Talk of depth in women's tennis proves a myth

The second Monday at Wimbledon is the best day of the championship for the fans. For, every single player remaining in the men's and women's singles event can be seen in action today.

NIRMAL SHEKAR

DAY SEVEN, Monday, June 30: The second Monday at Wimbledon is the best day of the championship for the fans. For, every single player remaining in the men's and women's singles event can be seen in action today.

Mark Philippoussis fired 46 aces on way to defeating Andre Agassi in five sets. — Pic. CLIVE BRUNSKILL/GETTY IMAGES-

Unlike the other Slams, Wimbledon follows a strict schedule with all the round of 16 matches being played on the first day of the second week and the men's and women's quarterfinals and semifinals played on different days.

To suit television, all the other Slams have made compromises. But not Wimbledon. The women's quarterfinals and semifinals are played on Tuesday and Thursday and the men's on Wednesday and Friday. Easy to follow and makes a lot of sense from the players' point of view too.

But the problem with this is, on a big day like today, if the weather turns nasty, then Alan Mills and Co. are in for trouble. And so it seems today as the overnight rain stays on and the skies are darker than they've been at any time in the first week.

No matter the threat from the skies, the queues outside the All England Club are miles long. The English tennis fans are the ultimate optimists. They have to be, given the unpredictable nature of the summer here.

At the Club, on the terrace outside the media writing rooms, Mills and the chief groundsman Eddie Seaward look concerned but make light of the challenge in their typical phlegmatic manner.

Mills constantly looks up at the skies as the 12 noon start is delayed on the outside courts and the 1 p.m. start on the centre and No. 1 courts depends on the rain relenting.The players, meanwhile, retreat to the indoor practice facility near Aorangi Park. Not quite grass but the courts are fast enough to help them prepare for the matches on a day like this.

"These people are lucky. In our time there were no indoor courts. You just stretched a little and came out to play," says Tracy Austin, a two-time semifinalist here.

As it turns out, the rain does stop shortly before 1 p.m. and the covers come off the court. A huge cheer greets the groundstaff as they pull the covers off.

And after all the talk about the new-found depth in women's tennis as well as the strident march of the young Russian brigade, four American women rush through to the quarterfinals, each in an hour or less before the next spell of rain arrives.

The Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, as well as Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport are through to the last eight and three of their victims are Russians.

The day also marks the end of the road for the gifted 16-year-old Maria Sharapova, the heroine of the first week. She is beaten by her compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova in three sets.

But the story of the day is being enacted on court No. 1 where Andre Agassi's quest to become the oldest champion of the Open Era at Wimbledon, at age 33, comes to an end in the face of a relentless barrage of aces fired by Mark Philippoussis of Australia.

It is not a great match in terms of sustained quality but there are plenty of fireworks and great drama all the way as the man nicknamed Scud fights back from 1-2 down in sets to post a five-set victory.

Philippoussis, who fires a record 46 aces — the last one to do that in a single match was Goran Ivanisevic in 1997 — is obviously a very happy man.

"I wouldn't say it was the match of my career. But it's definitely up there. The great thing is I don't have any knee pain at all. It feels great," says Philippoussis who has had a tough time dealing with knee injuries over the last three years.

About the time Philippoussis leaves the post-match interview room, Tim Henman puts his fanatical supporters through the wringer as he falters after a great start and huffs and puffs to a four-set victory over last year's finalist David Nalbandian — or, to be precise, a wilted version of him.

It's a long day, but one that could have been longer if the rain had persisted.

Making my way to the car park on tired legs, I meet an equally exhausted Vijay Amritraj. But tired or not, Vijay can always work up that lovely smile while greeting people.

As I congratulate him for the success of his son Prakash on the Futures circuit in India, where he wins three titles in a row, Vijay says he is thrilled too.

"But the thing is, he's got to keep going. Keep the momentum going. The tough thing now is to crack the top 200. He is playing good tennis at the moment but that is a big jump," says Vijay, a quarterfinalist here twice in his career.

We promise to meet again before the fortnight is done and then part ways.

Match of the day: Mark Philippoussis beat Andre Agassi 6-3, 2-6, 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-4.

Quote of the day: "Why wouldn't I be back? I am still a tennis player. This is the place to be." — Andre Agassi.

Day Eight, Tuesday, July 1: It's Pete Sampras time again. Every year, there is at least a day — perhaps even two — when the respected, widely travelled American tennis writer Steve Flink and I, both great admirers of the legend who has now perhaps played his last competitive match, share our thoughts regarding the great man.

