A new era in tennis

Print edition : July 20, 2002

Wimbledon this year sees the fading out of old stars and the rise of new ones and also the return of the baseline game to the famed grass courts.

IT was a dull Wimbledon, even though it signalled the dawn of a new era. Two vibrant young champions, 21-year-old Lleyton Hewitt and 20-year-old Serena Williams emerged as the superstars of the future.

Top-seeded Hewitt, ranked No.1 in the world, stamped the fortnight with rare authority. He broke the classic serve-and-volley mould of former champions and dominated the tournament from the baseline. His fierce aggression is reminiscent of the great Jimmy Connors and he is the fastest player this writer has seen in five decades. Hewitt seemed like, as one of the newspapers put it, "an assassin with a mission". His one little 'wobble' during the championships occurred in the fifth set of his quarter-final encounter with the tall Dutchman Sjeng Schalken. Schalken fought back after he was down to two sets to love and his big groundshots had Hewitt scampering all over the court to level the match. In the closing stages of the final set Hewitt missed a few forehands and was visibly shaky. Pumping his fist and shouting 'Come on' at the top of his voice he found that little extra to close out the match 7-5 in the fifth.

Lleyton Hewitt with the trophy after beating David Nalbandian of Argentina at the Centre Court on July 7-GERRY PENNY/AFP

Hewitt's best match was in the semi-finals against Henman. After England's defeat in the World Cup soccer, British sporting hopes were lodged on the narrow shoulders of Tim Henman. Even the Queen in her jubilee year kept her Sunday free, hoping to see Henman in the finals. You can imagine the pressure on poor Henman. Henman played well, but failed to find the abandon and passion that stems from the deep faith of a champion. When the moment of truth comes and the sword is to be thrust deep and firmly, Henman is found wanting. Nevertheless, four semi-final appearances at Wimbledon is no mean achievement and deserves the highest praise.

David Nalbandian, an Argentine of Armenian extract, a tenacious baseliner, playing his first tournament on grass, reached the final. His best victory was against the giant left-handed Australian Wayne Arthurs who many fancied would reach the final from the bottom half of the draw with his big serve. Nalbandian's success was no less a fairy tale than Ivanisevic's victory in 2001.

The pony-tailed Xavier Malisse of Belgium, seeded 27, one place higher than Nalbandian, was the player of the lower half. Malisse's victories over Kafelnikov, seeded five, and Rusedski and Krajicek, the last two in five gruelling sets, sapped his strength, else he would surely have made the final. A fine all court player with a smooth game and a strong serve, Malisse could easily hit the top echelons of the game. But the best match in the lower half was the encounter between the two patched-up old gladiators, Richard Krajicek, 6'5", the champion of 1996, and Mark Philippoussis, 6'4", of Australia. For this writer, it was vintage Wimbledon stuff, as they served and volleyed through four tie breaking sets, before Krajicek wrapped it up at 6-4 in the fifth. Both players had been out of the game for sometime nursing injuries. But the smell of freshly mown grass and the scent of battle pumped up the old warriors to push the clock back and produce a scintillating encounter.

The dawn of a new era is inevitably linked to the end of the old era. Sampras and Agassi, the 'twin towers' of United States' tennis, fell in the first week. It was so sad to see Sampras, one of the greatest players of all time, slumped in his courtside chair after his second round loss to George Bastl, who got into the tournament as a lucky loser, having failed to win a place through the qualifying rounds. An indignant but bewildered Sampras said that he would be back and that he was not going out of the game on such a note. Alas, time has taken its toll and Pistol Pete has run out of ammunition.

Andre Agassi, always popular and charismatic, graciously blowing kisses to the crowd, seemed paralysed at the moment of defeat. The glazed look after his unexpected defeat to Shrichapan of Thailand reminded one of a knockedout prize fighter. Shrichapan, from the lazy 'klongs' of Bangkok, unleashed a thundering serve and sharp searing groundshots to outplay Agassi at his own game. He won the hearts of the Centre Court with his ready smiles and good behaviour. At the moment of victory Shrichapan bowed deep with folded hands, in traditional Thai custom, to all the four corners of the court to a standing ovation. From aggressive western hype with raised fist to oriental charm and humility was a welcome relief.

For the first time since 1922 the U.S. had no player in the last 16 of the men's singles. The new generation represented by Andy Roddick and James Blake succumbed to the serving power and volleying of experienced old-timers such as Rusedski and Krajicek respectively. Roddick is the much-touted future of U.S. tennis. Extremely talented, the 6'2" Roddick has all the credentials of a future champion. Only 12 seeds in the men's singles managed to reach the third round and almost all the matches were played from the baseline. The appearance of far more wear of grass at the baseline rather than at the 'T' junction of the service court, where volleyers perch before they strike, was irrefutable evidence of baseline domination. Tennis has reached a level of speed, accuracy and consistency that it has wiped out the serve-and-volley player. Invariably, the passing shots bring up the chalk beyond the range of the volleyer. But I still feel that on a fast grass the 'big bombers' with serves of 130 mph and above have the edge over the baseliners.

Serena Williams with her shield after defeating sister Venus on July 6.-TED S. WARREN/AP

THE ladies final took women's tennis to a new high. Serena's childlike smiling innocence belies the brutal aggression with which she plays every point. She does not grunt but roars like a martial arts fighter who is delivering the fatal blow. Her attitude is summed up by what she said when asked if she believed in luck. "I don't believe in luck. I just want to go out there and make it happen."

The Williams sisters are a class apart and are entrenched at the summit of the game. Their challengers, if you can call them that, are Jennifer Capriati, Amelie Mauresmo, Henin Davenport and Martina Hingis. The last two were injured while there seems to be no further scope for improvement in the case of Capriati and Mauresmo. The rest of the field are way down in the valley. To get to the summit they all need more physical strength and speed. This will mean more muscle and physical training. Feminine grace, or whatever is left of it, will be overcome with bulging thighs and bristling biceps and triceps. It seems too much of a price to pay that tennis will never again see the silken grace and elegance of the likes of Evonne Goolagong, Maria Bueno and Chris Evert. Significantly, the curvaceous pouting blonde Anna Kournikova always enjoyed a full house on whichever court she played, while the more skilled and higher-ranked players were ignored.

Mahesh Bhupathi won the mixed doubles with Elena Likkovsteva of Russia to keep the Indian flag flying at Wimbledon. It is a fantastic achievement. Quiet, well-behaved but full of resolve Bhupathi has done India proud and deserves the highest praise. In the men's doubles partnering Miruji, ranked in the twenties in singles, Mahesh lost to the eventual winners Bjorkman and Woodbridge in the quarter-finals. Leander Paes, unable to find a good partner in the men's doubles, lost in the first round, but reached the quarter-finals of the mixed doubles partnering Lisa Raymond with whom he won the title in 1999.

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