Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Centre Court Celebration

I am just coming to terms after watching the spectacle on Star Sports, live from Wimbledon. The official Championship is still a month away, but earlier today the Centre Court was thrown open to public for the first time under the newly built retractable roof. For a tournament that has been increasingly plagued by endless rain delays and much discomfort and inconvenience caused to players, fans and officials, alike, a retractable roof (an overhead roof over an outdoor tennis tournament that closes if it starts to rain) was much wanted for years. Our prayers were finally answered when a few years back the nod was given to what many believe is the world's most traditional sporting tournament and thereby the reluctance to change the way the game has been played here since generations. 

And what a swanky roof it was complete with all the glitzy lighting. For a tournament that has long refused to come out of its time-warped history, for a tournament that is so historical and considered to be so traditional, nothing can more more modern with such a futuristic roof over its head, literally. Four great tennis champions, Steffi Graf, Andre Agassi, Tim Henman and Kim Clijsters, were invited to play the inaugural matches under the closed roof and to test the Court under the new playing conditions; Agassi and Graf to team for a mixed doubles against Henman and Clijsters. I was thrilled to watch all the players being so warmly welcomed onto the Centre Court, but my heart skipped a bit when I saw Steffi step up. It's been 10 years since she played her last Wimbledon- in 1999; she was the losing finalist to eventual champion Lindsay Davenport, but she still looks as radiant, beautiful, glowing and young. And as the day would progress, I'd say she hasn't lost much of her agility, grace and power and court, and man, her forehand is still lethal!!! 

Anyways, performances followed by opera singers Katherine Jenkins and Faryl Smith and the boy band Blake. As Jenkins' performance got underway, the roof started to close. It was a spectacle much awaited. Soon, it was showtime. 

First off, the mixed doubles match between Agassi-Graf v/s Henman-Clijsters. It seems that a few months back after these players were invited to play a series of exhibition matches on the Centre Court to try out the court under the retractable roof, Clijsters- like the other three- started practising hard and started to train, etc. That is what changed her life and she got back her lost-love for tennis. That is when it is said she decided to make a comeback on the tour. I couldn't be more happy for her. Here is a champion who has all the lethal weapons in her armory to beat the best in the world. And with woman's tennis in such a fractured leadership at the top of the game, Clijsters' entry is most welcome. 

I rarely watch exhibition matches. Somehow they bore me, what with all the lacking of a typical competitive match. Exhibition matches are typically pots of money offered by sponsors to participating players and players have a lot of fun, giggling, smiling, laughing, talking and making merry whilst playing these so-called matches. I do not know about the money part, but pretty much the rest of it was there. But make no mistake. All three matches were as competitive as they could have got. The mixed doubles was the first off, and it was quite entertaining. Graf and Agassi complimenting each other with a kiss after many a successful point, Henman showing many glimpses of his beautiful serve and volley tennis and Clijsters doing the running around the court displaying her on-court fitness. The match couldn't have got any tighter as they reach the tie-break. Henman-Clijsters scrap through a tight victory.

After a brief break, the two men are back on court. But all the smiles and giggles and fun that characterised the mixed-doubles match disappeared fast; the men's singles was most competitive and for a moment I forgot that this was just an exhibition match. Though Henman was back with his serve-and-volley game and made Agassi run all over the court, the latter was the better of the two players and showed why he was the No 1 player and winner of eight single grand-slam titles during his career. Agassi won 6-4. 

The last of the three-match series was played between Steffi Graf and Kim Clijsters. Now if you remember, it was on this court 10 years ago when Graf played her last Grand Slam title and Clijsters played her first match on this Centre Court and they faced one another in the fourth round. Graf won that encounter, rather easily. Ten years later, fate brought them back together under different circumstances. And if the first two games were any indication, this was set to be a close match. After Graf raced to a 2-0 lead, Clijsters fought back and leveled things at 3-all. Eventually after a tightly fought contest- and thankfully didn't play out frivolously at all like typical exhibition matches- Clijsters won 6-4. Graf's forehand is still there. I am a HUGE fan of Steffi's and I was extremely delighted to see her play at this level even after so many years. And oh yes, she looks as young and beautiful as ever. Did I say that already? 

So how was the roof then? It was nice and much needed. Rain delays, atleast on the Centre Court, will now be a thing of the past. Though I would miss the sights of ball boys and girls systematically dragging the edges of the court cover from opposite sides of the Court, rushing towards the centre of the court to cover it as soon as it starts to rain, the cover then inflated to make it look like a tent, half-empty stands with its few occupants cozily nestled under umbrellas, bands playing music to keep the spectators entertained during numerous rain delays. Though in recent years, I have to admit these rain delays used to wash out days and days of plays. This was very agonizing. And though Star Sports showed re-runs of Classics, after a point in time, it gets to be boring. And as Roger Federer said in his televised message that though rain delays were part of the tradition, people would love to see some tennis after a few days; excruciating delays would now be a thing of the past. The roof looks great, it takes about two and half minutes for the roof to close and another 10 odd minutes for the gigantic air-conditioning systems to be up and about. And perhaps a few other handful of minutes for players to warm up before the interrupted match resumes. Infact during the singles exhibition matches today it was said to be pouring outside, but the action and excitement inside the arena went uninterrupted, so that's the whole point. Besides, it gives Wimbledon a never-seen-before indoor tennis tournament look. Notice the loud ball sounds that gets echoed within the closed arena. 

And this last point: Will Clijsters be able to climb back to the top of professional tennis? Much as I want to root for her, I would take a step back here and wait and watch. She has the shots, she has the fire, she has her forehand. But she is still rusty. For a player to be coming back to professional tennis after a gap of around two years, she will need many more matches under her belt to really hone her skills. I think she needs to work more on her mental fitness and try and bring her errors down. She moves beautifully on the court, so her speed and physical fitness is almost there. Even after today's play, she is a top-10 player. With match practice, an ascent should not be difficult. 

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