Monday, June 28, 2010

Tradition is the Winner at Wimbledon 2010

By Tom Kosinski

As I write this, we are down to the final 16 men and women at the greatest sports championship in the world, the Wimbledon tennis championships. On the men's side and women's side, there are no great surprises. With the exception of Samantha Stosur's early exit, everything else has been moving along, with the favorites playing well, as is traditional.

Tradition. Probably the biggest winner here. The granddaddy of all professional sports championships, The Championships Wimbledon played at the All England Lawn Tennis Club is steeped in tradition. The AELTC has stood firm for over a century in not giving up the traditions.

At Wimbledon, you must wear predominantly white outfits. They serve strawberries and cream at the concessions. There is no play on the middle Sunday. There is still a royal box. Best of all, they do not have a tie-breaker in the fifth and final set. This is all why tradition has been the biggest winner so far.

Had this been the U.S. Open or any number of tournaments, there would not have been a John Isner/Nicolas Mahut classic match. There would not be the longest match in tennis history. There would not have been the longest set in tennis history. There would not have been one of the most amazing matches of all-time.

The invention of the tie-breaker by Jimmy Van Alen in the 1970s made tennis more television-friendly, and its universal adoption changed the way tennis was played. While there is nothing more stressful than being in a sudden-death tie-breaker in a major tournament, you are guaranteed that at some point the match will end with a score of 7-6. Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe played an epic fourth set tiebreak at Wimbledon 30 years ago, and up to this point may have been the most talked about set of tennis ever, but I'm not sure it could stand up now to the amazing three days we were all just witness to.

Wimbledon has seen its share of incredible matches in the open era. It is hard to forget Tim Henman's and Goran Ivanisovic's three-day semifinal match in 2001 that ended maybe the Brit's best chance at a championship at home and gave a last time, wild card, former champion his first and only Wimbledon championship. Like John Isner and Nicholas Mahut, that match was completed over three days, however it was born out of three days of rain and bad weather.

Tennis fans still talk about aged veteran Pancho Gonzalez and young Charlie Pasarell going toe-to-toe, server for serve, here in 1969 that ended with Gonzalez winning in five hours and 12 minutes. At the time, it was the longest match ever and contained the most games played (22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9). What we saw this week with Isner and Mahut makes Gonzalez and Pasarell look like a walk in the park.

The 70-68 fifth set alone crushed the total 112 games Gonzalez played. The fifth set itself stretched nearly nine hours. At 11 hours and six minutes, it was double what the aged lion Pancho and Pasarell put on the grass. More amazingly, the two players managed to bang service ace after ace, setting match records for aces (113 for Isner, 103 for Mahut, and a whopping total 216). The scoreboards on the court were only programmed to reach 47-47, and failed at 48-47. The mere fact that Isner and Mahut managed to play on three consecutive days and come out seemingly fresh on each day was monumental. It is surprising that either of the big-servers actually had any shoulder left to serve anything. At one point, the net actually failed, seeming to signal that even the court was tired.

The dejection on Mahut's face after losing this epic battle showed it all. After three days, after 11 hours of playing tennis full out, someone had to lose, and neither wanted to be that guy. After the match, Mahut tried to run quickly to the locker room, but unfortunately the AELTC decided to immediately give both players a special recognition to commemorate the historic event. Mahut clearly did not want to have his picture taken smiling next to the scoreboard with the umpire and Isner. He just wanted to have some solitude. He muddled through better than any champion would and was finally allowed to run away. Isner rejoiced, as he should, and had the opportunity to be a special part of tennis history.

Sadly, Isner had nothing left the next day and fell to Thiemo de Bakker 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 in under 75 minutes. It was a far cry from the previous three days.

For the first time in 33 years, the Queen appeared in the Royal Box at Centre Court to cheer on UK favorite Andy Murray. Maybe she knew this would be a tournament to remember. Or maybe not, but it still will be, no matter who winds up winning; but then again, tradition and tennis already have.

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