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Wimbledon Musings

by Steve Flink

Another Wimbledon is here again, and I am as exhilarated as always to be back at the game's showcase event. I first came here in 1965 only days before I would turn 13, and that experience changed my life irrevocably. I had followed tennis from a distance until then, watching a few matches on television, enjoying what I had seen. But walking through the grounds of Wimbledon for the first time on a cloudy late June afternoon 42 years ago, getting lost in the elegance of the surroundings, seeing top flight tennis for the first time up close and in person, was so joyous and inspiring that I would never wander away from tennis again.

I went to Wimbledon nine years in a row (1965-73) as a fan and reporter in training. I missed it three straight years as young, full time tennis journalist, but have been back every year since 1977 as a member of the press. So I am celebrating my 40th Wimbledon this year. Over the years and through all of those fortnights, I have seen the tournament move with the times without ever surrendering its integrity. I have had the good fortune to witness some towering champions, to watch history dramatically unfold on the Centre Court, to observe grass court tennis of the highest caliber. Through all of that, I have never doubted that Wimbledon will forever be the most prestigious tournament in tennis.

Roger Federer, in search of a fifth consecutive crown on Centre Court which would tie Bjorn Borg's modern record, constantly reaffirms his belief that Wimbledon is the title he wants more than any other. Pete Sampras shared that philosophy whole- heartedly, and it was no accident that he set a modern record with seven championships. Borg loved playing on the clay at Roland Garros where he won six times, but his reverence for Wimbledon was the driving force of his career.

The greatest women players have held the same high regard for Wimbledon. From Billie Jean King to Margaret Court, Martina Navratilova to Steffi Graf, Serena Williams to Maria Sharapova, the Wimbledon mystique has been enduringly evident. Navratilova won the singles a record nine times, knowing each time around that she had recorded the ultimate accomplishment. But even those who have not found the same level of success at the All England Club have accorded Wimbledon unrivalled respect. Chris Evert--- a seven time French and six time U.S. Open champion-was victorious in only three of ten Wimbledon finals. Nonetheless, she consistently said, "Wimbledon is the biggest and most important tournament we have, the one we want to win the most. I have always felt that way. I love the challenge of playing there on the grass".

But the grass court game has changed largely these last four to five years. The courts are playing slower. It is quite similar to hard court tennis in many ways. Federer served-and-volleyed frequently in his first title run in 2003 and used that tactic skillfully over the attacking Mark Philippoussis in the final that year, but ever since has operated almost entirely from the back of the court, only selectively working his way up to the net. He did start following his first serve in often in the latter stages of his 2004 final against Andy Roddick to shift the burden of pressure onto the American, but by and large Federer has felt that the way the courts are playing he is better off to stay at the baseline and be aggressive from there.

That is how almost everyone looks at it these days, certainly among the men. Conversely, it was a delight to watch Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin play so aggressively in the 2006 women's final. Both women attacked regularly, played plenty of serve-and-volley tennis, and wasted no opportunities to get up to the net. They did not play a clay court or hard court match on the grass. Rather, the Frenchwoman and the Belgian played a contemporary version of the old fashioned grass court game. It was fun to watch, but very unusual.

It will be enjoyable this year to watch the best in the business perform on a Centre Court without a [partial] roof during a transitional phase for the event. A retractable roof will go up in 2009, another sign of Wimbledon's progressive traditionalism. But this year the atmosphere will be altered and the players will need to adjust. As Federer said about Centre Court, "It's much more bright. Yeah, the roof's kind of missing. [There will be] more wind being able to come into the stadium. But the atmosphere is going to stay unique."

Another major change will be the emergence of the Hawkeye instant replay system. The players will be permitted three incorrect challenges on line calls rather than two, a step in the right direction. I have a feeling that the authorities will soon realize that unlimited challenges are preferable. That system worked beautifully at the Davis Cup Final last year because the players clearly did not abuse it.

In any event, I have a feeling that these two weeks are going to be a tennis connoisseur's delight. Even when there is bad weather, Wimbledon rarely lets us down.

I speak from experience.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com.

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