It is almost time for Wimbledon, the world’s most famous tennis tournament, to serve up another fortnight of top-class sporting entertainment. The 2016 Championships will run from 27 June to 10 July 2016, and – while the world’s best gear up to strut their stuff on the sunny South London courts – South African sports-lovers are eagerly anticipating the long tennis-filled winter evenings ahead.
What’s the fuss?
For the uninitiated, Wimbledon is unique for a number of reasons. It is the oldest tennis tournament in the world and the birthplace of lawn tennis as a sport, the first Championships being held at the All England Croquet Club in 1877. This sense of history, tradition and etiquette is at the heart of Wimbledon’s charm: the players adhere to a strict dress code permitting white clothes only; female players are addressed with the honorific “Ms”; up until 2003, the players used to curtsey or bow to the Royal Box whenever stepping onto Centre Court. Wimbledon’s famous colours—a majestic combination of dark green and purple—add to the sense of pageantry surrounding the event (as does the traditional dessert of strawberries and cream).
This superior pedigree, however, does not solely account for Wimbledon’s immense popularity. Wimbledon is the only grass-court Grand Slam tournament, and the tennis on display is fast and furious—making for thrilling viewing, as a single break of service can often be enough to clinch the set. It is a high pressure environment to play in, and—with no tie-breaker allowed in the final set—Wimbledon has become known for epic, marathon match-ups such as the 11–hour defeat of Nicholas Mahut at the hands of John Isner in 2010, the game spanning across three days before the Frenchman finally went down 70-68 in the 5th set.
Wimbledon has also been blessed with a rich tradition of memorable characters and unforgettable champions. Since Spencer Gore won the inaugural event of 1877 (where only 22 players competed), fans have witnessed a wide variety of personalities stamp their mark on the sport’s most prestigious tournament.
The ‘rock star’ mould of player must include Suzanne Lenglen, who won 6 titles (between 1919 and 1925) and who courted controversy by wearing outfits that exposed her arms and her ankles, and by sipping brandy during change-overs between games. Later came blonde-haired, blue-eyed Boris “Boom-Boom” Becker, earring-sporting Pat Cash, tantrum-throwing John McEnroe, drop-dead gorgeous Gabriela Sabatini and Goran Ivanisevic, the giant Croatian who’d celebrate every victory by ripping his shirt off and throwing it into the crowd.
True to its standards of chivalry and decorum, Wimbledon has also celebrated Champions of a different sort—those winners who have achieved lasting fame and respect for advancing social causes through their success. Arthur Ashe tore down racial boundaries when he won in 1975 (later even turning his attention to anti-Apartheid activism in South Africa), while Billie Jean King—winner of a joint-record 20 Wimbledon titles—has long campaigned for equal prize money for women competitors, proving her point by defeating Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973. More recently, Centre Court darling Roger Federer has carried the baton, establishing a foundation that provides extensive poverty relief to children in under-developed areas of the world.
Who to watch in 2016
This year’s competition promises to be another exciting installment in the 139-year old Wimbledon story. Top-ranked and top-seeded Novak Djokovic will be looking to win his 4th singles title, though he will have to hold off a resurgent Rafael Nadal, who won in Barcelona at the end of April. Big-serving Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, seeded 13th, is the expert’s pick for a surprise semi-final berth.
Maria Sharapova’s drug test controversy has dominated women’s tennis news of late, and the players will be looking to create some new headlines at Wimbledon to put this issue to bed. Top-seeded Serena Williams, fresh from starring in Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ music video, will be looking to hold onto her Number 1 world ranking, as she defends her title against the likes of Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitova.
Unfortunately, South Africa has limited representation at this year’s Championships. Keep your eyes peeled for Kevin Anderson (men’s singles) and Raven Klaasen (men’s doubles) for some local interest.