THE ghost of Fred Perry returns to Grand Slam tennis this week.
Welcome back, Phantom Fred. You have been idle since that day in New York when Andy Murray ended the long wait for a Brit to scale the heights and win one of the game’s elite championships, but you now are among us again as we long for Wimbledon to begin. Dust down the history books and feel the spirit in the air. That’ll be Fred. Seventy seven years since a man from these shores won the big prize at SW19. Hasn’t happened since Fred won in 1936 when he faced down a German baron by the name of Gottfried von Cramm, a Nazi-defying homosexual who not only poked fun at Adolf Hitler by calling him a house-painter but who was also believed to be part of a plot to kill the Fuhrer. He was imprisoned for his sexual activities and died in his 70s when driving into a truck in Cairo. It’s true what they say, you know. There are no characters left in the game.
Well, maybe there are. There are four to reckon with in the men’s draw for a start. Used to be the big three but Murray’s great breakthrough has extended the club to four. For the first time in his career he approaches Wimbledon as a Grand Slam champion free of the burden he has carried in recent years, that of the “greatest player never…”. Sure there is the expectation and the hype and hoopla to deal with but it’s got to be a whole lot easier to carry that load this time than it was last, when he didn’t know if he was ever going to win one of these things. He can be more free now. He’s a major winner and an Olympic champion and a week ago he won at Queen’s.
John McEnroe has tipped him to win Wimbledon. McEnroe pretty much does that every year when quizzed by journalists who ask the question with a pleading look on their face. “John, do you think this could be Andy’s year. You do, don’t you? Please? Pretty please?” McEnroe plays ball, only this time you think he might mean it given what Murray has done in the 12 months since having his heart torn out of his chest by Roger Federer in the crying final of 2012.
Who can predict these things, though? Anybody want to back against Novak Djokovic, the No.1 seed? Anybody really want to say that Rafa Nadal won’t make it three Wimbledons after his remarkable comeback from injury to win the French? And are we really saying that there isn’t another big day for Federer in the place he has owned so many times in the past? Chris Evert said recently that she had a feeling that Federer’s indifferent form in early season was because he was preparing himself to peak for Wimbledon. Well, last weekend Federer ended a ten-month championship drought when winning on the grass in Halle. He has the best grass-court winning record in the history of the game. At 31, he might not have another big one left in him. But who would gamble the mortgage on it?
The preamble has been dominated by the draw, with Djokovic being the big winner. He is on the opposite ends of things to Murray, Federer and Nadal, the latter two scheduled to meet in the quarter-finals. Djokovic would only have to beat one of those three to take his second Wimbledon title. There is a new dynamic with Djokovic, of course, and it is one borne of tragedy. His childhood coach, Jelena Gencic, passed away during the second week of the French Open. He called Gencic his “tennis mother” and had promised her he would win in France. He didn’t. Leading Nadal 4-3 in the deciding set of their epic semi-final, the Serb let it slip. You can only imagine the pain of that loss and the strength of his will in the coming weeks.
Following his victory in the French, Nadal looms large. His seeding of fifth is, of course, a nonsense brought about by his humiliating, and injury-induced, exit in the second round last year at the hands of world number 100, Lukas Rosol as well as his months out of the game nursing himself back to health. David Ferrer is seeded ahead of Nadal despite never having made a Wimbledon semi-final and having lost in the first round in Holland, his preparatory tournament for Wimbledon. Nadal has won seven of the nine tournaments he has played in this year; a chilling consistency.
For Federer, the key is to get through week one expending as little energy as possible. That 31-year-old body can’t be expected to get through one tough match after another and hope to be fresh when the serious business begins in week two. The Australian Open showed how his tanks can empty. Murray beat him 6-2 in the fifth set of their semi-final after Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had pushed Federer to five in the previous round. In Paris, Federer won a five-setter against Gilles Simon to make his 36th straight Grand Slam quarter-final but was well beaten by Tsonga in the semi. “Roger has such a great game for grass,” said McEnroe, “but it’s tough to win it back-to-back at his age.”
In Murray we trust. And the draw could have been worse. Tsonga in the quarters, perhaps. But then Nadal or Federer in the semi-final with Djokovic waiting in the final. That’s how it looks, but the men’s game is unpredictable. Rosol downing Nadal was proof of that.
The women? Well, it amounts to this. Is there anybody who could possibly stop Serena Williams?
Victoria Azarenka is seeded two and has made the semi-final in each of the last two years. If the American is on her game, there’s no way the Belarusian beats her. Maria Sharapova, third seed, beat Williams in the 2004 final but has lost 13 of their 14 matches since then, including the French Open final a fortnight ago. There’s an edge between these two arising from Williams’s recent comments in an interview with Rolling Stone. Williams came across like she was critical of the severity of a sentence passed on students in Ohio who were convicted of the rape of a 16-year-old girl. She got herself embroiled in a huge controversy as a result, though she has said she didn’t mean it the way it sounded.
The Wimbledon champion also made critical remarks of an unnamed player on the circuit, believed to be Sharapova. The Russian fired back a response yesterday: “If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids,” said Sharapova. If she meets her great nemesis on court, it could get interesting.
Are there any dangers to Serena? Agnieszka Radwanska was beaten in three sets in last year’s final, but has not been showing enough form. Sara Errani of Italy doesn’t have the power. Li Na? Maybe, on a freakish day. Angelique Kerber of Germany? A semi-finalist last year and might do the same this year. Tenth seed is the improving Maria Kirilenko of Russia, a player worth watching particularly since she is up against Laura Robson in her opening match.
Frankly, it would be a shock if Williams and Azarenka don’t make the final and a sporting earthquake if Serena doesn’t win. It’s different in the men’s draw. Different and gripping. The ghost of Fred will be watching. As ever.