Friday, June 24, 2011

40th anniversary of life-changing Wimbledon visit

   I didn’t know it at the time, but my life changed 40 years ago today.
   On June 24, 1971, my father and I were vacationing in London. I was 15, and he asked me on the spur of the moment – planning was not his style – if I wanted to go to Wimbledon.
   I reluctantly agreed but wondered how we were going to get tickets at the last minute. Silly me. My father lived for such challenges. This time, all it took was a visit to the concierge at our hotel. Presto. Two Centre Court tickets.
   Until then, I was about as interested in tennis as I was in nuclear physics. My father, a recreational player, had introduced me to the sport many years before, but I had taken few lessons and remained a novice.
   Like many other beginners, I had spent most of my time picking up balls after netting them, which failed to amuse me. Then again, I had never seen a match between accomplished players. I had no role models.
   Until Wimbledon. I sat transfixed for six hours watching early-round matches. Roger Taylor of Great Britain vs. Cliff Richey of the United States. Top-seeded Rod Laver of Australia vs. Clark Graebner of the United States. Julie Heldman of the United States vs. a 19-year-old Australian named Evonne Goolagong. Tom Okker of the Netherlands vs. Nikki Pilic of what was then Yugoslavia.        
    Even I had heard of Laver. He would lose to future U.S. Davis Cup captain Tom Gorman in the quarterfinals, clearing the path for fellow Aussie John Newcombe to win his second straight Wimbledon singles title. Goolagong would win the ladies’ title to become the youngest Wimbledon champion since Karen Susman in 1962.
   Pilic would spark the infamous Wimbledon boycott two years later. The Yugoslav Tennis Federation had suspended him for allegedly refusing to play in a Davis Cup series, which Pilic denied. When Wimbledon honored his suspension, 79 members of the year-old men’s players’ union (including 13 of the 16 seeds) withdrew.
   As I watched the matches, I was captivated by the beauty of the players’ strokes and the masterful spins they put on the ball. It might have been karma that we sat at one end of the court, allowing us to have the best view of the angles and to avoid moving our heads back and forth to follow the ball. Finally, my father dragged me away from Wimbledon.
   I followed the rest of the tournament on television – which was almost as good as being there, thanks to the knowledgeable, dignified commentators of the British Broadcasting Corporation – and eagerly filled in the draws each day.
   Not only have I become an avid tennis player since then, the sport has been a large part of my profession. I returned to Wimbledon 11 years later as a journalist and have covered countless professional, collegiate and junior tournaments in the United States, England and Japan over the past 30 years.
   My fascination with tennis has only grown since 1971. Arguably the greatest game ever invented, it irresistibly combines slugging (think boxing), grace (think ballet), angles (think geometry) and strategy (think chess).
   Also, I’ve always loved traveling and symmetry, and tennis is perhaps the most international and symmetrical of all sports. Not too many pro golfers, for example, have come out of Russia or Serbia lately. Meanwhile, Wimbledon starts with 128 players in the singles draws who are whittled by half in each round until a champion is crowned.
   Wimbledon retains its bucolic charm, but much has changed there in 40 years:
n   Total prize money has skyrocketed from $60,464 to $23.36 million. Third-round losers this year will each earn almost as much – $55,000 – as all players combined in 1971. The men’s and women’s singles champions pocketed $6,000 and $2,880, respectively, 40 years ago. This year, they will collect $1.76 million each.
n   The number of courts has increased from 15 to 19. A retractable roof over Centre Court was completed in 2009.
n   The tournament began using Hawk-Eye, an electronic line-calling system, on Centre Court and Court 1 in 2007.
n   The 1971 program, of which I still have a copy, cost the equivalent of 32 cents and was 40 pages long. This year’s program costs $13 and is more than three times bigger.
n   Singles seeds increased from 16 to 32 in 2001 after Spanish clay-court specialists threatened to boycott the grass-court tournament in 2000.
n   After dominating tennis in the 20th century, the United States and Australia have struggled mightily. Those countries accounted for all eight men’s and women’s singles semifinalists in 1971 and one last year (women’s champion Serena Williams).   
   My only regret is that my father and I didn’t go to Wimbledon five or 10 years earlier. Although I have developed into a decent player, I could have accomplished more.
   On the other hand, it could have rained – not exactly a rarity at Wimbledon – that day 40 years ago, and I could have spent my life watching “Gilligan’s Island” reruns on TV.
   This much is certain: As far as watching tennis goes, there’s nothing like starting out at the top.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Harvard Law School can wait

