There’s no play on the middle Sunday of Wimbledon – it’s a time for everyone to catch their breath. And what breathing space was needed after that first week. One nail-biting match after another; drama around the bad weather and use of the roof; Rafa’s early exit; Gilles Simon’s controversial statement, on becoming head of the ATP Player Council, that men deserve more prize money than women. (More on that in a bit.)
It's a strange thing to complain about, but the improved tennis coverage by American TV means it's been on every day from the minute you roll out of bed till late afternoon. And there are reliable streams to all the matches online, too. One day this week I had a men's match on TV on mute and the same one on my laptop just so I could hear John McEnroe's commentary. It's been saturation levels of coverage (a first-world problem, I realize, and I'm really just pointing to my own lack of self-control).
On Saturday, by the end of Roddick’s loss to Ferrer in four dispiriting sets (Andy won the first but slowly deflated in response to Ferrer’s speed and accuracy), I was sick of tennis and couldn’t stand the thought of watching one more point. I was already drained by Serena’s hard-fought duel against Jie Zheng, which had been on earlier (Serena squeaked out the win). Though I’m a Murray fan, I watched only the first game of his match against Baghdatis, enough to see him very off-form and out of sorts. After a solid week of tennis, I didn’t have the energy to follow any more of it. I turned off the TV and went out to enjoy the 95 degree heat.
When I came back, I ignored the TV for a while but eventually turned it on to check the score. Fatal! It was another electrifying contest, again too good to miss. The Centre Court roof had been closed (for darkness) and John McEnroe was gleefully describing the pumped-up atmosphere. Bagdhatis, gliding beautifully and smiling seraphically, was probably shaken a bit by the loudly pro-Murray crowd. The final game was played by the grace of the Wimbledon official who waived the 11:00 curfew so Murray could win – that’s almost what it felt like. But he did win and looked like he’d escaped a three-month hostage ordeal – he gave a long, somber look at the heavens and shook his index fingers at the crowd which is a new gesture of his (that I don’t like).
Er, at any rate, my point here is that the drama has been relentless. Another furor was stirred up by Gilles Simon’s comments about the men’s and women’s prize money, as I mentioned. Quoting from the Washington Post:
"Simon told reporters at Wimbledon in French that he thinks 'men’s tennis is ahead of women’s tennis' and 'men spend twice as long on court as women do at Grand Slams.'
He also said men 'provide a more attractive show' in their matches."
I’m not sure how he’s using “attractive” there, but however he is, that’s a low blow, and such a subjective thing to say that I’m amazed he went on record with it. The argument about time spent on court seems to me to hold a bit more weight – I suppose a male player who gets through a grueling five-setter and retreats to nurse his aching, twinging muscles might think resentfully about the women’s three-set limit. But three sets makes the contest no less entertaining than a men’s match. In fact, I’ve been thinking the women are more interesting to watch because their levels and games differ more from each other's than the men’s do. As devoted a Roddick fan as I am, I found his match with Ferrer boring. Both men galloped back and forth along the baseline hitting hard shots deep into the court till one of them missed.* And many of the top male players fall into this pattern – Djokovic and Nadal come to mind. So while we cherish the personalities that face off across the net, the actual tennis can be numbing.
As I’m typing this, Maria Sharapova just got beaten by Sabine Lisicki (another startling upset!), and I’m sorry I missed that. Earlier, Serena Williams barely managed to hold off a dialed-in Yaroslava Shevdova, who on Saturday played a “Golden Set” (24 points won, none lost), a feat never before performed by a player of either sex in a Slam. (An earlier version of this post said this was a first for a woman at Wimbledon; actually Shevdova's achievement was on a much grander scale than that.) That’s a historic and sobering feat, but even apart from that, the women’s game feels full of suspense and superb playing these days.
But what about the three-set, five-set disparity? On the Tennis.com podcast, Steve Tignor said it was well known that just about all the male players share Simon’s view. That amazed me. Steve also said Simon was doing his job by speaking up about this since it is the majority opinion. But as he also pointed out, tennis isn’t paid by the hour. The players are paid to show up, play their best and entertain the crowd. And like it or not, women’s tennis is three sets. Whether they want to play five to prove their equal strength, I don’t know. But it seems to me they’re holding their end up nicely in the area of thrilling matches and powerful, charismatic champions. Could be just me though.
*I should just add that Roddick always tries to mix things up by coming to net, and that I’ve always found his reputation as a one-note ball basher unfair, but he’s often not effective at net and is forced to retreat to power hitting just to win some points.
I should also just add that Roddick's wave to the crowd at Centre Court as he walked off was one of the saddest things I've seen. His face full of wistful regret, he held his hand up for a long acknowledgement of a crowd who have always supported him. He looked grateful and sad and honestly, near tears. Later he denied the wave had meant anything special. Tell that to Hannah Storm, who could barely control the wobble in her voice while talking about it. We'll all miss you, Andy.