Breakfast at Wimbledon is one of the few television marketing ploys that succeeds on all levels. Wimbledon, of course, is the oldest and most prestigious of tennis's grand-slam events; its appeal is obvious. Its grass courts reward the most exciting and powerful form of tennis--the serve-and-volley game--while contributing an element of luck the British seem to love in their sports. The bad hops and persistent net-cord winners of Wimbledon add the same unpredictability to tennis that the hidden bunkers and rough fairways of linksland courses lend to the British Open (certainly the oldest and perhaps the most prestigious of golf's grand-slam events, depending on how much emphasis one places upon luck in golf's natural scheme). Some fans may prefer the fair bounces and long rallies of the French and U.S. opens in tennis, or the precision golf required at the U.S. Open, but the fact remains that no great tennis player has ever failed to win at least once at Wimbledon and no great golfer has ever failed to take home at least one British Open Championship--ontological but also realistic requirements for greatness, because these two tournaments demand what we believe to be the best qualities of the sports.
As for the television marketing--the U.S. connection--television's control over sports has been becoming more apparent--and more irritating--in recent years. We are all familiar with the ever-changing starting times of various baseball and football games, and this, it turns out, is only the most obvious of television's effects on sporting events. For instance, the United States Golf Association, in an effort to fit the leaders into the aperture of time television had allowed, forced this year's U.S. Open contestants to play the third round as threesomes. The third and fourth rounds of our national open are usually played in sets of two, which allows a more leisurely pace even as the players move more swiftly across the course. The USGA considered this a privilege easily done away with, and perhaps it was, but it must have affected the games of more than a few players. Likewise, no fan of the Cubs needs to be reminded of television's power over U.S. spectator sports.
At Wimbledon, meanwhile, the tournament finals now begin at two in the afternoon, which, if different from the traditional starting time (and I'm not sure that it is), is not unreasonable, while it allows Stateside tennis fans to rise early and watch the matches live. The disruption to the players is minor. Meanwhile, back in the States, this arrangement separates the true tennis fan from the weekend hack--no one willingly sets the alarm for 7:45 on Saturday and Sunday morning without a damn good reason--while giving the event something of an exotic flavor; it's a miracle of the last two decades that we can rise for breakfast and watch the championships of tennis, live, some six time zones away. Its marketing as Breakfast at Wimbledon makes perfect sense, even if the strawberries-and-cream element is a mite overplayed. I try never to miss it.
This year, the spotlight was on the women's finals, which is not usually the case. Martina Navratilova has made such a habit of dominating this event--winning it every year since 1981 and twice in the late 70s--that there hasn't been much mystery to the outcome. This year, however, the tennis world has been abuzz with the rise of West Germany's Steffi Graf, the first player to really challenge the dominance of Navratilova and Chris Evert. These two have been the best women tennis players in the world for over a decade now; their dominance can be measured when one thinks of how many promising players have fallen away after mounting brief challenges--the Tracy Austins and Andrea Jaegers, and most recently Hana Mandlikova, who, they say, missed Wimbledon this year because she is having a baby. Graf, however, is the real thing, having already passed Evert in the rankings. With Evert and Navratilova now both in their 30s, it is only a matter of time before the 18-year-old West German assumes the top spot. The Wimbledon Championship gave her the first chance to replace Navratilova; after beating her in the French Open finals, if she beat her again she would be number one.
Like her compatriot Boris Becker, Graf rose to tennis heights as a teenager and is only beginning to look like an adult. She has the large cheeks and unkempt hair of a child, set off by piercing eyes and a well-developed nose--not rounded, but far from aquiline--that is her most prominent feature. Her game shows similar signs of being developed and yet not quite mature. Her footwork shows an odd, almost puppyish grace; not only is she realizing that she can get to balls she never could before, she is getting to balls no other woman could get to, making shots no other woman could make, not even Navratilova. A few times she came in to get drop shots and sent them back across the net at extremely sharp angles. If one stepped outside the two-dimensional medium and imagined oneself on the court, they seemed almost impossible to execute. This is the sort of play Bjorn Borg first established himself with in the mid-70s, a coming-of-age in which potential seems almost limitless. As a player, Graf reminds me most of Borg; her footwork is most like his--least like, say, an Ivan Lendl--in that it belies the sound foundations of her swing. It also points out that in tennis--unlike golf--the same swing is never repeated twice, but each one is improvised. The best grass-court players are the best improvisers.