"Hey, you know what," says Steve, wading into a healthy diet of boiled vegetables at the press restaurant. "I read your Sampras story in the magazine. I agree with everything you've said. The top 10 matches were interesting too," he says.

Of course, he is talking about the cover story that appeared in The Sportstar a few weeks ago.

"What do you think? Will Pete play again?" your diarist asks Steve.

"I don't think so. What better way to finish than by beating Andre in the U.S. Open final? You can't top that. I think he gave Wimbledon a very serious thought and then decided he was not going to do it. Maybe by November he will come out and say that he's done," says Steve.

"He was so hurt by his defeat here last year that he put everything he had into winning the U.S. Open. And everything came right for him. He did not announce his retirement there because he did not want to do it at a moment of emotional high," says Steve.

For a good part of a decade and more, at Wimbledon each summer, Steve and I have spent time talking about Sampras's form, fitness, his career goals and what-have-you.

An era has passed. And it is an era that will never perhaps be matched.

Now we have the Federers, the Roddicks, the Hewitts and the rest. But can any one of them remotely threaten to match the accomplishments of the great one? Unlikely.

Then again, how quickly eras pass in sport. There was a time when I used to get into animated conversations with a now-retired American sportswriter here about the declining fortunes of John McEnroe in the mid-1980s.

Then on to Becker and Edberg and now Pete is gone as well. And how long will Agassi himself carry on? Not too long, surely.

By the time next Wimbledon arrives, Agassi will be a father of two. His wife Steffi Graf is expecting their second child. And how motivated Agassi might be to put himself on the treadmill of the tour with two kids and a wife at home remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Sue Barker announces the result of a BBC poll conducted to pick the greatest male Wimbledon champion.

Sampras is right on top with 36 per cent of the votes and he is followed by Bjorn Borg, winner of five consecutive titles, in second place with 31 per cent.

John McEnroe, sitting alongside Barker in the television booth, is third with 11 per cent. Then come Boris Becker (8), Rod Laver (6) and Andre Agassi (5).

"I am honoured to be in this company. These are great players out there," says McEnroe, who won three titles here.

On the courts today, the top four women players make their way into the semifinals. Serena Williams is stretched all the way by an inspired Jennifer Capriati while Lindsay Davenport gives a good fight to Venus Williams. Kim Clijsters too loses the first set before crushing Silvia Farina Elia. Justine Henin-Hardenne is the only one who has an easy outing, beating Svetlana Kuznetsova in straight sets.

Late in the evening, Leander Paes and David Rikl play a superb match to beat the Bryan twins from America, Mike and Bob, the French Open champions, in four sets to make the semifinals.

Match of the day: Serena Williams beat Jennifer Capriati 2-6, 6-2, 6-3.

Quote of the day: "I don't know. Who is in it now?" — Jennifer Capriati when asked after her loss today who her favourite to win the tournament was.

Day Nine, Wednesday, July 2: "Make sure you take your brolly with you to Wimbledon today," says the lady as she hands out a copy of The Guardian outside the Gloucester Road underground station this morning.

It's that kind of day, for a start. You wouldn't want to step out without an umbrella unless you enjoy a soaking in the wintry chill of this July day.

At Wimbledon, there is a proverbial ray of hope as play does begin shortly after 1 p.m. But it lasts a mere 20 minutes. The trend has been set as we go through the wettest day of the championships.

On the Henman Hill, thousands of fans are frustrated as much by Henman's inconsistent tennis as by the weather.

And this is how it goes: Players are in at 1.05 p.m., out at 1.20, Sebastien Grosjean leads Tim Henman 4-1; players are in at 2.23 and out at 2.26, Grosjean leads 5-1; players are in at 3.04 and out at 4.40, one set apiece and 1-1; players are in at 6.45 and out at 7.22, Grosjean leads by two sets to one and it is 1-2 in the fourth.

That is when Alan Mills steps in and says, "That's it for the day. The court is slippery and the light is fading."

On the No.1 court, Mark Philippoussis fights back from a poor start to make it two sets all against Alexander Popp of Germany.

The other two quarterfinals, one featuring Andy Roddick and Jonas Bjorkman and the other involving Roger Federer and Sjeng Schalken, never get started.

Meanwhile, The Times staff have done considerable research and come up with a story that says "Henman will earn it like Beckham" if he ends up winning the title this year.

The report says England's No. 1 player may ultimately make something like $65 million if he becomes the first native male to win the title here since Fred Perry in 1936.

At the end of the day, all that hangs in balance, of course.

Match of the day: Rain versus court staff.

Quote of the day: "It's dangerous." — Grosjean on the court conditions.

