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Game, set and back together

I'm in love again. With an old flame. There was a time when I couldn't get enough. I was much younger then and it was something of an obsession, I thought we'd spend every summer together.

And then, over time, things began to change. I didn't look forward to our meetings as much, my devotion took on something of a dutiful quality. Several years ago, I realised that the fire had gone out. There were other things I wanted to do and other people I wanted to see. I said goodbye and forgot about the good times we'd had together. Occasionally I'd hear some bit of news about the former object of my desire but I'd feel only a vague interest.

But now we're back together. And the relationship is as good as it's ever been. It happened suddenly, a couple of tentative meetings blossoming once more into a grand passion. So I hope you'll forgive me for disclosing these intimate feelings.

I love Wimbledon. I really do.

Wimbledon has always been the tournament which makes converts out of us all. There's a tennis court just down from my house which is empty most of the time, even when the sun is shining. But it's different when Wimbledon is on. For a magic fortnight no matter where you are in this country you see kids toting tennis racquets. It reminds me of my own young days bashing a ball up against the side wall of the house, in my head the magnificent RAF squadron leader tones of Dan Maskell, "Oh I say, what a loveleh drop shot from Sweeney to give him three match points."

I didn't really have any choice about falling back in love with tennis. Because there has never been a better time to watch the men's game. The current golden age began with the emergence of Roger Federer as perhaps the greatest player the game has seen. Federer was a marvel to behold, a player who in the words of the late David Foster Wallace, "exposed the limits and the possibilities, of men's tennis as it is now played . . . showing that the speed and strength of today's pro game are merely its skeleton not its flesh." Foster Wallace, a great novelist whose piece on his fellow genius 'Federer as Religious Experience' may well be the best sports article ever written, believed the Swiss player had pointed the way towards a new kind of tennis. And he has turned out to be right.

While Federer was wonderful to watch, his unchallenged dominance, 11 out of 16 Grand Slam titles between 2004 and 2007, was becoming a bit monotonous. Enter Rafael Nadal, who first came to prominence as the clay court prodigy denying Federer a Grand Slam in both 2006 and 2007 by defeating him in the final of the French Open.

It initially appeared as though the Spaniard might be in the mould of Sergi Bruguera or Gustavo Kuerten, a specialist on clay whose virtues would not transfer to grass. But he put that notion to bed when reaching the 2007 Wimbledon final where his five-set defeat by Federer was one of the finest matches ever played. The following year it was Nadal who got the best of a five-set Wimbledon decider in what was probably the finest match ever played. It was also one of those unmistakable moments which mark the end of an era. Nadal was about to take charge.

Federer had seemed like the kind of player who comes along just once in a lifetime, or maybe even just once in the history of a sport. But, incredibly, Nadal may prove to be even greater. Because while Federer holds the record of 16 Grand Slam titles, Nadal is already up to ten at the age of just 25, putting him fourth on the list in the Open Era (which began in 1968; prior to that professionals were excluded from the Grand Slam tournaments which devalues them somewhat historically). He has already become one of just four players to have won each of the four Grand Slam tournaments, Federer, Rod Laver and Andre Agassi being the others. It is as though Federer provoked Nadal into greatness. Instead of being discouraged by the Swiss player's dominance, the Spaniard was spurred on so that he chases another Wimbledon title today.

At its peak the Nadal-Federer rivalry was perhaps the most compelling individual rivalry in sport. And just as that peak seems to have passed there is the possibility that Nadal may find a new rival who, incredible though this may seem, has the potential to make the same kind of impact on tennis as the other two giants. Novak Djokovic's 42-game winning streak at the start of this season, the second longest winning streak in the history of the game, showed what a special talent the young Serb is. That run included the Australian Open title and four straight victories over Nadal. Djokovic, who covers the tennis court like he was playing badminton and whose delicacy of touch can make him look like he's playing table tennis, looks set to either push Nadal to new heights or supplant him at the top of the sport.

The supporting cast is pretty stellar too. There's Andy Murray, still only 24, three times a Grand Slam runner-up and a player who might have been world number one in an era less loaded with genius. There is the Argentinian Juan Martin Del Potro who two years ago beat both Nadal and Federer on his way to winning the US Open at the

age of 20. Hampered since by injury, he showed signs of a return to form at this year's Wimbledon by giving Nadal bags of it before losing a fourth-round four-setter. France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga raised a lot of eyebrows by knocking Federer out of Wimbledon in the quarter-finals but this was no fluke: he reached the final of the Australian Open three years ago, beating Nadal in the semi. Lack of consistency rather than injury is his bugbear.

And we may have witnessed the arrival of another extraordinary star over the past couple of weeks when 18-year-old Australian Bernard Tomic became the youngest player in 25 years to reach the Wimbledon quarter-finals and gave Djokovic plenty of trouble before losing in four sets. On clay, Sweden's Robin Soderling is good enough to have beaten Nadal in the 2009 French Open and Federer in last year's tournament en route to reaching the final both times. At 26, he and Tsonga are the oldest of these pretenders which indicates that the top stars won't be able to rest on their laurels for quite a few years to come.

