Profoundly tedious, terminally inconsequential and really quite depressing. Is this truly the only way to make women’s sport marketable? Plastered all over the papers, a spat (a proper catfight, with claws) between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Not about drop volleys or running backhands. Not even about grunting. In fact about each other’s private lives, relationships and, er, morals. This frenzy of handbagging is accompanied by the usual glamour poses with not so much as a racquet in sight. Not sure that Djokovic has got his own fragrance, or that Murray thinks Federer’s wife is a minger. Who cares? But perhaps this pathetic little sideshow has a purpose after all. In the absence of a genuine rivalry on the court, it’s creating an artificial one to spice up a pretty moribund state of affairs. And, hell, do we need something.
Remember the glory days of McEnroe and Connors? What about Pete Sampras, almost unbeatable on the lawns of Wimbledon? Or even Jim Courier and Michael Chang, Grand Slam winners that you hardly even noticed? It seems a long time ago now. As the French Open progressed into its second week the Americans had already packed their bags. That doesn’t rate as a surprise anymore. Consternation has largely given way to apathy. A decade has now passed since Andy Roddick won at Flushing Meadows, the last time one of tennis’s four major trophies was wreathed in the Stars and Stripes. Only seven men from the U.S. currently feature in the world’s top one hundred, and four of those are in the lowest ten. Things are not much better for the women, though the cracks are ably papered over by the phenomenon that is Serena Williams, and she’s now in her twilight years. It’s a grim picture. So why has this great sporting nation stopped producing champions on the court, and does anyone even care?
It is now eight months since one of the great Wimbledon upsets of modern times saw the unknown Czech player Lukas Rosol take the prize scalp of Rafael Nadal. Plenty has happened since. Roger Federer initially prospered in landing his seventh All-England Club title before Andy Murray turned the tables on the same court to clinch Olympic gold. Murray then proceeded to contest two epic Grand Slam finals against world number one Novak Djokovic, with the spoils divided in New York and Melbourne. Nadal has been a frustrated bystander, the forgotten man as chronic knee problems ensured a lengthy spell out of action. His low-profile return at the Chile Open signalled the first time he had picked up a racquet in competition since that fateful South London evening in June. He was sharp enough to reach the final, but the pain has not disappeared. The doubts are clearly swirling around his head. At 26, he still has plenty of ambitions to fulfil, but have the demands of his dynamic approach taken their toll, and is it possible we have already seen the best of the engaging Spaniard?
So many dragons have been slain in British sport this year that it’s easy to become complacent. Blanket TV coverage has revolutionised our appreciation of achievements which once we could only have read about. Remember the days when even top division football matches were untroubled by the all-seeing gaze of the cameras? The experience was the privilege of those who were there, and many legends grew vivid in the retelling. It is rare now that a landmark moment should evade our multi-channel viewing potential. Yet all I have so far seen are some grainy images of a smiling Heather Watson facing the press in the aftermath of her Japan Open success. Such anonymity seems fitting for her quiet ascent has gone unnoticed by too many. As the first representative of her nation to win a WTA Tour event since the days when a newspaper really was still the best way to keep in touch, all that is surely about to change.
When the moment came it was as though there was no emotion left to expend. Andy Murray seemed in the grip of temporary paralysis before clasping his hands to his face, unable to comprehend what he had just achieved. After seventy six years, neither could we. One man, however, most certainly could, and he was sitting impassively in the gallery as far removed from the gut-wrenching drama being played out on the court below as it was possible to be. As the overhit return signalled the end of an exhilarating five hour epic, he permitted himself the wryest of smiles. Almost. Ivan Lendl had been here before and he recognised the overwhelming sense of relief which was coursing around Flushing Meadows, and which his wise counsel had helped to bring about.
The wait goes on. While Bunny Austin may have been consigned to sporting trivia, the overbearing shadow of Fred Perry grows ever darker. Britain still does not have that Wimbledon Champion it so craves. Andy Murray is, as he himself observed, choking back the tears, ‘getting closer’, but there was to be no fairytale ending under the roof of Centre Court this time. How he had strained every sinew to make it happen, the pain of defeat all the greater for this having been no meek surrender. He had thrown everything he could muster at the towering figure across the net, yet it had all come back. Roger Federer emulated Pete Sampras by claiming his seventh crown and, if there were still those who queried his right to be hailed the greatest of them all, that debate ended here.
I marvel at their athleticism, wonder at their superhuman levels of fitness, but cringe at the sheer predictability of it all. We are in the midst of a golden age of men’s tennis but the utter dominance of the top players is beginning to grate. Today’s French Open final will be yet another showdown between two of the finest players ever to grace a court. Where once such a collision of giants would be anticipated with relish, and the epic 2008 Wimbledon final is never diminished by acquaintance, the narrative is now all too familiar to stir the blood. My capacity to be impressed is lowered. I expect greatness and the better they get, the less I applaud.