Day Ten, Thursday, July 3: After the deluge, sunshine at last. If you forget to pull the window curtains down at night, on a bright morning, you are more likely than not to be greeted by bright rays of the sun as early as at 6 a.m. So it is today, and, after the last few days, you can hardly complain.

The mood is cheerful too, in the 9.30 press shuttle bus from the Gloucester Hotel. There are a few of us — about eight or nine — who use that service every single day and we have been doing it for years.

The 30 or 40 minutes — depending on the traffic — spent en route to Wimbledon is always enjoyable as each one comes up with something the majority in the bus has not heard or seen.

Of course, the most interesting and entertaining of our lot is Roberto Nappo, a veteran in the business who works for the BBC Spanish service as well as Argentine radio.

Today, Roberto is at his best. "I can't understand," says the Argentine of Italian origin. "Grosjean is going to practice with Bahrami. Why? He should find a big server instead," he says.

He has just seen Sebastien Grosjean and Mansour Bahrami (the former Iranian player who lives in Paris and plays on the senior tour) get into a car together and believes that the Frenchman is going to hit with the Iranian.

As we speed through the light traffic, Roberto relates an interesting story from the 1999 French Open.

"You know something. Medvedev would have never lost that final to Agassi if he had not been in love with Anke Huber," he says.

But what's love got to do with losing a final in five sets?

Roberto explains: "Medvedev won the first two sets losing only three games. Then he saw his girlfriend Anke leave the court. She never came back. And the Russian lost."

"Agassi was very lucky to win that one with the rain break and all that," says Roberto.

Then he comes up with another fancy theory about why Martina Hingis once lost to her good friend Iva Majoli in the French Open final.

<147,4,0>"Hey, Roberto, you must think of writing a book," says a young lady who works for ESPN.

"Yes, I think I will. I enjoy story telling," says Roberto.

"The only problem is, Roberto, you might end up facing about 50 lawsuits," I caution him.

But, seriously, Roberto is a versatile man. When he was younger, he went through drama school in Buenos Aires and has acted in several plays.

Meanwhile, on court today, the woman with acting aspirations — Serena Williams — is at her best as she powers her way past Justine Henin-Hardenne in the semifinals.

The anticipated seat-edge thriller turns out to be a lopsided contest.

After the nightmare of the French Open semifinals, where she broke down amidst booes and taunts from the crowd and believed too that her opponent was not quite sporting, Serena is happy today to win so easily.

Is there still bad blood between her and Henin-Hardenne?

"I think it is the press that wants rivalry between people. It used to be the Williams sisters and Hingis. And now this. You guys make a mountain out of a molehill," says Serena.

Henin-Hardenne is asked if it was true that her coach had told New York Times that she had said Serena was "haughty and arrogant."

"I think you are making great things about nothing," says Henin-Hardenne. "And I think it is really stupid."

Later in the day, Venus Williams is distinctly lucky that the rain arrives after she loses the first set to Kim Clijsters. Struggling with an abdominal strain, she takes treatment, thanks God for the break, and comes back to beat the Belgian in three sets.

Also departing this afternoon is Tim Henman, beaten in four sets by Grosjean. Every year, in these parts, they say, "This is Tim's best chance." He will be almost 30 by the time he gets here again next summer. Perhaps he is never destined to do it.

Federer and Roddick are impressive winners in the quarterfinals and Mark Philippoussis too stretches his dream run into the semifinals.

Match of the day: Serena Williams beat Justine Henin-Hardenne 6-3, 6-2.

Quote of the day: "This wasn't vengeance. We don't play for vengeance. That is up to God," Richard Williams on Serena's victory over Henin-Hardenne.

Day 11, Friday, July 4: Now that Henman is gone and it becomes increasingly clear that he may never win the championship, the pressure is on a nine month old girl.

Rosie Henman is being quoted by the bookmakers at 250-1 to win the women's title, perhaps 20 years from now.

If I were Henman, I would never let the girl take to tennis. Poor bloke. Nobody in English sport might have faced the sort of pressures that he has over the last seven years, especially since he beat Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the first round in 1996.

The point is, Henman is a big fish in a small pond; he simply does not have what it takes to win at the Big W. He has a very good grass court game. But you need a great grass court game to win in these parts.

That he has failed to meet the expectations has nothing to do with the pressures, of course; Henman has dealt with them rather well. It simply boils down to the fact that he has not been able to beat players who are a level are two above him.

To do this, you need some — perhaps a lot of — luck. And Henman's best chance came two years ago against Ivanisevic in a match played over three days. He gave it all away and he may never get his chance again, now that the Roddicks, Philippoussises and Federers have taken over.

