ADITYA RAU explores the change in champions' faces in the tennis world

What is it that makes the Wimbledon tennis championship so special — the lawn tennis, royal patronage, players’ all-white attire, or the traditional strawberries and cream? Actually, all of these elements work together to make the annual tournament a memorable affair for players and spectators, whether on Centre Court or in their living rooms around the globe. However, at the heart of the tournament are breathtaking encounters with triumph and disaster. It is these very encounters that define the rise and fall of champions.

The Open Era has been shaped by a few stars that have set up camp at the sport’s summit, a death zone for the up-and-comers aspiring to join the pantheon of the greats. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, and Maria Sharapova have a remarkable 49 Major titles in singles play between them. Their dominance on the court has led tennis fans to label their success as the “golden age” of tennis.

Why, then, has this year’s Wimbledon been fraught with David and Goliath moments, where David, more often than not, has emerged victorious? Take Roger Federer’s four-set fall to Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky (6-7 (5), 7-6 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (5)), Nadal’s straight-set loss, in the first round to Belgian Steve Darcis (7-6 (4), 7-6 (8), 6-4), or both Williams’s, and Sharapova’s losses to the 23-year old Sabine Lisicki, this year’s women’s singles runner-up. The odds, this year, were not in their favor.

At who, or what, can fingers be pointed to explain this shift? Only ten Top-10 men and women made the third round, and there were a record number of retirements and withdrawals, totaling 13, at this year’s tournament. Could The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club be behind these shocking moves? The Club has, after all, come under fire from players who have slipped on the grass over the last two weeks. For a championship that prides itself on a tradition of excellence, nothing could be further from the truth. Similarly, it is improbable that top athletes who have a proven record of excellence suddenly have no more gas in the tank.

If the All England Club is not to blame, then what’s happening at Wimbledon? Instead of looking for excuses, the sport needs to focus on explanations. I believe these explanations are rooted in dedication, passion, and desire — the hallmarks of great athletes — being shown by rising tennis stars. What else could explain a successful fortnight for athletes such as Jerzy Janowicz, who took eventual champion Andy Murray to four sets in a grueling semi-final, or Marion Bartoli, this year’s women’s singles champion, who says that winning the championships has been “my dream since I was six years old.”

In both the men’s and women’s competitions, athletes emerging from Eastern Europe (such as Janowicz) and Asia (such as Yen-Hsun Lu and Li Na) have displayed talent and athleticism, along with skills that are propelling them to the top of the game. It seems as if federations and clubs around the world are investing in their players, heeding the words of tennis legend John McEnroe, who argues that “[i]f you want to compete and win majors at this stage, the athleticism necessary is becoming even more exceptional. That’s something we have to try and search out and provide the opportunity for.”

As the game grows and serious investments are made in up-and-coming players, the makeup of the tennis establishment will undergo a complete transformation. The changing face of the game is what makes the future of tennis so exciting. Champions will rise and fall. All one can do is watch with apprehension as players step on the court and the umpire calls, “Ready? Play.”

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