Sublime tennis greats

2014-07-05 00:00

WHEN the order of play contains three of the greatest tennis players of all time, the mix is heady enough to induce in the average tennis lover the belief that he or she is as close to heaven as he or she is ever likely to be.

Of the three, only Roger Federer was destined to progress further than the fourth round, but there was no hint of fallibility about any of them as they ­bestrode the court like the giants of the game that Federer, Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova are. Their sheer physical presence is commanding enough but the play of each of them last Saturday was sublime.

Outside it poured with rain until late in the afternoon, so the matches on Centre Court were the only games for most of the day. Outside the main arena, the scenes resembled an airport during a severe snow storm. Every table in every dining area was overflowing with frustrated spectators with nothing to watch. Seats at a table, once secured, were unlikely to be vacated until tennis resumed on the outside courts. The detritus of bored fans was everywhere visible.

On the Centre Court, however, over 20 000 spectators were treated to masterful displays by three splendid athletes at the top of their games. Nadal started slowly against Russian Mikhail Kukushkin, who won a lengthy first set by hitting flat out at every opportunity. It was a style of play that could not last.

Once Nadal began to reel his opponent in, he was ruthless. It seemed he was determined to teach the Russian a lesson for daring to take the first set. By the end of the third set, Kukushkin looked ready to surrender. His game was spent. His serve fell below the 100 mph mark, errors flowed from his racket and Nadal offered him no relief. The last set lasted just 15 minutes. Once he found his rhythm, Nadal looked unbeatable. There was not the slightest hint that he would win just one set in his next match against Nick Kyrgios.

In her match, Sharapova was breathtaking. Is there any other tennis player, male or female, who hits the ball so hard all the time?

She is utterly fearless and attacks the ball relentlessly. Her game seems to know no defence. Even when out of position and on the most crucial points, she hits the ball as hard as she can.

When Sharapova is on song, she provides a spectacle that even the men cannot easily surpass. But her strength is also her weakness. A rounded game requires the ability to defend as well as attack. From time to time, all tennis players need to understand that their opponents must be given the opportunity to make mistakes.

Not all of Sharapova’s opponents can be blasted off the court. When she is not at her best, errors flow from her racquet in an almost unstoppable flow. This gives her opponents that confidence that she can be beaten, notwithstanding her physical presence and power. In the next round, Angelique Kerber simply retrieved every ball and waited for Sharapova to implode. She eventually did with fatal consequences for her hopes of another title, thus leaving the women’s draw to a bunch of no-name brands.

Even at a Wimbledon where Andy Murray is the overwhelming favourite, Federer is still the player who everyone wants to watch. Even the royal box, which emptied during Sharapova’s match in order that its occupants could have a leisurely tea, filled up as soon as Federer walked onto the court. In these surroundings, he is the king of kings.

His presence is regal. He is a surprisingly big man, despite his slender upper body. He is broad of shoulder, which explains his easy power. Unlike Sharapova, he plays within himself for long periods, but when the chance comes, he pounces and destroys. His movements about the court are balletic in their beauty. His stroke making contains nothing that is brutish or ugly. With Murray and Nadal out of the championship, could this be Federer’s best chance of another ­Wimbledon title?

The half a pace of speed that he has lost may tell in his semi-final against one of the rising guns, Milos Raonic from Canada.

In fact, all the talk at Wimbledon has been the rise of the young Turks in the men’s game. Dimitrov, the destroyer of Murray, is just one of a group of newish faces who threaten the hegemony of the Big Four who have ruled tennis for over a decade. The others are Kyrgios and Raonic, who are both huge men with powerful serves and a range of dangerous ground shots.

Of these three, Dimitrov is considered to be the best mover with the soundest all-round game. He clearly is a difficult man to defeat, but his lack of a definite killer shot may count against him at Wimbledon.

What has separated these youngsters from the rest is that they fear no one. They all have the confidence that they can beat the best of the best. Kyrgios may be the flakiest of the three, but he is also the most dangerous. He is a little like Sharapova in that he goes for broke all the time. The stubborn refusal of the All England Tennis Club to consider playing on the middle Sunday meant that Kyrgios’s clash with Raonic, just a day after his match with Nadal, was a step too far for the Australian.

By now the men’s finalists will be known, but this has been the most ­intriguing Wimbledon for years.

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