Ah, right, yes. Tennis. I believe that this is the first time in the nine years of 200% that tennis will have featured on these pages. These esteemed, multi award-winning pages. No pressure there at all.
What has happened is, I’ve worn him down. Ian, I mean. Every summer – World Cup, European Championship, or Olympic Games notwithstanding – away I go on my annual Wimbledon fortnight tennis reverie. Completely lost to the world. In previous years, Ian dealt with this calmly. By which I mean with continual blinking incomprehension. One year, when I had agreed to go to his house on the condition that I could watch the 2009 Men’s Singles final, he acceded to my demand at once only to then see his promise through with such spectacular ill-grace it has become one of the more notable days in the history of our friendship. For legal reasons alone I am completely unable to go into any more details, but I am willing to concede that it was very, very funny.
Six years hence, however, he asked me out of the clear blue sky if I would cover Wimbledon for 200%. This is something of a responsibility. Firstly, Twohundredpercent is very much Ian’s baby (lacking any competition in this regard, at least, for the next 10 weeks) and contrary to all the shit I’ve plastered over it for almost a decade, he doesn’t just let any idiot loose on the site. Secondly, I have in the past blogged Wimbledon for my own amusement and for my own site and, upon reviewing these posts, I found probably the best writing I have ever done. This intimidated me to such an extent that my old bed buddy, Crippling Self-Doubt, posed serious questions as to whether or not I would be able to go through with it.
But unluckily for you, here I am. I love tennis. My relationship with tennis pre-dates that which I have with any other sport. Indeed, with the possible exception of some members of my family and biscuits, it is my most enduring love. Wimbledon, with its blanket coverage on free-to-air BBC television, represents the yearly apogee of my madness. A culmination of all that is good in the annual life of a Briton. Once the Gentlemen’s Singles champion holds that trophy aloft, you know all you have left to look forward to is Party Conference season, Bonfire Night, being ill at Christmas and, if you’re really lucky, death.
My plan of attack is as follows: a daily post every morning reviewing the key points of the previous day’s play as I saw them plus, I’m afraid to say, numerous inevitable sidetracks about Sue Barker’s hair, the cut of John Lloyd’s jib or my all-pervasive admiration for Tim Henman’s sweet style. There may be additional live blog-style affairs, of which I will try to keep any interested parties apprised using the normal means: full-page advertisements in the Daily Telegraph, skywriting and my Twitter account.
Quite what I will be writing about depends much on what happens on the court. With one day until the tournament begins, however, I anticipate the major talking point will be about the past, the present and the future of tennis. Having ridden out a golden era for the past decade, the men’s game now finds itself at something of a crossroads. The two players who dominated the game, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, both remain on Tour but are a shadow of their former selves. Age is what has caught up with the former, the great Swiss now knocking on the door of 34 years of age and his many fans, myself included, starting to vehemently hope that he will soon announce that the next season on the Tour will be his last and embarking on a year-long farewell circuit.
Nadal, on the other hand, has worn himself down to a nubbin. Always a high-impact, high energy player, he is now in full possession of the knees of a man twice his age. His recent record at Wimbledon, where he has twice been champion, is not good either: since he last reached the final in 2011, he has fallen in the second, first and fourth rounds. A fortnight ago, he lost in the first round of the AEGON Masters tournament on the grass courts of the Queen’s Club to Alexandr Dolgopolov and, to compound the misery, was crushed by Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros, only his second defeat ever at the French Open.
This leaves us with two pre-tournament favourites. Indeed, we may now even be entering their own personal era: Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Djokovic has been the world’s leading player since his annus mirabilis in 2011. He is the defending champion at the All England Club, the world number 1 and the top seed. All things being equal, his only realistic competition is from Murray, who is coming off his best ever clay court season and a fourth title at Queen’s. A formidable, natural, grass court player, it would be a mistake to consider, even for a moment, that Murray is just the plucky Brit elevated by the shrill partisanship of the Wimblecrowd. He has, in fact, matured into a genuinely world class match player. Over the five-set format of Grand Slam tennis, Murray increasingly carries an aura of inevitable victory, that intangible quality that cows would-be victors into beaten also-rans and is the calling card of the true players on the world stage.
