How the big stars shaped Wimbledon: From Jimbo to Rafa

Most eagerly anticipated is another classic final between top seed Novak Djokovic and second seed Rafael Nadal as 40-year-old Federer, recovering from his third knee surgery, misses Wimbledon for the first time since his debut in 1999

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By Sumit Chakraberty

Published: Sat 25 Jun 2022, 9:48 PM

Last updated: Sat 25 Jun 2022, 9:52 PM

Wimbledon entered a new era in 1974. A brash young American left-hander with a double-fisted backhand brandishing a steel racquet, Jimmy Connors aka Jimbo, blew away the legendary Aussie, Ken Rosewall, in straight sets in the 1974 final. Wooden racquets rapidly gave way to metal ones after that and the single-handed backhand is now a rarity.

Down the years, stars like Connors have shaped the grass court tournament, arguably the most coveted of the four annual Grand Slam events in tennis. The maverick, who thumbed his nose at the establishment and got the British crowd excited like never before with his antics on court, lost the 1975 final to Arthur Ashe, the only black man to win the Wimbledon singles title. He then lost two back-to-back finals to the Swedish star with curly locks and a rockstar persona, Bjorn Borg, who became the first to win five consecutive titles.

But the irrepressible Connors had a last hurrah in 1982 with a five-set triumph in the final over another American upstart, John McEnroe aka Mac the Brat, who had ended Borg’s run the previous year. Although the tension between the two Americans, Jimbo and Mac, had an egoistic edge, it was the Borg-McEnroe rivalry that captured the imagination of tennis aficionados because of their contrasting styles and two classic finals. Borg’s five-set victory in 1980 after McEnroe had taken the fourth set on an 18-16 tiebreaker is considered by many as the greatest tennis match of the last millennium.

McEnroe’s swinging left-handed serves followed up with sharply angled volleys would be imprinted on the minds of anybody who watched that match live. The more athletic Borg had the higher percentage play of topspin, complemented by an ice cool temperament, that also made him the only player to win both the French Open on clay and Wimbledon on grass in the same year thrice in succession. Unfortunately, the Borg-McEnroe duel was short-lived as the Swedish star walked away from the sport in 1982 when he was just 26.

McEnroe went on to win three titles before taller, more powerful players began to dominate Wimbledon with a serve-volley game. The first among them was Boris ‘Boom Boom’ Becker, who was only 17 when he won his first Wimbledon title in 1985, the German teenager defeating South African Kevin Curren in a battle of serves. He beat Ivan Lendl to defend his title the following year, the first of two defeats in Wimbledon finals for the Czech player, who was the World No. 1 during that period.

Soon, a new rivalry developed between Becker and a new Swedish star, Stefan Edberg. They clashed in three consecutive Wimbledon finals, Edberg winning two of them. Their rivalry took another form in recent times as they coached two dominant players of this millennium, with Edberg guiding Roger Federer and Becker in Novak Djokovic’s corner. Both had an impact in reviving the two modern greats after slumps.

An all-American final in 1993 marked the arrival of Pete Sampras, who beat Jim Courier for the first of his seven Wimbledon titles to become the grass court maestro of the 1990s. The American’s metronomic serve-volley game was ideally suited to Wimbledon where he was invincible except for a blip in 1996 when he lost to Richard Krajicek, the eventual winner that year.

The Sampras era finally ended in his 2001 fourth-round loss to Federer, the Swiss star who would eventually overtake the American by winning eight titles. Federer’s defeat of Sampras before losing in the quarter-finals to England’s hope, Tim Henman, opened the door for Goran Ivanisevic to finally win a Wimbledon title, after losing twice to Sampras and once to Andre Agassi in the finals. The Croatian player was a wildcard entry in 2001, being ranked 125.

After a brief coming-of-age period of two years for Federer, Wimbledon began an enduring love affair with the Swiss star who would feature in 12 finals between 2003 and 2019. Federer’s classic single-handed backhand and flowing groundstrokes, his chip and charge to put away a volley with a characteristic tilt to his head, and an equanimity only disturbed when he burst into tears after winning yet another title — these became the hallmark of Wimbledon. The maestro won five titles in a row from 2003, emulating Borg’s feat. Then he suffered his first loss in a Wimbledon final in 2008 to Rafael Nadal, the Spaniard who had already pitched his tent at Roland Garros, winning four French Open titles from 2005.

