It was a hot day in June, and my job of pulling nails from the dry wall of a partly burned house was the last thing on my mind. I had high expectations of John Isner for Wimbledon. The tall, big serving American had missed Wimbledon the year before due to mono and fallen out in the first round the year before that. I had seeded him 12th in my customized Wimbledon seeds posts, taken him as a dark horse in my tennis pool team, and talked up his game on Twitter.
Alone on the second floor of the house, I madly checked my phone at any chance I could as Ana fired me updates over Twitter. John was down 2 sets to 1 to some French qualifier Nicolas Mahut. I knew that if he could squeeze out the fourth set tiebreak, play would likely be called for darkness, he could get his head together, and come back and serve the thing out in the fifth. It turned out I was right. Well, sort of.
Play got under way in the morning (for me), and I didn’t pay much attention until the business end of the set, when I was on my break. Surely, someone was going to get broken and the match would end. Not true. Frantically, I checked my phone as often as I could, and bugged Ana for updates as often as possible (while still trying to look busy). The match dragged on. I often got confused replies. “I don’t even know anymore.” Frustrated with the match, and busier after lunch, I could not afford to try and sneak updates as often. Eventually, out of exhaustion, amazement, annoyance, or a combination of the three, Ana sent me another message. “BRODIE, THEY’RE STILL GOING.”
Co-workers were amazed and slightly dumbfounded when I told them a match that had been started yesterday and restarted today was still going at 30-all in the fifth set. The scoring made no sense, yet it made it even that much more interesting. The day after, it continued, and finally finished. Another co-worker asked me “how can that even happen?”
The match, with its endurance, exhaustion, and all around weirdness caught the attention of the sports world and beyond, and we as tennis fans could not have been more proud.
But for us fans, the match joined the long history of oddities and traditions at Wimbledon that we already knew and loved; and Wimbledon sure loves it’s history.
Wimbledon is home to traditions shared by no other tournaments in the world. First off, all players must wear all white. For players, it’s a chance to be part of a tradition shared a long line of greats to play at the tournament. For fans, its equally as important. The players pop against the green grass, and it’s instantly recognizable and comforting visual cue.
The tournament also observes what is commonly known as “middle Sunday”, a near holy tennis sabbath on the first Sunday, where all play is halted. It gives players and fans alike a break, and also sets up a jam packed Monday, where all round of 16 matches are played.
Lastly, while other grand slams have scaled back men’s doubles matches to three sets, and regular tour tournaments have created no ad deuce games and the super tiebreak to speed up play and create more drama, Wimbledon’s men matches still continue to be played in a best of 5 set format.
Strangest of all, and most importantly, is the beloved surface the tournament is played on: grass. After a long and grueling clay season that culminates with the second major of the year, Roland Garros, the focus shifts to England. Suddenly, grass reigns supreme. Every tournament in England except for the World Tour Finals (played on hard courts at the end of the year in the O2 arena) is held during this month long period and is played on grass. Yet only three grass surface events take place outside of England; Halle in Germany, two weeks before Wimbledon, Den Bosch in the Netherlands a week before Wimbledon, and Newport in the United States, a week after.
No one plays on this high maintenance surface outside of this month long window. No one grows up playing on it. Yet it is used for the biggest tournament in the world.
Ideally, this would even the playing field, considering the level of experience on it. Ironically, it is arguably the most extreme surface. The ball flies on the grass, but bounces low. It changes with the rain and the heat. It is tricky to move on. And it takes a beating over the fortnight, and is reduced to dirt at the baseline.
The surface has remained, but the way players have played on it has changed. Once dominated by big powerful serve and volleyers, even players like Roger Federer, who won his first Wimbledon title mainly relying the tactic, now choose to stay back.
In the end, these are the strange truths of a strange sport’s biggest championship, won by many of its greatest champions. It is a sport played around the world with a never ending season, by people of all races, creeds, and nationalities, where 15 + 30 = 40, love means zero, people and computers call lines, and points, games, sets and matches can go on forever.
And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Enjoy the second week everybody.