A wet start

Centre Court military stewards take shelter from the rain which delayed the start of play on the opening day of the Wimbledon Championships.-AP

If London is among the top five most expensive cities in the world, Wimbledon is, inarguably, the most expensive tennis tournament. From ticket prices to food to gift items and clothing, everything is frightfully expensive. A summary of events by Nirmal Shekar.

Monday, June 25: “Make sure you carry your brolly with you to the tennis,” says the friendly old receptionist as I leave for Wimbledon this morning.

In an unbroken sequence of annual visits to the spiritual home of tennis over three decades, I have been offered this piece of friendly advice more often than the ageing circuitry in my skull might care to remember.

But this much is sure: I have used the umbrella to keep out the rain more often in the time I have spent in Britain than in the rest of the time in my entire life.

Does this mean that, in my mind, the fact that the Centre Court at Wimbledon will have a retractable roof from 2009 the best thing that has happened to the championships?

Maybe. Maybe not. A roof would have ensured a prompt start today, a day when the rain predictably arrives shortly after noon, keeping the champion Roger Federer waiting in the dressing room in his expertly tailored trousers and jacket.

Yes, the roof is good news for television. But, should every sporting institution sell out to TV?

Can sport retain its sanctity if we wrench it free of nature’s influence? Aren’t the elements an essential part of the great sporting drama?

This apart, how fair is it to the lower-ranked players who toil on the outside courts if the marquee names alone get to finish their matches on rainy days? Already, a handful of champions are pampered way too much because they sell seats and boost TV ratings.

But what would a sport like tennis be without its backroom boys, without the men and women who are believed to be making up the numbers but who are, in fact, the soul of the sport?

Then again, things are never as bad as they are feared to be. Federer does step out in style and hits cruise mode. And so does the only man who, I believe, has the game to stop the Swiss juggernaut on these lawns. Andy Roddick is pretty impressive too. But so he was last January at the Australian Open when I ventured to write up his chances of beating Federer. I got it wrong then. My chances of getting it right are even less at Wimbledon.

Day Two, June 26: Your diarist, a resident of tropical Chennai, and rather used to leaving home for work in shirt sleeves, leaves his jacket behind in the hotel room and steps into the grounds of the All England Club in temperatures ba rely above freezing. Sure in his mind that he might actually fossilise on the Centre Court today if he ventured there in a cotton half-sleeve shirt, your diarist walks into the Wimbledon shop to pick up something to ward off the cold. One look at the prices and it strikes your diarist that it might not be a bad idea to leave your mortal remains for future paleontologists to work on.

If London is among the top five most expensive cities in the world, Wimbledon is, inarguably, the most expensive tennis tournament. From ticket prices to food to gift items and clothing, everything is frightfully expensive.

Then again, in a place where you pay Rs. 1800 a day to park your car for a few hours, it is hardly surprising that a jumper costs upwards of Rs. 4000.

To be sure, few on the Centre Court today might have rued paying what they did to get there. The old warrior does it again. Tim Henman, OBE, stars in another thriller, beating Carlos Moya 13-11 in the fifth set.

Roger Federer... eyeing Bjorn Borg’s record.-AP

Then when you might have thought that the Henman Hill would be renamed Mount Murray, the 32-year-old soap opera star is back doing what he does best.

Late in the day, well past 8 p.m., court No. 6 is packed by Indian supporters as Sania Mirza plays the Russian Yaroslava Schvedova. But, then, on the day’s form, Sania might have hardly needed any support from the stands.

“I have never seen her hit the ball so well,” says Karthi Chidambaram, son of India’s Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram.

The 20-year-old from Hyderabad races to a 6-0, 6-3 victory, her first in two years here.

Day Three, June 27: This country will have a new Prime Minister today. Turn on the TV and the BBC cameras are focussed on the packers and the movers at No. 10 Downing Street. One Mr. T. Blair’s expensive China are being bundled o ut of the most well guarded property in these islands.

As the day wears on you are fascinated by the seamless process of the transfer of power — very civilised, wonderfully low-key and thoroughly organised.