Outside of Djokomurray, however, there is something of a vacuum. The best bet for a third is Stan Wawrinka, the French Open champion. Hardly an up-and-comer, Wawrinka is now 30 years of age, having not won a first Grand Slam title until last year. He is also somewhat suspect on grass and finds himself in the same quarter of the draw as Djokovic, US Open champion Marin Cilic, the huge serving giants Ivo Karlovic and Kevin Anderson (the latter of whom beat him at Queen’s) and Japan’s Kei Nishikori, whose game has all the attributes to make him a handful for any opponent on the lawns. Other floaters to look out for in the draw are the Bulgarian Gregor Dimitrov, a semi-finalist twelve months ago; the stylish Belgian player David Goffin, burdened with a next-big-thing tag that is starting to go brown at the edges; Poland’s Jerzy Janowicz could be a dark horse if he gets into his stride as he did in his run to the semis in 2013; and the Czech Republic’s Tomas Berdych, a previous finalist and always a threat on grass. A mention, too, for the swashbuckling, burly and ever-popular Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. His beaming smile, eccentric tennis and muscle power always make for a formidable challenge.
The women’s game is far more straightforward. As long as Serena Williams is still active in the tournament, she is the favourite. Should she fall by the wayside, however, it is anyone’s guess. The frustrating wait for a player to come along as a consistent challenger to Williams seems set to only be resolved when the American retires.
Before that day, however, there’s the small matter of history to consider. Win a sixth Wimbledon and Williams will have completed a second “Serena Slam”, where she would be the concurrent holder of all four Grand Slam tennis titles. Win a sixth Wimbledon and she will also be a seventh US Open title away from a Grand Slam, winning all four major titles in the calendar year. It’s only ever been done twice in the Open era of the women’s game: Margaret Court managed it in 1970 and Steffi Graf did it in 1988. Should Serena join their ranks, she would also equal Graf’s all-time record of 22 Open Era Grand Slam titles. Let there be no doubt: Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player who has ever lived, with the caveat that Martina Navratilova is the greatest tennis player who has ever lived.
It’s hard to see beyond Williams. Both the romantic and the sports historian in me doesn’t want to, for one thing. But for another, picking a non-Serena winner of a major tennis tournament increasingly feels like blindly sticking a pin in a telephone directory. Maria Sharapova – one third supermodel, one third tennis champion, one third stuck pig – is probably the biggest name competition. She is a fearsome match player, never down and never out until she is mathematically down and out. However, her form at Wimbledon is most kindly described as patchy. She won the title as a 17-year old, beating Serena Williams, in 2004. However, with the exception of a run to the 2011 final, she has not been past the fourth round since 2006. So it probably falls to the woman who beat her on that day four years ago, the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova, to pick up the slack. She is the reigning champion at SW19 and with a game perfectly suited to the fast courts. However, she recently pulled out of Eastbourne with illness so question marks over her fitness prevail.
Other potential winners, or, at least, storymakers include Aggie Radwanska, the Pole who made the 2012 final and who put together a run to the final last week at Eastbourne; Sabine Lisicki, the darling of the Wimbledon crowd whose meek capitulation in the 2013 final desperately disappointed a growing army of supporters; and the Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, who burst so spectacularly onto the senior scene in 2014. At the time I saw an X factor in Bouchard which I predicted would see her be the next dominant figure in the women’s game. 2015 has been very much more of a fallow period, but the era of women players having already peaked by the time of their 18th birthday is long behind us and I still believe that Bouchard’s future could – should – be a bright one indeed.
In the “it’s probably too much to ask” pile, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki, former junior champion at Wimbledon and world number 1, seems set to join an increasingly large club of players who reached the statistical summit of their chosen profession without ever winning a major title. First week intrigue, too, will again circulate around the British hopefuls: Heather Watson is perhaps the best of the bunch, but is now 23 and knows it is time to start performing consistently. Laura Robson, impossibly now 21 years old, returns as a wildcard after the longest injury lay-off since Jesus of Nazareth. She’s another junior champion at SW19 and another whose potential seems to have, for a variety of reasons, ebbed away. The third player in this bunch is Joanna Konta, who is in the form of her life and had a thoroughly profitable time last week at Eastbourne. However, her first round opponent is Maria Sharapova.
Much to look forward to and much to discuss. I hope the previous 134,000 words haven’t left you feeling too fatigued at the prospect of another Wimbledon already. Rest assured that you will soon be reinvigorated when the balls start to fly about and the smell of barley water and sound of grunts are in the air. Because Wimbledon’s ultimate weapon – the fact that the quality of the play seems to improve every year, year after year – is about to be deployed.