Yet it's the sheer quality of the Big Two, and now the Big Three, which defines this shining moment for tennis. Because anyone who wrests away a Grand Slam title from the Nadal/Federer/Djokovic trinity will have performed an extraordinary achievement. There are no soft titles anymore. Whereas, during the period I fell out of love with tennis, there was a lack of greatness at the top of the game. Who could get excited by a year like 2002 when Thomas Johansson, Albert Costa and Lleyton Hewitt all won Grand Slam events? And what did it say about Wimbledon the previous year that Goran Ivanisevic was able to win the tournament as a wild-card entry ranked number 125 in the world? One of the things that gave Henmania its manic edge was the crowd's knowledge at the time that you didn't need to be great to win Wimbledon, a few breaks and a good run of form and you could make it. Today Murray, an infinitely superior player to Come On Tim, will have to reach far greater heights if he is to make the ultimate breakthrough.

The aesthetic quality of the tennis has also improved. Pete Sampras's record-breaking 14th Grand Slam victory at the 2002 US Open was another watershed moment in the sport. Sampras was undoubtedly a great player but he was also the ultimate exponent of the serve and volley style which made men's singles increasingly unappealing as a spectacle. Back then the game as played by Sampras, Ivanisevic, Richard Kraijceck, and, earlier, Michael Stich and Boris Becker, centred around a booming serve which led to inevitably short rallies. It was dull enough. Like modernism in the arts this style was probably the inevitable culmination of what had gone before but remained a turn-off for anyone looking for simple old-fashioned enjoyment. Today's players are post-modernists, drawing freely on various styles of the past whenever they need them.

Federer's example may have been crucial. Because the year after Sampras won his last Grand Slam, Federer won his first. Foster Wallace noted how adventurous the younger players had become during the Federer era. "Genius is not replicable," he pointed out, "inspiration, though, is contagious and multiform." Hence the marvels almost routinely thrown up by men's Grand Slam tournaments in this blessed era. Marvels which give you no choice but to fall in love all over again.

If I haven't mentioned the women's singles up to now it's not because I'm a sexist brute. It's because at the moment the women's game is in a period of transition with no notably great players or exciting rivalries. A decade ago, women's singles, with the Williams sisters arriving on the scene, Martina Hingis at number one, the remarkable renaissance of Jennifer Capriati and the early days of Justine Henin, was where the action was. It's swings and roundabouts. Right now women's tennis needs to find its Federer and then a Nadal to challenge her. The defeat of the Williams sisters, which showed that they can't just turn up and win when they feel like it, was important for the credibility of the game. Perhaps Maria Sharapova can kick on and become the standard bearer for the sport. And perhaps pundits will stop whingeing that too many of the young contenders are, 'identikit East Europeans,' a comment which is a bit like complaining that the men's 100m is no fun to watch because it's full of black fellas who all look the same.

These days I'm wondering why myself and tennis ever parted. Because, at its best, it can seem like the most compelling of individual sports. This is not least because the tennis player, like the boxer, is alone with his opponent. There are no team-mates to help him out, no competitors elsewhere on the course, no horse or car underneath him. Any failures of athleticism or nerve are made immediately and brutally obvious. He must combine enormous strength with extreme subtlety. He is both a superbly conditioned athlete and a tactician who, while at full stretch in a rally, must be thinking several moves ahead like a chess Grand Master. He must endure the sudden-death capricious nature of the tie break and be prepared to slog for four or five hours in games where the momentum swings ceaselessly back and forth.

Above all, tennis has plenty of the 'wow' factor. The 120-mile-an-hour serves, the returns when a player at full stretch manages to produce a winner when he must have hardly have been able to see the ball, the drop volleys that land stone dead, the smashes returned from far behind the baseline, the scurries to the net and the perfectly judged lobs answer our need for sport to show us something we couldn't imagine doing ourselves.

There is also the beauty to the setting where these jewels are placed. I wouldn't want to watch a BBC costume drama every night of the week but there are times when you've had enough Scorsese and Coppola and something with a bit of nice interior décor where nobody calls anyone motherfucker doesn't go amiss. Similarly, Wimbledon comes along at just the right time, when we've had a full season of the Premier League with its cupidity, its vanity and its bad temper and need to witness another way of sport. The BBC have shown so many shots of Pippa Middleton you'd wonder what's her seeding but that doesn't seem to matter at Wimbledon. All great sporting events have their own traditions and it's silly to expect them to become something they're not. Posh people need sport too after all.

So I'm back in love. And cursing all the time I lost and all the Wimbledons I'll never get back. I won't make that mistake a second time. Because Wimbledon is indispensable. It all ends today, the racquets will go back in the cupboard under the stairs, the concrete courts will empty and the kids will return to football. But maybe, just maybe, there's a boy or girl out there, in Tuam or Shannon or Tullamore, who'll keep playing, keep hitting that ball like Nadal did as a youngster in the small Majorcan town of Manacor, until one day we have an Irish hero to watch on those big Centre Court days.

That's all you'd need to make it perfect.


Sunday Indo Sport