Power shift giving game a welcome shot in arm
It's refreshing to witness young talent on the rise and greats being stretched to their limits at Wimbledon, writes Kevin Mitchell
There is a feverish notion spreading across the quiet lawns of Wimbledon -- not altogether logical but probably no bad thing -- that anyone here can lose to anyone else. In the men's game, the Nadal-Federer duopoly that has been crumbling slowly for two years or more is beyond repair and it would only take a shock defeat of the defending champion, Novak Djokovic, by his Serbian compatriot Viktor Troicki in the fourth round tomorrow to complete a landscape of confusion.
Since the unseemly departure of the former champion Rafael Nadal on Thursday night at the hands of the impudent Czech Lukas Rosol, the jangling sound around Wimbledon could have been nerves in the committee room of the All England Club or the spare coins in the pockets of ticket touts struggling to make big hits in their grubby trade up and down Church Road.
Losing Rafa was careless; losing Roger Federer 24 hours later in the same hothouse atmosphere under the roof of Centre Court would have pitched the tournament and the game into a minor meltdown of introspection.
And it has to be said, the appearance of Federer on the BBC yesterday afternoon talking to Sue Barker about his great escape (his hair looking to have darkened appreciably) only added to the sense of a champion clinging hard to his youth. The Swiss, who turns 31 in August, has a few years left yet, and might even win a seventh title here, although I doubt it.
As for the women, Serena Williams's survival on Centre Court yesterday over nearly two-and-a-half hours against China's 27th seed Zheng Jie was loaded with poignancy. The American's comeback from injury, illness, near-death and a certain complacency is incomplete, and follows her early exit in Paris as well as a welter of major and minor upsets here and elsewhere across the women's game for as long as anyone can remember. It is a gambler's nightmare.
Williams, serving as of old near the end on a court where she has won the title four times, clung on to reach the fourth round but her aura has evaporated. It was no disgrace being dragged into a tough third set against Zheng, even though the doughty 28-year-old from Chengdu has had a low-key career since losing to Serena's sister, Venus, in the semi-final here four years ago, when full of promise. And the Serena of even two years ago would have annihilated her. There is likely to be no one so dominant as Serena or Venus again for a little while; their continued presence cannot be guaranteed for much longer. That's what you'd call a vacuum.
Much of the pessimism attending this mild upheaval on the Y chromosome side of the Gilles Simon Divide, meanwhile, is built on the false premise that tennis so relies on the brilliance of the Big Four (or Three, or Two), that to disturb the equilibrium is somehow bad for tennis -- or should that be TV ratings and sponsorship?
In reality, what we are witnessing at Wimbledon this year should be a refreshing power shift. It can only be good for the game for new talent to rise, for great players to be stretched not just by their immediate peers but by the sport's peloton, who perhaps are newly invigorated by a laudable pay rise at Wimbledon and the other majors.
Still, the insurrection stutters: adios Rafa, but see you next time, Lukas the Giant Slayer, who followed his conquered Spaniard out of the door just before 3.0 yesterday, unable to handle the all-round competence of the 27th seed, Philipp Kohlschreiber. The anticipated arrival of Canadian power server Milos Raonic foundered, as did that of the more delicate genius of Bernard Tomic.
Change is a wonderful aphrodisiac. While we celebrate excellence and grovel in the company of fame, there is a human gene that clicks feverishly. It is fickle but, to borrow from the buzz phrase heard in nearly every press conference, it is what it is. We all like a bit of blood on the carpet -- or grass.
When Boris Becker, still a wunderkind, lost to the obscure Australian Peter Doohan in the second round here in 1987, he famously declared: "I didn't lose a war. Nobody died. Basically, I just lost a tennis match."
Two years earlier, at 17, he had won a very special match: the Wimbledon final. The following year, he won it again, defeating Ivan Lendl, and said later: "I saw a little bit in Ivan's face that he didn't know what to do with me."
He was a prodigy we imagined, foolishly, who would go on forever. In 2012, he sits at his favourite tournament behind a BBC microphone. Becker is not so much grand seigneur now as mischievous uncle, forever armed with pith and wisdom. When Julien Benneteau was giving Federer the fright of his life on Friday night, he observed: "Roger has to seriously improve his game. Otherwise we're in for a long night."
There will be many more long nights to come, by the looks of it.
Sunday Indo Sport