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.

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