Wimbledon 2014: Traditions endure, but march of time touches players young and old
Wimbledon 2014: Marianne Bevis examines the gradual changing of the generations at the All England Club
It’s the quiet before the storm, the early hours at the All England Club before the gates open, before the walkways become dense with fans, with stewards, with security, and with the odd face you know you’ve seen before: Sometimes a Pat Cash—still turning heads—or maybe the Federers…. mum and dad Lynette and Robbie, that is, not their illustrious son.
Mind you, in these quiet pre-public hours, there may be glimpses of Roger too, ambling to an outside court just ahead of the maelstrom that will envelope his practice as soon as the ropes are dropped and the fans surge in for a glimpse.
It is a beautiful time, one that the players love too, when peace envelopes the immaculate grounds where the hundreds of benches are just starting to lose the honey smell of fresh varnish, and where row upon row of hanging baskets drip from the daily watering.
For everywhere there are flowers—pouring from pergolas, overflowing from troughs—all in a colour palette that matches the tournament’s classic greens and deep purples.
It’s a time of day to stand and stare, take in the endless lines of ball-kids getting one last pep-talk—and they, too, are immaculate in Wimbledon’s hues—and ground-staff bearing stacks of rolled-up umbrellas.
As the first Saturday of the 128th Championships gets under way, clusters of security guards receive their final instructions, the Wimbledon hawk has made its final sweep, and an eager pair of dogs and handlers set off to sniff out each last corner.
And it will be a packed schedule, this last day of Round 3 action, when the final group of men and women in the singles draws fight for a place in the fourth round.
Last year’s Wimbledon—and French—junior champion Belinda Bencic, at just 17, continues her campaign to become the youngest player to reach the fourth round since 2007 when she takes on one of the in-form players of the last year, No3 seed Simona Halep.
Five-time Wimbledon champion and top seed Serena Williams, who is making her 15th appearance at The Championships, will seek to avenge her loss to Alize Cornet, who beat her in Dubai this spring, and thus avoid making her earliest exit here since she lost at the same stage in 2005. So far, she has lost only five games in two matches.
And will the fast-rising Eugenie Bouchard meet Williams in a widely-anticipated fourth-round match-up? The charismatic 20-year-old has already reached two Grand Slam semis this year, and takes on the hugely popular Andrea Petkovic, resurgent after repeated injury problems, but who also reached the semis at Roland Garros. Bouchard won the junior title here two years ago, but lost to Petkovic in an intense semi-final at Charleston this April.
And then there is the face-off between two of the most popular women in tennis, last year’s losing finalist Sabine Lisicki and former world No1Ana Ivanovic.
The tall, elegant No11 Ivanovic, a French Open champion, has struggled since her youthful success to regain that form, but this year she seems well on the way. Already on a 39-9 win-loss run, she claimed her first grass title last week in Birmingham, plus two more titles and fine showings in Stuttgart, Rome and the Australian Open. She will surely test even the outstanding grass skills of Lisicki.
And what draws the eye on the men’s side?
Mikhail Kukushkin, ranked 63, and Denis Istomin, ranked 45, are both looking for the biggest wins of their careers against current Grand Slam champions. Kukushkin faces Roland Garros champion and world No1 Rafael Nadal, Istomin takes on Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka.
And both champions have something to prove: Wawrinka searches for a place in the fourth round at Wimbledon for the first time since 2009; Nadal hopes to re-assert himself here after winning just one match at his last two Wimbledons—and dropping the first set in both matches so far this year.
Seven-time champion Federer, who has serve-and-volleyed his way through two high-speed matches, is also on a mission to re-establish his status as Wimbledon’s most successful player by preventing Santiago Giraldo from becoming the first ever Colombian to reach the fourth round here.
Then there is the new generation of 23-year-old towering talents, the 6ft 8in No15 seed Jerzy Janowicz and the 6ft 5in No8 seed Milos Raonic, both taking on 32-year-olds in Tommy Robredo and Lukasz Kubot respectively.
Raonic reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final at Roland Garros and is at a career-high No9 ranking, while Janowicz, hit by a foot injury at the start of the year, reached his first Major semi-final here last year.
And perhaps the most intriguing match of the day brings two former junior No1s, 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios and 20-year-old Jiri Vesely together for the first time: They have not even faced each other as juniors.
Both are playing their fifth Grand Slam, both are Wild Cards, both got through to the third round via marathon five-set efforts against French seeds, Kyrgios beating Richard Gasquet and Vesely taking out Gael Monfis.
These two, along with Raonic and Janowicz, capture, perhaps, the shape of men’s tennis into the next decade—at Wimbledon at least.
For now, all eyes remain firmly on the two most popular players of the last decade, Federer and Nadal, as their millions of fans anticipate their fourth grass meeting, and their first since what is still regarded as one of the best finals ever played on these hallowed lawns in 2008. But the chances are that both will have to look the next generation in the eye before that comes to be.
For while this most historic and revered tournament in the world has preserved tennis’s century-old traditions of all-whites, respectful silences, Pimms and strawberries—and most famously the summer showers that held back time on this particular Saturday—even Wimbledon cannot halt the ticking of the clock for the players themselves.
It may not be this year, but as sure as night follows day, that generation born in the 1990s will take the place of those from the 1980s. And most know only too well that they will be big shoes to fill.