Despite interruptions, all over on schedule

The month we left behind — June — is the wettest on record with 134.5mm rain across the United Kingdom. You’d suspect that a good lot of that fell on London SW 19 where they dare to play tennis under open skies on manicured lawns. A summary of events by Nirmal Shekar.

Day Seven: Monday, July 2: Longtime Wimbledon watchers like your diarist learn to deal with the vagaries of the summer weather here with the sort of cheerful optimism that might be mistaken for lunacy by the less experienced ones. The p oint is, when you have little control over something, it doesn’t hurt your stress levels to simply grin and bear it.

But it is with a sardonic grin that I look out of the windows of my hotel room this morning. After a lovely Sunday, when the sun shone for the most part on the new state-of-the-art Wembley Stadium where the Princes, William and Harry, put on a jolly good show — Concert for Diana — to celebrate the life of their mother who died in a car crash in Paris 10 years ago (and who would have turned 46 yesterday if she were alive), here we are today, sulking under leaden skies.

Normal service has resumed indeed. But, then, in many ways, things will never get back to normal in terms of how normalcy is understood and felt by oldtimers here. The terrorist strikes on the London Underground two years ago, and recent botched attempts to bring carnage to London’s West End and the Glasgow airport in Scotland, may have changed things forever.

If you were to be visiting the All England Lawn Tennis Club for the first time, you might wonder if you were approaching some high security defence facility. There are huge concrete blocks in front of all the gates and a very, very visible police presence all over the place.

Amazingly, neither terror threats nor the foul weather appear to deter fans, who turn up in tens of thousands and sit through whatever little tennis there is with the sort of defiance that is at once commendable and inspiring.

But this is another day that might test the nerves of the most stoic among us. Rafael Nadal, who first stepped out on court for his third round match against Sweden’s Robin Soderling on Saturday evening, finds himself packing his bags for the day in the dressing room shortly after 8 p.m. today, the job still unfinished.

After letting go of a matchpoint in the third set tiebreak, Nadal loses his way in the third and fourth before finding the early break to go 2-0 up in the fifth.

Elsewhere, a hobbled Serena Williams is saved by a spell of showers. A calf muscle injury threatens to put an end to her Wimbledon hopes in the second set of her match against Daniela Hantuchova. But the break gives her enough time to attend to her problem and she returns to close out the match to earn a shot at the top-seed, Justine Henin.

For the last word of the day, welcome Mikhail Youzhny.

“It was lucky for Steffi. Maybe it will be for me too,” says the Russian who has rented a house in the Wimbledon village that was Graf’s home for a few weeks when the German ruled these lawns.

The mixed doubles winners, Jelena Jankovic of Serbia and Britain's Jamie Murray hold their trophies.-AP

Day Eight, July 3: “Good morning, ladies and gentleman. Welcome to the eighth day of the championships. Play is scheduled to start at 11 a.m. on all courts. Hope you have an enjoyable day at Wimbledon.”

It’s a lady’s voice on the public address system. These days, there are three or four people who take turns at the microphone. But there was a time, for over two decades, when you heard the same voice each morning, afternoon and evening.

To me that voice, belonging to the former Chief Executive of the club, Chris Gorringe, is as familiar as John Arlott’s or Brian Johnstone’s. It had character, a reassuring quality even on a wet, gloomy day.

“Wherever you go, take all your property with you,” Gorringe used to advice fans. “Do not leave property unattended for however short a time.”

In his years at the top, Gorringe has seen it all. But even he would have found this year’s awful weather frustrating.

Consider the events of the day:

Play begins shortly after 11 a.m. The rain is back at 11.40 and the covers are on. Play resumes soon enough. Then the second spell of showers begins at 1.05 p.m.

So it goes on and on. A third delay at 1.32 p.m., a fourth at 2.55 p.m., a fifth at 5.05 p.m. featuring forked lightning and a thunderstorm. And the last time the covers come on, at 6.32 p.m., they are there to stay.

The referee is still optimistic that he can get some play in on the centre and No. 1 courts. But another heavy spell arrives at 7.30 and it is all over.

Rafael Nadal, who first steps out for his third round match against Robin Soderling on Saturday, June 30, is tied 4-4 in the fifth set with the Swede. He will come back tomorrow to try and complete the job in five days!

About the only one smiling today is the tall Czech blonde Nicole Vaidisova, victor in three sets over the champion Amelie Mauresmo.

Is she ready to win Wimbledon this year?

“I have not asked myself that question and I am not about to,” says Vaidisova, aged 18 and a winner of six Tour titles.

