Full of promise

Published : Jul 30, 2004 00:00 IST

Wimbledon 2004 sees the second crowning of the brilliant Roger Federer and the rise of a new star in the 17-year-old Russian Maria Sharapova.

WIMBLEDON 2004 was a windy, wet fortnight with frequent stoppages due to rain forcing the authorities to have play on the middle Sunday, July 4, for only the third time in 127 years. At the moment of truth when Roger Federer of Switzerland served the final ace against Andy Roddick of the United States, the Centre Court was bathed in sunlight a fitting tribute to his genius. Federer lorded it over the field, winning his second consecutive Wimbledon and completing a run of 25 victories on grass courts. He lost only two sets reflecting an accurate measure of his superiority. The greats of the past such as McEnroe, Becker and a host of others, in a flurry of accolades, hailed him as the greatest of all time!

But Federer has a long way to go before he can pull alongside Pete Sampras who has 14 Grand Slam victories, seven of which were at Wimbledon. Time alone will show if Federer has the staying power, physique and mental strength for such a long haul. Federer has the entire range of shots. His top-spin backhand specially the deadly down-the-line shot was something Sampras did not have. Unlike many other players who have a single winning shot, Federer can hit winners from both flanks. In the end the ultimate measure is the number of titles one wins, and Federer has five more Wimbledons to win before he draws level with Sampras. It is a long way.

The final provided in patches the highest quality of tennis in the championships. Roddick was literally exploding with energy. Moving between points and changeovers like a video on fast forward, he blasted his serve and ground shots like missiles. I have never seen so much power on a tennis court. After the match, Roddick said: "I threw the kitchen sink at him, but he went to the bathroom and got the tub." Federer admitted that he was surprised at Roddick's power but he stood his ground and weathered the storm. The 40-minute break for the rain was the turning point of the match. The score was one set all with Roddick leading by 4 games to 2 in the third set. It seemed that Roddick had given too much in the earlier part of the match. This was when Federer stepped up a gear, by attacking and following his service to the net. Roddick visibly wilted and soon Federer was calling the tune bringing off some spectacular volleys. Earlier McEnroe had said: "Nothing negates skill quite like power, it's the ultimate equaliser". In this final, power was subdued by skill.

Roddick has a great future. There is much scope for improvement in his game. A gentler unhurried approach, proper distribution of energy and a sound net attack could make him almost invincible. He has an attractive and friendly personality, which accounts for his great popularity amongst teenagers. His rivalry with Federer will give a much-needed shot-in-the arm to the stagnant men's game.

OF the other players, Grosjean of France and Ancic of Croatia, the losing semifinalists, deserve mention. Ancic, 6'5" (195.58 cm) tall and 20 years of age, has the potential to be in the top ten. Roddick subdued him after four hotly contested sets in an exciting encounter. Grosjean, 26, is considered to be the third best grass court player in the world. He reached the semifinals without dropping a set. A mere 5'9" (175.26 cm) in height, he is a tactically shrewd all-court player with no weakness. A little extra power could well have hoisted him to a Grand Slam title.

The despair over the poor quality of women's matches vanished when 17-year-old Maria Sharapova of Russia, seeded 13, trounced Serena Williams, the title holder and world No.1, in straight sets 6-1, 6-4 in the final. Sharapova, 6' (182.88 cm) of sleek leggy femininity, is a spectacular figure. Wearing a low-cut, tight-fitting dress and long blond hair flying in the wind, her fresh innocence is captivating. There is much scope in her power-packed game. With her long reach, she would be even more formidable if she could develop a net attack. On slow surfaces she will need a higher level of consistency, and, I believe, could be vulnerable at present to the new young group of very tenacious Russian girls, seven of whom were seeded in the top 20. With Sharapova's victory at Wimbledon, Russian woman have won the Grand Slams in a row. In the French Open, Myskina defeated another Russian, Dementieva, in the final. Russian women will be a force to reckon with in the future.

Sharapova's success is no fairy tale. It is a story of blood and guts and sacrifice. Ten years of hard labour, away from home, with the crushing burden of high expectancy from sponsors and parents. While watching the final it struck me that both the girls were of humble origins. A factor that ignites the passion to succeed.

Serena Williams, the fifth woman in history to hold all four Grand Slams at the same time, seemed to be on track to win her third consecutive Wimbledon title. Her victory in the semifinals against Amelie Mauresmo of France in a very close match should have helped Serena sharpen her game and overcome her lack of matchplay. But it was not enough.

Sharapova attacked Serena's suspect forehand, which collapsed. It was sad to see Serena, winner of six Grand Slams, at times walking between points with her shoulders limp and dragging her feet. A year ago, it seemed that no woman would be able to beat her for quite some time. An eight-month layoff due to injury, and a loss of tunnel vision, what with acting in movies, designing clothes and other frivolous ventures, brought about her downfall.

None of the great champions of the past, like Navratilova and Graf, ever lost their focus they were totally dedicated. Serena was not allowed to wear the "Wonder Woman" outfit she designed for Wimbledon; now it could become a symbol of her dreams. The graceful pirouettes accompanied by a regal wave of the hand with which the Williams sisters acknowledged the cheers of the audience after their matches, were listless and without sparkle. Their invincibility has been shattered. If their father puts them back on track they could be back at the top.

Not much has been said or written of how gracious the Williams sisters were in defeat. They must have been deeply hurt. But they took their humiliation like true champions and deserve a gilded accolade. It was touching to see Richard Williams embracing and congratulating Sharapova's father just after the women's final. For Richard it must have brought back memories of 2000 when Venus triumphed at Wimbledon.

The absence of Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters due to injury and the lack of depth in the women's game produced mostly dull and one-sided matches. Karolina Sprem, a very promising 18-year-old from Croatia, caused a stir when she defeated Venus Williams in the third round. Much was expected from Sprem and she was being hailed as a new star in women's tennis. Four tough matches took a heavy toll of Sprem's physical reserves and she was trounced by the former Champion Lindsay Davenport 6-2, 6-2 in the quarter-finals.

The top Russian seeds, Myskina (2) and Dementieva (6), were unable to adjust to the grass courts. The skills and attitude required for grass courts are very different. This was also very apparent in the men's singles as Guillermo Coria of Argentina, the world's best clay court player, seeded three, narrowly survived a first-round defeat in five sets against South African Wesley Moodie and then went on to lose to Florian Mayer of Germany in four sets in the second round.

IT would be sacrilege to write about Wimbledon and not mention the great British hope Henman. After his great performance in the French Open, where he reached the semifinals the media boosted him to an all-time high. Slow clay is not Henman's surface and it was reasoned that with his new-found consistency, and with ex-Sampras coach Paul Anacone by his side, he could at least get to the final if not win the title.

The talented Ancic trounced Henman in straight sets in the quarter-finals, much to the dismay of British fans. A newspaper columnist compared the match to a beheading at the Tower of London. There is no doubt that Henman is one of the best grass court players in the world, but I think he is a little short of being a Grand Slam winner.

Summing up, I would say it was a trying fortnight, a victim of the fickle British summer, which came to life with the birth of an exciting new star, the "Siberian Siren" Sharapova, and the brilliance of Roger Federer, who looks like becoming one of the greatest players ever.

Naresh Kumar is a former Davis Cup player.
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