Wimbledon's best is yet to be

WORLD tennis' oldest and much-consecrated theatre — Wimbledon — may appear to be an anachronism in this day and age, a little out of step with the game in the new millennium.

WORLD tennis' oldest and much-consecrated theatre — Wimbledon — may appear to be an anachronism in this day and age, a little out of step with the game in the new millennium. But its appetite for drama and capacity to throw up seat-edge surprises are truly Shakespearean. You would think, as the only major tournament in the year that is played on grass, and in often appalling English summer weather, The Championships run by the All England Lawn Tennis Club would surely suffer an incremental loss in popularity and eventually lose its time-honoured primacy as the central event in the tennis calendar.

But, as it turns out, each passing year, much to the dismay of its few detractors, Wimbledon — to paraphrase Robert Browning's words — seems to grow old as if the "best is yet to be." And the 2005 championships, which concluded last weekend in London, did nothing to harm the hallowed image of a Victorian garden party that has since metamorphosed into the greatest tennis championship in the world.

On the other hand, the fortnight that climaxed with the crowning of the finest athlete in the women's game, Venus Williams, and inarguably the most gifted player in men's tennis, Roger Federer, as champions for the third time added to Wimbledon's lustre, and should rank alongside some of the most memorable championships of recent times. In the event, the venerable Alan Mills, who retired as the championship referee after 23 years during which he went about his demanding business with typical English patience and perseverance in the face of all sorts of adversity — not the least from the skies above — could not have dreamed up a better script for his final act.

On a stage which has a remarkable capacity to increase the emotional impact of our watching experience, Wimbledon 2005, like the best of theatre, offered a bit of something — nerve-jangling drama, sublime artistry, classic rivalries, high-wire moments of feisty braggadocio — to suit every taste. If Federer's creatively promiscuous racquet saw him produce tennis of such ineffable majesty as to take your breath away, then Venus Williams — the long-forgotten other Williams — once again proved, as she often did in her first avatar as a Grand Slam champion, that athleticism and grace are not mutually exclusive.

While Federer, the most gifted champion of his generation, was widely expected to complete a hat-trick of title victories to join a handful of men who have accomplished that rare feat — Bjorn Borg (1976-80) and Pete Sampras (1993-95 and 1997-2000) are the only others to have done it in the era of professional tennis — Venus' re-appearance in the Grand Slam winners' circle might have surprised quite a few. Injuries, loss of form and a stubborn unwillingness to devote her heart and soul to her chosen profession saw the former World No.1 drift towards relative obscurity.

But, the moment Venus thrashed sister Serena's conqueror, Jill Craybas, in the quarterfinals, it was clear that she had re-discovered the sort of hunger that earned her four Grand Slam titles in 2000 and 2001. The sheer depth of her desire was evident in the longest women's final in Wimbledon history as Venus simply refused to contemplate defeat against Lindsay Davenport even when she was matchpoint down.

Venus' title win is the best news for women's tennis, which appears amazingly competitive with three Grand Slam winners in as many events this year — Serena won the Australian Open in January and Justine Henin-Hardenne won the French Open in June — not to speak of last year's Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova, who lost to Venus Williams in the semifinal this year and who would be hoping to add her name to the winner's list in 2005 in the US Open in September.

Though the men's tour has also produced three different winners this year — Marat Safin triumphing in Melbourne and Rafael Nadal in Paris — it would be a travesty on Federer's genius to arrive at the same inference for it as for women's tennis. Federer walks alone at the summit, and the US Open in August would, once again, be the arena for others to do some learning.

For Indian tennis fans, too, the Championship turned out to be special as Sania Mirza, making her Wimbledon debut, put up a brave show as she went down to Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia, world ranked No. 5, in the second round.

Mirza won the hearts of the Centre Court crowd, where she was making her first appearance, and she nearly repeated her triumph over Kuznetsova, which had come in a WTA event in Dubai in March. On the final day, Mahesh Bhupathi and Mary Pierce won the mixed doubles title.