Later in the afternoon, enduring yet another rain delay at Wimbledon, you watch Tony Blair — a few hours after handing over power to Gordon Brown — carry his own bags at the Kings Cross station and board a train to Newcastle.

Your diarist is hardly an expert in world politics, but there is something about the style of Blair’s departure that appeals to his democratic values.

“How do you feel about Gordon Brown taking over?,” a colleague asks Andy Roddick after the American’s straight sets victory over Danai Udomchoke in a second round match.

“The funniest thing that I saw this morning (on TV) was the moving van. And they (TV cameras) followed the moving van down the street, moving his (things) out. I am not going to pretend to know too much about the political views of Gordon Brown. I would be on the verge of ignorance if I touched it. But I am a big fan of televising the moving van,” says Roddick.

Then again, has Roddick moved to a point where he can seriously challenge the resident champion?

Talking to Sue Barker on BBC TV, Jimmy Connors, who coaches Roddick, says the idea was to prepare well enough to have a shot at every top player, not just Federer.

When they were first talking about working together, Connors, it appears, asked Roddick what he wanted to accomplish.

“He said, ‘I want to win,’ and I liked the answer,” Connors says.

The great Jimbo goes on to make a very interesting point — that a player can only hope to be the best he can be and not worry about how good someone else is. He says, in his playing days, players such as himself, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg were all very different yet happy being who they were.

You cannot argue against originality, can you, even in this era of the digital collective?

Day Four, June 28: Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi is a pleasant young man. Perhaps the finest Pakistani tennis player in a long time, he has left behind his favourite hunting grounds — the Challenger and Futures circuits — to earn hi mself his day in the sun here.

A natural serve-and-volleyer, Qureshi, world ranked 279, won three matches at the Roehampton qualifying tournament and one more in the main draw here. Playing Marat Safin in the second round, Qureshi holds his own in the first set and looks much the better of the two in the third before the Russian wraps things up in the tiebreak.

Later, I run into him on the viewing balcony at the press centre and congratulate him on his progress.

“Thank you,” says Qureshi with a broad smile. “I want to build on this. This is a breakthrough for me.”

Safin has a few good words for his Pakistani opponent too, although not for the food served at the All England Club.

On the whole I didn't attack. I felt like I was on the defensive all the time. I was always three feet behind the baseline and I should have been on the baseline, said Sania Mirza after losing to Nadia Petrova in the second round.-AP

“Compared to the prices… a plate of pasta costs 10 pounds, which is $20. For 20 bucks you can have great pasta in Cipriani (restaurant) in New York,” says Safin. “In Moscow also we can have better pasta for 20 bucks, that’s for sure,” says the man who had banked $13m in prize money.

For Sania, the concern was not food prices at Wimbledon, but her own fragile game. Beaten by Nadia Petrova in straight sets in a little over an hour today, the young woman is left ruing her tactical inadequacies.

Mahesh Bhupathi, speaking to your diarist, says after the match that Sania played a poor match tactically, that she should have attacked Petrova’s second serves a lot more.

When asked at the press conference if she agreed with this view, Sania says, “I agree. I felt on the whole I didn’t attack. I felt like I was on the defensive all the time. I was always three feet behind the baseline and I should have been on the baseline.”

Then, she brushes aside suggestions that her decision to play with Shahar Peer of Israel in the doubles event might create a controversy in some circles.

“We have grown up together, we are great friends. So we said, why not?” says Sania.

Asked if the world might view this as some sort of statement, she retorts: “We are playing tennis. We are not making statements. I have a good forehand, she has a good backhand. We are playing doubles together, period.”

Well done, Sania. It is not an easy world for these young women out there. And a prying media seeking the non-existent meanings into the most trivial of things doesn’t help either.

Day Five, June 29: A bomb — a crude, improvised device — has been found inside a car parked outside a busy night club in the West End and terrorism is once again the staple of BBC’s breakfast news this morning.

In the best of times, making your way into Fortress Wimbledon is not easy. Today, not surprisingly, the security has been tightened. The ancient, time-worn wooden case of my sun glasses — almost as old as Roger Federer — comes under scrutiny.

The young woman who digs into my bag looks up and smiles. “That’s a strange way to store sun glasses,” she might have been thinking.

