Wimbledon is seen as a preserve of tennis' traditions

Everything in Wimbledon has the word `ritual' affixed to it, as if there is some precise and proper way of doing things.

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Part of the reason that Wimbledon attracts such great attention is that it is a bona fide, certified British tradition, and British traditions are just a bit more traditional than anyone else's.

— Arthur Ashe

An over view of the Wimbledon Centre Court. Lleyton Hewitt of Australia serves to David Nalbandian of Argentina in the men's final of the 2002 Championships. Hewitt won 6-1, 6-3, 6-2. — Pic. MIKE HEWITT/GETTY IMAGES-

Sometime in the early English summer, or so goes a possibly apocryphal story, four ladies, one presumes primly attired (no Anne White-bodysuits to be found here), will be invited by the All England Club to run their dainty feet over the religiously cultivated and freshly manicured grass at Centre Court.

Then they will give their verdict on the lawns. No doubt "perfect" is the word that will get them invited back again.

Everything in Wimbledon has the word `ritual' affixed to it, as if there is some precise and proper way of doing things. But then, if the Australian Open (first played in 1905) has charm, the French (1925) style, the US Open (1881) chaos, Wimbledon (1877) is seen as a preserve of tennis' traditions. In a constantly churning world of sport, here time is said to stand still, and at attention. It is both a myth and a reality.

Still, linesmen will be spiffily dressed in jackets (no T-shirts, US Open style, if you please); the faithful will gather outside the gates in orderly, smiling lines, to enter the grounds here is not so much a right as a privilege; and old-fashioned gents in the interview room will firmly intercede if the line of questioning discomforts a player.

Still, spectators will not find it in their heart to boo/whistle derisively (a slow handclap is much more civilized), any removal of clothing will be with a quiet admonishment, and if you want to be taken seriously it is best to refer to the tournament as `The Championships".

Still, barring the inconspicuous Slazenger signs (100 years association with Wimbledon this year), the Rolex that appears below the court watch, the Robinson's Barley Water and the intruding red of Coca-Cola, there is little other advertising that is allowed to besmirch this pristine institution (we do not sell our soul to the highest bidder, they will say, we prefer to keep it).

Still, Kipling's word about handling triumph and victory just the same are inscribed at the entrance to centre court, and manliness here is often measured by the stoicism with which you take a beating (and patiently sit out the rain).

For all this, to see Wimbledon as never-changing is flawed thinking. Unquestionably, they are proud of custom and are canny peddlers of tradition. Admittedly, their manners are quaint but then they understand that in convention is found their uniqueness.

But, they have come a long way from the snobbery of 1933, when champion Fred Perry, a fellow from the wrong side of tracks so to speak, heard a club member tell defeated finalist Jack Crawford, an American: "Congratulations, this was one day when the best man didn't win". Years later a statue of their greatest champion was erected within the grounds and all was forgotten.

Wimbledon have constructed a stylish new court No.1, transformed the media facilities, and built a picnic terrace for spectators. On the cards are a new No.2 show court, an indoor facility for children and eight new practice courts. There is a fine mix here of progress without flamboyance, the past meshed neatly with the present, so that identity can be retained without falling behind the times.

It would not, of course, matter if part of Wimbledon's grounds resembled a farmyard consisting of pigs and hens, or Centre Court was bombed, both of which occurred during World War II, because players would still come. Greatness can be found elsewhere, but to win here, ironically even now, is to ascend to some higher, rarefied plane.

One says, ironically, because grass court tennis is no longer a reflection of the modern game, as a surface (and the style it demands) it is an anachronism. Serve and volleying has gone the way of the typewriter, and of 65 tournaments held worldwide only five are held on grass. Perhaps, of course, that gives it an even more unique allure these days, for it is a challenge to adaptability and invention not to be found elsewhere.

How bizarrely history has been turned on its old-fashioned head is evident from the fact that Wimbledon's defending champion is a relative midget (at 5ft 10in, Hewitt,and Andre Agassi, are the only sub-six-footers to win the title since 1985), with a pipsqueak's serve (in comparison to modern grass court champions that is, like Ivanisevic, Becker, Stich, Sampras), who is normally seen at the net only when he is spraying the umpire with spittle and advertising his vocabulary of invective.

Hewitt no doubt will be praying for a relatively rain-less summer, for only when the courts are dry and hard, and the bounce is for once above shin height, does the baseliner start to stop hyperventilating. Nevertheless, a new mixture of grass has slowed down the courts, and while that might account for three of last year's semi-finalists being back-court boys - Hewitt, Nalbandian, Malisse - it has left Tim Henman in a pointed sulk. As he said: "There obviously has been an effort to slow the game down, and I question whether it's gone a little bit too far on grass."

Hewitt (coach-less after separating from Jason Stoltenberg) and Agassi (whose former coach Brad Gilbert is working with Andy Roddick) are in with a powerful chance, by virtue of their own strengths (experience, terrific returns, and an ability to abbreviate their backswings) and the weakness of the field.

To be precise, what's left of the serve and volley brigade is one bunch of fellows whose creaky bodies are either held together by hospital tape, and another whose lack of nerve makes their coaches go greyer than the weather. Greg Rusedski is 29 and recovering from injury, Goran Ivanisevic, who may not play, can barely get a ball over the net, and Richard Krajicek is on his farewell tour. Furthermore, a coach-less Mark Phillipoussis has a tennis IQ in direct proportion to his height, and Henman (also recovering from shoulder surgery) breaks out in hives every time the British newspapers begin their "Tim's Big Chance" routine.

Nevertheless, by simple virtue of grass court comfort, the Scud and Henman should make some impact, as might Taylor Dent, who unlike the baseline bashers does not cross himself every time he hears the word `volley'. Martin Verkerk's serve promises fun times but his net play is a study in poor engineering. And much will depend on what state of mind Marat Safin and Roger Federer bring to London; if they could add ambition and focus to those magical games we well might never have heard of Hewitt.

The women present a more beguiling proposition, only because Serena, who is something to behold anyway, now has steam emitting at regular intervals from her ears. Champions do not enjoy interruptions to their rule and she will be eager to let her racket sing out its powerful anthem again. That said, doubt often comes calling after such a defeat, and it is to be seen if someone is able to exploit, even early on, a nervous Serena.

Venus's serve, shorter points, reach and memory of two wins here might compensate for a forehand whose mechanics need an overhaul, though mentally where she stands is anyone's guess. Grass demands perhaps a few more ideas and innovation than Clijsters can possibly muster, but Davenport looms as a sort of big-hitting dark horse.

It leaves Henin-Hardenne, whose fearful, darting, small eyes now have a confident gaze. For a slight woman her serve comes attached with useful muscle, bringing about visions of a female David with a slingshot. Winning Grand Slams is the best antidote to any hesitancy and if she is not fearful of the volley all sorts of mayhem could be unleashed. A Serena-Henin final carries with it all sorts of promise.

But then Wimbledon, whatever the final, usually does.