Yet Navratilova, that old warhorse, is not willing to make room for the next generation, not even the next generation's Borg. At the French Open her serve deserted her, but on this afternoon (or morning, as the case may be) she was solid at the service line. She simply never erred, while playing that manly serve-and-volley game that has been her trademark for a decade. Graf was steely-cool, and saved some service games that she really had no right to. Down 4-5 but with service in the first set, she fell behind 0-40. Navratilova then muffed a volley, and Graf followed that with an ace and then one of those neat, low-angle cross-court shots, and went on to hold service. Two games later, serving to force a tiebreaker, she fell behind 15-40. She aced Navratilova up the middle, and Navratilova followed that with a muffed volley for deuce: Graf then double-faulted, and faulted again on the next serve, then hooked in a remarkably deep second serve. Navratilova, already planning to come to the net, did so but shouldn't have. Graf put it down the line to force another deuce.
Finally, however, Navratilova broke through later that game. That was the key. Like the veteran she is, she held her service because she knew that was absolutely necessary, then coasted during Graf's service games until Graf made a mistake or two and got herself in trouble. Then Navratilova turned up the play a notch and put the pressure on Graf. Graf was up to it for most of the day, but that 12th game of the first set was a killer, and Navratilova did the same thing in the 8th game of the second set to take a 5-3 lead. She served out the set to win the championship.
Martina Navratilova has never been a very popular player. Large and horsey at the beginning of her career, she was compared unfavorably to Evert, and later--when she thinned down and turned herself into merely the greatest woman tennis player ever--she was hounded by rumors of lesbianism. She is not yet at the point of getting sympathy for her age--the sort of treatment Jimmy Connors is now receiving--and she wouldn't want it. I would compare her performance at Wimbledon to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's during the 1984-85 basketball season and playoffs: the greatest showed, one more time, that he (or she) could do it all again.
Graf, meanwhile, will soon replace Navratilova. She is going to be an extraordinary player. I'd favor her to beat Navratilova in the U.S. Open, where Navratilova's serve-and-volley game is less well-suited--but where Evert too will have better chances. (Graf, we should also point out, has an attractive set of gams, a sexist remark we temper by saying that, just like Bjorn Borg, she is going to be such a world-renowned sports figure before her career is over that she will probably establish her own sort of beauty.)
If all the greats have won at Wimbledon, that leaves out Ivan Lendl. Lendl is the best player in the world right now, but he has not won at Wimbledon--while losing the last two finals--and therefore talk will be that his game is not complete or, worse, that he is a choker. Unfortunately, both statements seemed true last Sunday. The uneven bounces of grass did not allow him to unleash his usual tigerlike swiping swings on his forehand and backhand, while his volleying was erratic all day. Lendl has an excellent swing, and I love to watch him play, but he can exasperate anyone rooting for him,
Pat Cash, a young, muscular, acrobatic player, is not Lendl's equal as a technician, but he has the serve to set up the volley, and he proved the theory that--on grass, anyway--the better improviser will win out. He pulled shots out of his pocket and out from behind his ear all day long, and he went through the second set without losing a single point on service. He won the first set on a tiebreaker, the second much more easily, but fell behind in the third, 3-5, with Lendl serving out the set. Lendl, however, muffed volleys on the next two points and just generally pissed away the game, and Cash--who had shown signs of wearying--came back strong and won the set and the championship.
Cash is an Australian, and all during the match Dick Enberg and Bud Collins kept pointing out that it was two or three in the morning in Australia, for the benefit of those watching Last Call at Wimbledon, or whatever they call it down under. Whatever the case, while Cash was climbing into the stands to celebrate his victory with family (like Tom Seaver going straight to his family after winning his 300th game), Australians must have been opening cans of Foster's, while Australians stuck for one reason or another in Chicago had to settle for another cup of coffee.