The Women of Wimbledon and the True Test of Tennis

By Matthew Zemek, June 13th, 2009

wimbledonAfter another flat and forgettable French Open final, the sport of women’s tennis needs a boost on the lawns of suburban London. But just in case you think that a summer revival shouldn’t be expected at the 2009 Wimbledon Championships, the history of this most prestigious tournament suggests otherwise.

Time stands still at Wimbledon, the small English village where the temptations of other Grand Slam locales-Melbourne, Paris and New York-simply don’t exist. It could well be that the lack of readily available distractions helps to focus the elite players of the WTA Tour. Walking, practicing and playing on the high holy ground of tennis can have a profound effect on world-class athletes; when the gates of SW19 open to the world in the middle of the calendar year, a transformation seems to annually affect the brightest stars in the firmament of female tennis talents.

Whether or not you buy the argument that Wimbledon’s geographic removal from London creates fewer distractions, what can safely be said about “The Championships”-as they are lovingly known in England-is that they do weave some sort of spell over the women who compete for a piece of tennis immortality.

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Any Grand Slam title means instant respect for a top-level pro, but a win at Wimbledon echoes through the pages of time, carrying a cachet that’s impossible to match. The weight one feels at Wimbledon represents as good an explanation as any for the tournament’s ability to coax crowning performances from women’s singles standouts over the years. Even the briefest examination of Wimbledon ladies’ singles champions in the Open era (which began in 1968) clearly indicates that the Big W is a house where great players feel comfortable.

It’s impossible to deny the extent to which this tournament represents a shrine for the hungriest, most athletic, and supremely skilled performers in women’s tennis. While the French Open hasn’t had a three-set women’s singles final since 2001, and the U.S. Open hasn’t witnessed the same occurrence since 1995 (!), classic battles on the final Saturday at Wimbledon are a rather regular occurrence. No matter the decade or the level of racket technology, the Open era’s best women’s tennis title tilts have unfolded in Centre Court, long acknowledged as the cathedral of the sport.

In 1970, two legends of both Wimbledon and tennis played an epic final, as three-time champion Margaret Court defeated Billie Jean King, 14-12, 11-9 (in the days before the tiebreak was instituted). King would go on to win six Wimbledon singles crowns of her own, but her match with Ms. Court on Centre Court will long be remembered as the most memorable confrontation of her 22-year Wimbledon career (1961-’83).

One of the women King defeated in a Wimbledon final was Chris Evert. In 1973, King knocked off an 18-year-old who would spend her twentysomething years dominating women’s tennis. In one of her particularly ascendant seasons, Evert denied the dynamic Australian, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, to win the 1976 Wimbledon title, 8-6 in the third set. The victory gave the Floridian one of three championships in suburban London, and certainly her most dramatic. A participant in 10 Wimbledon singles finals, Evert earned a place as one of the most consistent and reliable performers in the history of the venerable event. It took something particularly special to overcome the two-handed backhands and unshakable groundstrokes of a woman who made Wimbledon finals 12 years apart.

Enter Martina Navratilova.

While Evert would have the last word at the French Open, Navratilova-the once-chubby immigrant from Czechoslovakia who remade herself into a fitness fiend in the mid-1980s-came armed with the final answer when these two tennis titans clashed at Centre Court. Five times, Evert and Navratilova warred on the final Saturday of The Championships, in 1978, ’79, ’82, ’84, and ’85. Five times, Martina prevented Chrissie from adding to her first-place trophy case, with three of the five matches lasting a full three sets. The stoic American and the expressive Czech, who would eventually become an American citizen, enthralled spectators and electrifyied the sport when they met on Wimbledon’s fabled lawns. The greatest rivalry in tennis history spanned 80 matches (with Martina winning 43 matches and Evert 37), and Wimbledon lived up to its reputation as the Grand Slam centerpiece of their classic confrontation: Evert and Navratilova met more times in Wimbledon finals (5) than at any other major tournament (4 at the French Open final, 3 at the Australian Open, 2 times at the U.S. Open).

If anyone still doubted the Big W’s ability to bring the best of women’s tennis to the forefront, that notion was shattered forever when a new challenger overthrew Navratilova as the main matriarch of SW19. Steffi Graf needed only one (singles) final lesson from Martina, in the 1987 championship match; after enduring that solitary defeat, the German legend came from a set and a break down to stage a grand coup in front of the royal box in 1988. “The Queen is dead! Love live the Queen!”, was the refrain that echoed around the grounds when Graf ended Navratilova’s uninterrupted six-year reign at Wimbledon. Emboldened by that conquest, Graf would beat Martina again in 1989, in yet another three-set showdown, and forge a reputation for mental toughness that has gone unmatched in the years since. Graf would find herself immersed in captivating contests as the 1990s developed. In the 1991 ladies’ singles final, Fraulein Forehand outlasted Gabriela Sabatini, 8-6 in the third. In 1993, Graf remained steely under pressure, and benefited from the unforgettable collapse of Jana Novotna to win 6-4 in the third. Two years later, Graf captured the 1995 singles title at Wimby by stopping Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, 7-5 in the deciding set. Her penchant for winning three-set thrillers, built on the back of unflinching nerves and tunnel vision tenacity, would enable Graf to win seven Wimbledon titles, just two shy of Navratilova’s record nine singles crowns. For a woman who didn’t employ the serve-and-volley style that long defined grass-court tennis, Graf’s Wimbledon resume speaks volumes about a champion’s will to succeed in her sport’s greatest setting.

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Even in this past decade, the flame of women’s tennis greatness has not been doused at Wimbledon. What Court and King and Evert did in the ’70s-then passed on to Navratilova and Graf in the ’80s and ’90s-has been sustained by Venus Williams in the first years of the 21st century. At the tournament that awards the Venus Rosewater Dish to its champion, it’s been entirely fitting that a Venus has soared to Wimbledon heights that are worthy of the company of her fabled predecessors. Serena Williams‘s older sister has claimed five Wimbledon titles, chief among them a 2005 triumph over Lindsay Davenport in an unforgettable singles final. Venus’s 4-6, 7-6 (4), 9-7 win, attained in 2 hours and 45 minutes, stands as the longest ladies’ final in Wimbledon history, and quite possibly the best. Standing on the precipice of defeat for much of the match, Venus hit a little harder when backed into a corner, and the results of her resilience spoke for themselves. With Davenport offering stiff resistance, Richard Williams’s older daughter had to employ the most blistering ballstriking she could possibly provide. Venus did that, and then some, and after nearly three hours of supreme slugging from the baseline, The Championships had witnessed the latest, greatest classic in an event made for winners.

Go ahead-worry about the quality of women’s tennis as the 2009 edition of Wimbledon arrives. If the past is to serve as an accurate prelude, the Big W is about to lift the sails of the WTA Tour. Excellence has a way of making an appearance whenever the best women in the tennis world make the trek to SW19.


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