I realized this morning that Wimbledon fever officially had descended on the masses when a friend with an adorable infant son, a killer job and seemingly everything to live for told me that the highlight of his day is playing "Grand Slam Tennis" on the Wii.
"I know it's ridiculous, but I've been waiting to play this game for 25 years," he said before regaling me with a shot-by-shot recap of the match he (as John McEnroe) played against Wii-Borg on Centre Court last night.
Apparently EA Sports has accurately reproduced all the past and current star players' mannerisms and characteristics and accoutrements, from McEnroe's wooden racket and wristy shots to Stefan Edberg's "sick" volleys ("when he plays a service game, you have no chance," my friend enthused). The game even interprets Pete Sampras' service-motion-initiating toe lift and Maria Sharapova's shrieks. Alas, I am a Wii bit jealous -- more of the lucky fans who do actually find themselves at the All England Club this year than of my tennis-manic buddy, who's keeping up the neighbors with a punishing schedule of nightly five-setters.
Wimbledon is the site of the two greatest matches ever played -- the 1980 Bjorn Borg-McEnroe final and last year's Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer final. It's hard to imagine that anything transpiring during the next fortnight will equal those epics in terms of drama, but history likely will be made in the form of Federer, the prohibitive favorite, setting the men's major record with his 15th Grand Slam singles title.
Next year, the 30th anniversary of Borg-Mac will generate a lot of attention in the press and, likely, at the All England Club, a venue centered on tradition and ceremony. But 2009 is itself a milestone year for a number of recent (that is, "recent" relative to the event's 130-plus-year history) Wimbledon events. Here are a few worth noting.
It's been ...
... 25 years since serve-and-volley genius McEnroe won his third and final Wimbledon title, destroying Jimmy Connors, 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 in the final. Mac's brilliant game (perfectly suited to grass) and outrageous temper brought Wimbledon to the forefront of the American sports fan's mind in a way it hasn't been since. Neither seven-time champion Sampras nor the Nadal-Federer battles of the past three years commanded the attention of the U.S. public the way McEnroe did.
... 20 years since a 21-year-old Boris Becker won his third and last Wimbledon title (though he would go on to make the final three more times). Becker won six career majors, including two titles at the Australian Open and one at the U.S. Open, but he always will be associated with what he accomplished on Centre Court.
... 15 years since Lori McNeil, 30, upset three-time defending champion Steffi Graf in the first round. The veteran McNeil's stunning victory was a highlight for African-American women in tennis; it came 3.5 decades after Althea Gibson's back-to-back Wimbledon victories and six years before Venus Williams started her decade of success at the All England Club. McNeil's 1994 run ended when she lost a tight semifinal (10-8 in the third) to eventual champion Conchita Martinez.
And speaking of first-round shockers in the ladies' draw, it's been ...
... 10 years since Martina Hingis, at the time a five-time Grand Slam singles champion and the world No. 1, was stunned in the first round, 6-2, 6-0, by Jelena Dokic, a 129th-ranked qualifier playing her first Wimbledon. At the time, the story was more Hingis' astonishing meltdown than the 16-year-old Dokic's auspicious debut (though the then-Serb, now-Aussie did make it to the quarters before falling to Alexandra Stevenson). A decade later, a cocaine suspension has forced Hingis out of tennis, while her fellow drama queen Dokic is making a comeback after years of highly publicized off-the-court troubles. (Also 10 years ago, Lindsay Davenport won her lone Wimbledon, defeating Graf in the final of what would be the German's final Grand Slam event.)
... five years since Maria Sharapova, a talented and remarkably self-possessed 17-year-old, took out two-time defending champion Serena Williams in the final, then buried her face in her hands and sank to her knees as the magnitude of the victory engulfed her. At the time, it seemed Sharapova had the game, competitiveness and poise to win more than the two Grand Slam titles she's collected since. Although she did reach No. 1 the following year, her career has been slowed by injury (and the Williams sisters) during the past five years. But indelible images like that of the teenaged Sharapova, bowed and overwhelmed after her 2004 win, illustrate Wimbledon's mystique. I don't need a Wii to remind me that it is the season for Centre Court theatrics.