Meanwhile, on court today, Federer and Philippoussis are almost invincible. While Philippoussis races past Grosjean in straight sets, Federer runs a master class for Roddick, also beating him in straight sets.

Did he believe in fairytales? Philippoussis is asked.

"Yeah, I love my movies. Why not?" he says.

For a man who spent a lot of time in a wheelchair <147,5,0>two years ago following knee surgeries, this must seem like a dream in which things happen in slow motion.

"After that third surgery, I pretty much told myself never to look too far ahead. I've always done that in my career. I've just taken it a day at a time," he says.

As for Federer, after playing a near-perfect match to beat the tournament favourite, he says, "I am going to celebrate this. Tomorrow is another day."

Match of the day: Roger Federer beat Andy Roddick 7-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Quote of the day: "I remember this guy diving around everywhere. I kind of admired that." — Philippoussis on his first memory of Wimbledon, Boris Becker winning in 1985.

Day 12, Saturday, July 5: Early in the day, rumours start flying around in the press centre. "Venus is definitely not going to show up," says someone. Many agree with him; some don't.

So, it is that kind of time: will she? won't she? And if she does turn up, how fit will she be?

Has Richard Williams already decided at the dinner table last night who will take the title today?

So, on and on and on it goes before the sisters arrive together exactly at 2 p.m., each carrying a bouquet and smiling for the cameras.

On the way to the centre court, the young lady who works at the press restaurant is ecstatic. She has just managed to spot Colin Farrell, the actor, in the walkway and walked up to him to shake hands and ask for an autograph.

"Oooh, he is sooo handsome," she gushes.

This is a big day and actors and all kinds of celebrities, including several former champions, can be seen in <147,6,0>the Royal Box. Also a prominent presence there is Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United Manager.

"How can he kick out David Beckham?" fumes John McEnroe in the BBC commentary box, in mock rage. "That's not on. You..."

Tracy Austin completes the famous one-liner: "You cannot be serious."

As play begins, there are those in the press box and in the crowd who doubt the seriousness of the sisters, especially Serena who, they believe, gifts away a few points in the first set.

"Serena is being nice enough to hit the ball right back at Venus. This is when things are starting to get a little inexplicable," says McEnroe.

As the match wears on, it is obvious that Venus, who makes light of the stomach muscle injury and a hip strain in the first set, is suffering. She disappears into the locker room for treatment after the first game of the third set. But once Serena knots up the match, there is only one player there who seems likely to win. It is Serena's fifth straight Grand Slam final defeat of her older sister.

Meanwhile, India's Mahesh Bhupathi and Max Mirnyi of Belarus are beaten in four sets in the men's doubles final by Jonas Bjorkman and Todd Woodbridge.

It is Woodbridge's eighth title here and he ties the record shared by the Doherty brothers, who won eight between 1897 and 1905. Surely, Todd's faced more serious competition, to say the least.

"It's beyond belief to think at the beginning of my career I could do anything like that," says Woodbridge.

Match of the day: Bjorkman and Woodbridge bt Bhupathi and Mirnyi 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-3.

Quote of the day: "There is some curious stuff going on out there." — John McEnroe during the women's final on BBC.

Day 13, Sunday, July 6: My friend Peer Linz is a very happy man. A regular at Wimbledon for decades and a popular figure in the fourth floor press writing room at the media centre, Peer is a man of many parts.

He dabbles in journalism, helps run tournaments in his native Holland, but most of all, Peer is a well known dealer in tennis memorablia. He likes to call himself an art dealer. He has a fairly impressive collection too.

Today, Peer is in his Sunday best, so to say. He has been invited to the players' guests box by Roger Federer. And he proudly displays the special pass to me.

"This is a very emotional moment for me. I have known Roger from the time he was five or six," says Peter.

As it turns out, it is a huge emotional moment for Federer as well as everyone who knows him. For, later in the day, playing wonderfully authoritative tennis — even if it is a brand that lacks the magical quality of his semifinal performance — the Swiss player claims his first major title beating a rather tired Mark Philippoussis in straight sets.

"This is incredible. As a boy I used to say I would win this one day. I was joking. This is unbelievable," says Federer as tears spurt from his eyes.

For Philippoussis, it is a bit of a disappointment. But the big man from Melbourne says he has plenty of positives to take back from this championship.

"It has been a long trip back. But this is only the beginning," says Philippoussis.

Match of the day: Roger Federer beat Mark Philippoussis 7-6, 6-2, 7-6.

Quote of the day: "I think Mark has a better chance. He has a bigger game." — Pat Cash, before the final.