I’m exhausted. All this tennis is very tiring. I’m on my annual Wimbledon-Watch holiday and it’s proving even more emotionally draining than usual. But what stories it’s creating!
I’m a big fan of fairy tales: the traditional ones because of the truths about life that they reveal if you look closely and carefully, the newly-created ones, as they unfold in people’s lives each day, because they encourage us all to go on our own adventure. And it feels like there’s been a gazillion (love that word!) of them at Wimbledon so far, this year.
Take my hero from last year – Marcus Willis. Remember how he was on the verge of giving up tennis altogether, ranked 772 in the world, with no funds and no future, and ended up playing Roger Federer on Centre Court, thrilling everyone with his enthusiastic ‘have-a-go’ attitude?
His reward this year was that he was given a wild card – into Qualifying. He has brought his ranking up into the 300’s but that, apparently, is insufficient for the Wimbledon Committee. Still, it meant three less qualifying matches than last year when he had to undertake Pre-qualifying as well.
He didn’t make it. He lost his third match. Largely due to a knee injury he sustained during the course of it.
Not such a fairy tale, then. But wait a minute … The Committee had also given him a wild card straight into the main draw of the Men’s Doubles. He immediately teamed up with a youngster by the name of Jay Clarke, who’d also not made it through Qualifying, but who is considered to be ‘the next big thing’.
So what did the pair of them do? Made it easily into the second round where they knocked out the reigning champions in a fabulous five-set match! Brilliant! This guy so inspires me.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is story after story of players who are finding their best form at an age when tennis-players, traditionally, are supposed to retire.
For example, Rafa, at 31, after his sublime triumph in Roland Garros last month, made it to Wimbledon this year. Playing his first grass-court tennis in two years, he looked magnificent in the first week. Then, on Monday, he had another of ‘those’ matches. He came up against a guy who’s been around for ever, it seems. Gilles Muller, aged 34, has been on the tour for 17 years. He’d never won a title until this year. How could Rafa lose?
I held my breath all through week one of the tournament because there is something about Rafa on grass that brings out ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ performances from ‘Also Ran’s. It’s almost as if it’s part of his spiritual path, judging by the number of times he’s been beaten in four, or five, sets of unbelievably high-quality tennis, by a guy who’s never done anything before. But his previous defeats have all been to relative newcomers. Muller was not someone we should worry about.
I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed such a transformation. From an average, competent, ‘I can get through a few rounds’ player, a conqueror stepped forth. Nothing – and I mean nothing – shook him, as he worked his way into the match, winning the first set, then the second …
When Rafa won the next two, we all assumed we knew how this encounter would end, but Muller never wavered, leading Rafa into a fifth set, steadily, game by game, each time requiring the champion to match his tally of games won, constantly remaining one ahead.
They reached six games apiece; no tie-break in the fifth. They proceeded to seven, eight, nine games each. Neither would budge, neither cracked. If anything, it was Rafa who began to wobble. Ten games all, eleven. twelve … This was agonising, spectacular, enthralling. Everything a tennis fan could wish for. Not just because the outcome was no longer predictable but because the quality of the tennis being played was getting better and better as they went. No-one – perhaps not even the players – wanted it to end.
Total magic, ending eventually with a victory for Muller at 15-13.
And everywhere you look this year, there are other inspired players doing the same: Venus Williams, at 37, coming back to form after her devastating illness a few years ago, beating this year’s Roland Garros champion; Rybarikova, at 28, making it to the Semi’s after returning to the tour in the spring following two surgeries; Sam Querrey, aged 29, reaching his first Grand Slam Semi-Final by knocking out the World No.1, Andy Murray, today; and our own Jo Konta, getting ever closer to being the first British Women’s Champion since Virginia Wade in 1977.
And, of course, the greatest of them all, showing that age makes no difference, except that it improves you, Roger Federer, at 35, on the verge of winning his second Grand Slam of this year and an eighth Wimbledon title!
I tell you, there is nothing so inspiring as a fairy tale.