Day Nine, July 4: It’s official. The month we left behind — June — is the wettest on record with 134.5mm rain across the United Kingdom. You’d suspect that a good lot of that fell on London SW 19 where they dare to play tennis under open skies on manicured lawns.

Wimbledon officials, fans and players apart, the worst hit, apparently, are store owners who have had to write off much of their summer wear in a year when the summer itself has chosen to stay away from these islands.

If it has not been the ideal kind of weather for someone from sunny Spain to revel it, then Rafael Nadal has been served a shockingly bad hand. His fabled third round match against Robin Soderling enters the fifth day today.

Soderling mimicks Nadal by picking at the rear of his shorts and even passionately celebrates a lucky net cord point.

“He is not one of the best in the locker room,” Nadal says, after winning the five-setter in four hours and one minute.

It has taken 96 hours and 22 minutes to complete the match. The players spent a total of 36 hours in the locker room during the four playing days when there were six rain interruptions.

“I didn’t understand some things,” says Nadal. “I didn’t understand why they did not play on Sunday. I didn’t understand why they cancelled play yesterday when there was sunshine at 8.10 and we could have played one hour. They don’t think very much about the players here. In the other half of the draw, Roger (Federer) was having holidays for a week.”

There is a lot more action today than on the first two days of the week and the best of it is on Centre Court where Venus Williams puts on a grand show as she outplays the No. 2 seed and 2004 champion Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-3.

“I have always been a big match player. I really played well today,” says Venus before watching her sister Serena lose in three sets to the top-seeded Belgian Justine Henin.

It is a good day, overall, for the Indian doubles players. Leander Paes and Martin Damm make the men’s doubles semifinals, Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza open their Grand Slam partnership with an easy victory and Paes himself goes through to the third round in mixed doubles with Meghann Shaughnessy.

Day 10, July 5: There have been two familiar sights over the last few days. One on site and the other on television. The first is Rafael Nadal stepping on to and off the courts. The second is that of a pair of gladiators engaged in a t itanic battle.

BBC airs the 1980 Wimbledon final, featuring that epic fourth set tiebreak, so often during rain delays this week that I might be able to recognise faces in the stands, in the sense that I’d be able to say that this gentleman in a red jacket was sitting here and that girl in the floral dress was in this part of the stadium.

McEnroe and Borg themselves are able to recall every little detail from that match.

“I was so disappointed after losing that tiebreak that I thought I was going to lose the match for sure,” says Borg in the BBC documentary on that classic.

“I really sensed that I was part of something special. It’s the greatest match I have ever been part of,” McEnroe tells Sue Barker today. “I got more respect from the players, more respect from the fans, after that match.”

Barker looks behind and says, “Ah, it is still raining.”

“There may be a roof overhead by the time they finish this tournament,” says McEnroe.

Of course, we have to wait till the summer of 2009 for that roof. But, by the fortnight’s standards, this is not a bad day. There is almost five hours of continuous play.

And there is a rare sighting of one Mr. Roger Federer. After Nadal comes through another five-set roller-coaster to make the quarterfinals, Federer steps on court for the first time in six days, in his familiar jacket and trousers.

All along, it has been said that Federer has had all the luck in the world — as if he needs it — while Nadal and others in the bottom half have had to toil day after day in testing conditions.

But, what many seem to overlook is that such a long break during a Grand Slam event can hurt a player too. And there is indeed a spot of rustiness in Federer’s game after a typical confident start against Juan Carlos Ferrero. Up a break, Federer loses serve to love in quick time. Promptly, the rain arrives with the players tied 5-5.

“Arguably the most talented player in the history of the game,” says McEnroe, talking about Federer.

Surely, normal service should resume tomorrow.

Day 11, July 6: “Hey, lovely to see you,” Vijay Amritraj greets your diarist on the viewing terrace outside the media writing room. “What have you been writing about? The rains?”

“Today looks promising and the weekend should be fine too,” I tell him, sounding more optimistic than I might have wanted to, thanks to the positive BBC weather forecast for the weekend.

There are some clouds about but no rain in sight. And as the day builds up into a beauty, by late afternoon, you forget all about the cold and slush and ruined schedules of the past 10 days.

This is what a perfect summer day at Wimbledon can do to you, especially when there is drama on court and an element of surprise in the outcome.

But, what a day this turns out to be! First, Venus Williams continues her regal march to become the lowest ranked (No. 31) women’s finalist here since computer rankings began in 1975.

Then, Roger Federer appears a bit shaky, losing a set to Juan Carlos Ferrero before resuming his gallop to make his way to the semifinals where, believe it or not, it is not Andy Roddick who awaits him but the American’s stylish conqueror Richard Gasquet of France.