Nadal’s early French Open victories came at the expense of Federer, who lost three times consecutively in the finals when he was in his prime. The most humiliating of those losses was in the 2008 French Open final, where he got rolled over in straight sets, after taking only four games off Rafa in the match.

The mental scarring from that match appeared to carry over to the 2008 Wimbledon final where Federer went two sets down to Nadal before reasserting his supremacy on grass by prevailing in two nail-biting tiebreakers to equalise 2-2. But Federer’s French Open nemesis dug deep to win the final set 9-7 in a triumph of indomitable will over supreme skill. It changed the script from the previous two years when Federer immediately avenged his French Open loss by beating Nadal at Wimbledon.

The 2008 final was one of the greatest in the annals of Wimbledon even though the match was marred by multiple rain interruptions, the last time that would happen at Centre Court which got a retractable roof the following year. The Federer-Nadal rivalry continued, although the two would never again meet in a Wimbledon final. The Swiss star regained his crown in 2009 and the Spaniard won a second title in 2010.

The rivalry became a triangle with the arrival of a super fit Novak Djokovic bolstered by a new mostly plant-based diet. The Serbian has been the dominant force at Wimbledon since 2011, winning six titles, including the last three in 2021, 2019, and 2018 (with the 2020 event being cancelled due to Covid-19). He has never been a crowd favourite but Djokovic did the unthinkable by beating Federer in three Wimbledon finals.

The last of these, in 2019, was one for the ages. A rejuvenated 37-year-old Federer did not lose a single service game in the first three sets and yet found himself down two sets to one after losing two tiebreakers. He found the mental resolve to equalise in four sets and had two championship points in the fifth set. But Djokovic was equally perseverant in taking it to 12-12 and then winning a third tiebreaker for a surreal victory. The rulebook had been amended for a tiebreaker at 12-12 in the fifth set, unlike previously when it had to be decided on a service break however long it took, as in Federer’s win over Andy Roddick in the 2009 final that went to 16-14 in the last set.

The dramatic ebb and flow of the 2019 final coupled with its grass court excellence from both sides probably takes it a notch over Borg’s 1980 gritty calculating triumph over McEnroe’s ebullient brilliance. If Nadal reprised Borg’s topspin-dependent game and Federer epitomised the serve-volley era, Djokovic’s economy of movement and near-perfection in body positioning for groundstrokes are ideal for the modern era of baseline rallies as even the grass courts at Wimbledon are slower and tennis balls are heavier.

Incredibly, Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have claimed 16 of the last 18 Wimbledon titles. The sole interloper among them is British hero Andy Murray who won the title twice in 2013 and 2016. A six-foot-three-inch build and a big serve put him on par with Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic for a five-year period from 2012. But then he dropped out following serious injuries, which necessitated inserting a metal plate in his hip.

Murray is back in contention this year, however, against the odds. He recently reached the final of the Stuttgart Open, where he lost to last year’s Wimbledon finalist, Matteo Berrettini.

A handful of players, including Berrettini, will be vying to etch a new name in the winners’ list at Wimbledon for the first time since 2013. Among them is Carlos Alcaraz, a Spaniard touted as Nadal’s successor, and the young Canadian, Felix Auger-Aliassime, who had the rare distinction of taking Nadal to five sets at Roland Garros in May.

Most eagerly anticipated, of course, is another classic final between top seed Djokovic and second seed Nadal as 40-year-old Federer, recovering from his third knee surgery, misses Wimbledon for the first time since his debut in 1999. A Djokovic-Nadal final has become more likely in the absence of the two top-rankers in men’s tennis currently, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev. Medvedev is banned because he’s Russian and Zverev is recovering from an ankle surgery after his French Open tumble.

Both Nadal and Djokovic are known for their never-say-die fighting spirit akin to what Jimbo brought to Centre Court back in the 1970s and 1980s. Nadal will be aiming for a third straight Grand Slam title this year after winning the Australian Open and French Open, just as Djokovic did last year. And Djokovic will be trying to regain his place in the race for the mantle of GOAT (greatest of all time) with Nadal and Federer, after being deported from Australia for his anti-vaccination stand and then losing to Nadal in the French Open quarter-finals.

Sumit Chakraberty is a Bengaluru-based journalist

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