   CHICO – Philip Bester’s future is on the court. Blake Strode’s is in one.
   The top-seeded Bester bested the sixth-seeded Strode 6-4, 6-2 in the wind Sunday to win the $15,000 Balbutin’s Chico Pharmacy Tennis Classic at the Chico Racquet Club & Resort.
   Don’t feel bad for Strode, though. He has an acceptance to Harvard Law School waiting for him if he gives up professional tennis in the next three years.
   Bester, meanwhile, continued his rise in the world rankings with his fifth career Futures singles title but first this year. Ranked No. 244 entering the tournament, he rose to a career-high No. 229 and could crack the top 200 soon.
   Bester and Strode are both slim, 6-foot-2 right-handers with powerful serves and forehands. They are also close in age at 22 and 23, respectively.
   That’s where the similarities end, though. Bester is a white Canadian from Vancouver, Strode a black American from St. Louis.
   Bester attended the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., for four years as a teenager, reached the French Open junior boys final at 17 and turned pro at the same age.
   Strode stayed home to attend Pattonville High School, graduated from the University of Arkansas in economics and Spanish in 2009 and reached the singles semifinals of the NCAA championships the same month.
   Finally, Bester has a one-handed backhand, whereas Strode uses two hands on that wing.
   Bester’s impressive array of shots also includes a crisp volley. The mental side, however, has taken longer to develop than his shots.
   “I’ve become mentally tougher,” said Bester, who has improved his year-end ranking from No. 809 to No. 510 to No. 278 in the past three years. “I’ve learned to close out games when I need to. I’ve learned to just play the game of tennis smarter and not always go out on the court and feel like I have to win. It’s been a big mental battle, and I feel I’ve gotten much stronger mentally.”
   Bester’s experience was the difference Sunday as he coped with the wind better than Strode. Aside from several aborted service tosses, Bester appeared largely unaffected. Strode, however, repeatedly mis-hit the ball and grew increasingly agitated, overhitting his forehand several times in the second set. 
   “I knew the conditions were going to be tough,” Bester said, “and I’ve learned from experience that when it’s windy, instead of getting frustrated, (it’s better to) try to use it to my advantage.
   “I know the ball is going to be moving just as much on his side of the net as it is on mine, so it was important for me to hit to bigger targets than usual to give myself a bigger margin for error and make (fewer) unforced errors than my opponent.”
   Strode, ranked No. 543 entering the tournament, had his nine-match Futures winning streak stopped after ending Daniel Kosakowski’s run at eight matches in the semifinals. Strode, coming off a Futures title in Tampa, Fla. last month, said he “just made too many mistakes” against Bester.
   “I was struggling with the ball moving around a little bit in this wind, and he was being really consistent,” continued Strode, whose father, Lester, is the bullpen coach for the Chicago Cubs. “He was playing smart, using a lot of slices and kind of letting the conditions do some of the work.
   “That’s what you have to play through sometimes, and I didn’t do a good job of playing solid on a lot of the bigger points. … With him and the conditions, it was a double whammy – hard to deal with.”
   Strode won the first six points of the match, but it was downhill from there. After both players held serve for 1-1, Strode trailed the rest of the way.
   When Bester broke serve twice to lead 4-1, it appeared he would breeze – so to speak – in the first set. But then he lost his serve for the only time in the match. Strode fought back to 4-5 before Bester held serve for the set.
   Strode lost his serve in the first game of the second set on a mis-hit backhand and was broken again, with the help of two consecutive loose forehands from 40-15, to trail 2-5. Bester converted his second match point when a Strode backhand sailed long.
   Strode said he still plans to attend Harvard Law School before his annual deferrals expire. Bester also hopes graduation is in his future – to the ATP Tour, the major leagues of tennis.
   “I knew from the beginning (pro tennis) was going to take a lot of hard work, that it’s not just going to come to me,” he said. “It’s not easy traveling and being away from home and going from place to place every week, but it’s a part of it, and I’m very thankful I have the opportunity to do this for a living.
   “I really want to take it in as much as possible and do everything I can so that one day I look back and don’t have any regrets.”