Gasquet plays some of the finest tennis I have seen any 21-year-old play from two sets down at this stage of a Grand Slam. Roddick is up two sets and a break but the Frenchman suddenly turns on the aggression and his game flows majestically to drown out the American’s chances of a comeback.

Gasquet’s single-handed backhand is a stroke of sublime beauty. For three sets, the young man plays with the sort of carefree abandon that is rarely witnessed in professional tennis these days.

“He had 90-something winners and his errors were in the 20s. I’d take that any day,” says a disappointed Roddick.

Then again, this is a minor surprise compared to what we saw earlier in the evening.

Welcome Mademoiselle Marion Bartoli of France. I believe she is a newcomer to this diary.

Bartoli authors one of the most remarkable turnarounds any journeywoman might have accomplished against a world No. 1 in a Grand Slam semifinal as she wins eight of the last nine games to beat Justine Henin, the top-seed, in three sets.

The 22-year old daughter of a French doctor, who is also her coach, then reveals the secret of her success.

“Well, to tell you the truth, I saw Pierce Brosnan in the crowd. He is one of my favourite actors. I love his movies. He was watching me and I said I cannot play bad in front of him. I saw he was cheering for me. I kept going and I won,” says Bartoli.

It does look like Mr. James Bond has powers we might have hardly suspected him to possess.

Day 12, July 7: “It is amazing, after all the rain havoc, here we are… brilliant sunshine and it should all be over on schedule,” says my Argentine friend as we board the press mini-bus to head to Wimbledon this morni ng.

It is nothing short of a miracle, really. Who would have imagined a few days ago that this wet, soggy championships would come to a close on the scheduled hour?

On reaching the famous club, you hear rumours that one of the men’s semifinals may not be played at all. It seems that Novok Djokovic, scheduled to take on Rafael Nadal, was considering pulling out because of an injury.

But, as it happens, Djokovic not only turns up on time on the No. 1 court but goes on to take the first set as Nadal struggles for rhythm. But the dream ends there for the Serbian. Nadal quickly pulls himself together to up the amps and Djokovic’s movements become sluggish.

He calls for the trainer, has his toe taped to see that the blisters do not bother him, and makes a bold attempt to get on with the match. But with a sore back making things worse, he throws in the towel midway in the third set.

Nadal, as fine a sportsman as you would find in this day and age, walks across to put his arm around the Serbian and offer words of consolation.

On the Centre Court, where Federer brushes aside Gasquet’s meagre challenge, television cameramen and spectators now and again turn their attention to the Royal Box.

Sitting there with his wife Patricia is Bjorn Borg, who has come in as a special invitee of the club chairman Tim Phillips. Should Federer win tomorrow, what an occasion it would be on the Centre Court, with the only other modern champion to win five titles in a row present in the stands.

Later in the afternoon, Venus Williams joins the all-time greats of Wimbledon by winning her fourth title with a straightforward victory over Marion Bartoli.

“After what I have been through, this is very special. When I was growing up, Wimbledon was always special because I admired Pete Sampras,” says Venus, at No. 31 the lowest-ranked player to win the title here since computer rankings began in 1975.

Bartoli shrugs off the loss after initial flood of emotions on the Centre Court after the match.

“Venus played unbelievable tennis. I can’t see any player beating her on grass when she plays like this,” says the Frenchwoman.

Asked if her favourite actor Pierce Brosnan’s absence today made a difference, she smiles, and says, “No, he left me a bouquet of flowers this morning with a letter in my locker room, which I thought was really nice.”

Day 13, July 8: It is nice to see the three of them — Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe — together on the Centre Court today before the final. They bring back a flood of memories from tennis’ golden age in th e late 1970s and early 1980s. Connors and McEnroe talk about how they desperately tried to get under Borg’s skin those days but the unflappable Swede simply did not react.

“That made for the excitement,” says Borg. “Three different personalities.”

BBC’s Sue Barker asks Borg if he would feel sad if Federer were to match his record. “I would like to see him do it. It cannot happen to a nicer guy,” says Borg.

Then Borg gives Federer the ultimate accolade. “If Roger can stay motivated and keep away from injuries for the next four or five years he can be the greatest player to ever play the game.”

Four suspenseful hours later, Federer, a teary-eyed Federer — a five-set winner over Nadal — looks in the direction of the Royal Box and tells Borg: “Thanks for coming.”

Nadal appears to have the momentum on his side after the fourth set but the great man regroups quickly to race to the finish.

“To play a champion like Rafa and to equal Borg means a lot to me,” says Federer.

Watch this space a year from now. We might well be celebrating the most successful Grand Slam champion of all time next summer. Federer has 11 now and Mount Sampras is just three titles away.