My friend Roberto, a radio journalist from Buenos Aires, is a little impatient, standing in the queue behind me. He has work to do and the security check is taking some time.

CCTVs everywhere. Random checking of cars. Police patrols at underground stations and crowded shopping areas. This is London post-7/7 and it does look like there is no going back. Things, apparently, have changed forever.

It’s a rather dull afternoon at Wimbledon — two rain delays, a bit of sunshine and very few absorbing contests. I wander around a while and then end up watching Martina Hingis lose to an American journeywoman, Laura Granville, in a third round match.

My mind goes back to 1997 when Hingis, at 16 years and nine months, becomes the youngest Grand Slam champion of the 20th century. Life has come a full circle for her. Retirement at an age when most women would just be finding their feet at the Slams and then a return that has seen her form wax and wane.

Indeed, 10 years is a long time in sport. Who would have thought, back in 1997, watching Pete Sampras pick up the fourth of his seven Wimbledon titles, that 10 years on we’d be watching another all-time-great go for Bjorn Borg’s record here.

When Sampras threatened to match Borg’s five-in-a-row record, in 2001, at least there was a gap of 21 years between the achievement of that feat in 1980 and the time it came under threat. But the man who stopped Sampras short of Borg here, Federer, is on his way towards that goal just six years on.

After handily beating Marat Safin this evening, Federer is talking about priorities and how he organised his life and career at a time when he had a choice between a laid-back, easygoing lifestyle and one of total commitment and hard work.

“It wasn’t easy for me. It took me many years to understand why I am working hard. For what specific goal. It’s so hard, it’s a big jump from the juniors. But thank god I made the step pretty quickly. It is a big advantage when you have talent on your side as well,” says Federer.

Big advantage? When you have this sort of talent on your side? That must be the under-statement of the fortnight!

Also heard today in the interview room is the following and longtime tennis fans can perhaps guess who said this about whom.

Maria Sharapova got the better of Ai Sugiyama minutes before the downpour.-AP

“I don’t know if he is the same guy that everyone remembers. A lot of times what you see with people on the court is not what you get off the court. But from the stories I have heard to now, it is amazing. Little example. If we are going out to eat with my mother or sister-in-law, he’s the first guy to open a door, pull out a chair, very soft spoken. Yes, ma’am. He is not the kind of fiery guy that was abusing umpires and doing the whole thing. He’s definitely a gentleman.”

Got it right? I bet you did.

It’s Andy Roddick on Gentleman Jim… Jimmy Connors, that is.

Day Six, June 30: It is raining again and the start is delayed. But, to me, staring at the covered courts during these idle hours, the greatest regret is not Wimbledon’s weather. It has to do with the way grass court tennis has c hanged. The surface has become slower, as are the balls and one of the greatest strokes in the game — the volley — has almost become extinct.

McEnroe, Edberg, Becker, Stich, Krajicek, Cash, Ivanisevic, and then the greatest of them all, Sampras… some of the finest moments in matches involving these players came up when they prowled the area near the net.

Today, as good a volleyer as he may be — and we will never perhaps get to know how good he can be at the net — Federer mostly wins from the back of the court.

This is why I agree with Sampras when he says it was much tougher to win Wimbledon in the 1990s. In the four years he has won here, Federer has not faced a single great serve-and-volleyer, although this is hardly his fault and it does not mean that he would not have won four-in-a-row had he faced one or more of them.

Over to Sampras now (as quoted by Neil Harman, Tennis Correspondent, The Times, London, this morning):

“The bottom line is that nobody comes with heat and can back it up. There is not Richard Krajicek around to attack you and take your time away. That’s the key to winning with the serve and volley game: deny the other guy his time. Roger (Federer) can win without doing it because he has so much game and such good hands.

“I think the 1990s may have been the toughest time to win Wimbledon. The grass was fast, the balls were fast and there were a lot of guys around who could turn it into a crap shoot: Stefan (Edberg), Boris (Becker), Goran (Ivanisevic), those guys really made you uncomfortable.”

That’s it for the week from dismal, miserable, leaky SW 19 in London this week, dear readers. Will be back next week, hopefully, resuming in more agreeable weather.