangely unappealing character.  For all her elegance and glamour, there is a self-absorption and ruthlessness I find frankly dislikable.  I can appreciate that it stems from a tough Russian upbringing, but I don’t have to like it or her.


But on Final Day she played well within the limitations of her game.  She has battled bravely from the prolonged wilderness years of shoulder injury, surgery and rehabilitation.  She largely conquered the mental demons of her service that threatened to derail her semi final.  Even when she was behind in the final, she made the winner earn every point of her championship.  She did not gift it to her, as both semi finals had been gifted by nervous opponents.  And in defeat she was as gracious as her reserved demeanour will ever permit.


The winner, Petra Kvitova, was a fresh breeze after the stultifying production line of ‘Ova’s and ‘Ich’s from the women’s production line of recent years.  She has wristy flowing strokes that generate power with elegance more than force.  It is a game style that oscillates with rhythm and nerves, as it did in the second set of the quarters and semis.  But it rarely wavered under the pressure of a final.  She seems to have a genuinely sunny, almost naïve, disposition – that speaks of someone who plays for love and enjoyment as much as ambition.  A rare commodity in modern sport.


Far too early to even guess as to whether we saw a budding Navratilova or Graf, but on the day she was a bloom that made me glow.


If women’s tennis is in a recession, then the men’s game is having a boom that would make Chinese economists sound unambitious.  Andy Murray must long for the thought of making a final against a Hewitt, Rafter or Ivanisevic at their peak (worthy toilers all).  The current men’s game sounds like a carpet sale spruiker – “with every champion you get not one but two, three extra for free”.


Three years ago I thought Federer the greatest tennis player of all time; but then Nadal……..and now Djokovic.  Probably just proves how fleeting the period that even a champion spends on the peak of Everest.  But most kings are granted a peaceful reign for some period, before the rival prince emerges.  Even then it is Borg and McEnroe; Sampras and Agassi- but three dueling kings makes for a confusing reign.  In my memory it is unprecedented – “priceless”, ‘special” – all the modern tags seem to undersell the privilege of watching the men’s grand slams of recent years.


And so to Sunday night.  All I could think in the first two sets was that somehow for a few hours Djokovic had been touched by the ‘hand of god’.  Mozart and music; Shakespeare and language; Paul on love (the sainted not beatled one).  Nadal presented every challenge and Djokovic kept finding unheralded ways of dismissing them.  Cross court whip; drop shot dink; swirling, sliding serve – why not, it’s the divine playing today – not me?


It looked and felt like that.  It was an astonishing purity of execution against an opponent of the highest calibre, playing to a standard that would have won Nadal 90% of Grand Slam finals.  Then a third set reminder of human frailty, providing a small reward for effort to the worthy opponent.  Then a fourth set thrust and parry to keep the unconvinced engaged, before the final coup de’ grace.  Breathtaking.  Like the ’89 Grand Final, we will be fortunate to see it pass this way again in our (or at least my) lifetime.


Sport as gob-smacking transcendence – at least for a couple of sets.  And in reality the product of thousands of hours of unrelenting practice, struggle, disappointments and ‘almosts’ – that culminated in Novak’s three hours of centre court bliss.  A man can illuminate the divine, not emulate it.


All in all it was the best sporting contest I have seen since………the Eagles demolition of Carlton a week ago.  Sorry – but to finish on a similarly improbable note.  Plaudits to the Seven Network for using their secondary digital channel to televise Wimbledon – genuinely live and free to air across Australia. I spend a lot of time deriding Seven’s treatment of football.  Friday night games are finished in real time, before they even start showing them in the West.  There is often no Sunday game unless the Eagles or Dockers are playing.  Whenever those Freeview ads come on I feel like an Iranian journalist determined to throw a shoe at the screen.  Lets me know why Springsteen wrote a song called “57 Channels, and there’s nothin’ on”.


But their treatment of Wimbledon was exemplary and I genuinely thank them.  Hope the ratings and advertising revenue made it worthwhile repeating with other elite sporting contests.


Goodness me – saying something sincerely complimentary about commercial television networks.  Maybe there is hope for mendacious Sepp Demetriou and the Appalling Football League?  As if.

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