The Sixth Set

Sixth Set Tiebreak: Discovering Sanity in a Tumultuous Wimbledon Fortnight

Why the Events of the 2013 Championships Represent Change We Should Embrace

A melting pot of personalities and cultures, evident in both its players and global venues, tennis is the perfect amalgam of identity and community. Its Grand Slams serve as the supreme platform to showcase such characters for the world to see, embedded with the values of the tournaments themselves. There is no mistaking the affable Aussie Open with the raucous Roland Garros, and the refined and tradition-rich Wimbledon Championships with the magnetic United States Open.

The mesmerizing aura of the U.S. Open is unlike any tournament on the calendar. New York is a vibrant blur, a streak of colored lights, electric winks of neon frolicking with shop windows and passersby. The sheer level of energy on the streets injects into you like a shot of adrenaline. Having grown up a mere hour from the USTA National Tennis Center, the Open and its overwhelming effervescence holds a very special place in my heart, but even I admit there is nothing comparable to the majesty of Wimbledon.

An iconic fusion of 136 years of tradition, class and excellence, Wimbledon, in all its resplendence, remains one of the most prestigious sporting events in the world. The most decorated players in the history of tennis sit at the forefront of its glowing pantheon of champions, evoking images of Federer, Sampras, Laver, Borg, Navratilova, Graf and the Williams sisters. Each made the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club their personal playground for many fortnights during the London summer.

A procession with the pomp and circumstance of the changing of the guard, just nine miles to the north, ushers you into the royal ambiance on the first day of the tournament, as you meander through corridors lined with ivy, the grounds drenched in a pastoral green and lavender hue. The scent of the crisp, freshly manicured lawns permeate the air as you cozy up to a cup of strawberries and cream. Its aroma swathes you in its sweet embrace.

Over a century of history suddenly courses through your body as you are swept back to the days of Wimbledons past; the ladies are an epitome of elegance in their crinoline-laden dresses and the gentlemen are entrenched in battle in white trousers, wielding wooden racquets.

You peer into Centre Court, the mecca of the tennis world, as the Royal Box begins to fill. Outside, fellow patrons stake their claim on the hill that bears the name of Britain’s near-savior. Tightly-knit trees hem in the edges, isolating this little slice of heaven from civilization.

You finally settle into a vacant seat on one of the outer courts and instantly begin to comprehend the Wimbledon code. All choruses of boos are left outside the gates. You choke on an exuberant scream caught in your throat. The Wimbledon tradition, so emblazoned into the identity of the venue, is as much a part of the essence of the tournament as the game itself.

Clouds suddenly begin to close around you and a sliver of protruding sunlight knifes through the thickest boughs, casting dancing shadows below. Leaves tango with stray balls as the wind whispers through the grounds to a crescendo. Not to worry. The enveloping darkness will cause little harm. Tennis here is often a casualty of the English weather. Reach for a glass of Pimms and carry on.

As play resumes, a symphony of pops and pings of felt canvas meeting nylon string sift through the air. The occasional repugnant twang rings out, like fingernails violently scraping against a blackboard, accompanied by a subsequent groan of discontent from the spectators. Rubber soles softly caress blades of grass, swaying back and forth in elegant unison, as they glide along an imaginary tightrope. A ball left inexplicably short inside the tightrope is laced into the corner. A plume of white powder soars as it barely clips the edge of the line. Game. Set. Match.

A primal scream of ecstasy briefly disrupts the rhythm of the day’s proceedings, like a siren blaring during a sermon. Fingers reach for the heavens as the victor’s knees melt into the soil below.

As day transitions to night, with the last ray of sunlight dipping below the timbered line of the horizon, your Wimbledon experience has come to an abrupt, yet satisfying close.

The 2013 Championships were far from your typical fortnight at the All England Club, frequently deviating from the script with stunning upsets and shocking injuries at every turn. It was the tennis equivalent of a 100-car pileup on a highway, yielding carnage beyond belief in both the gentlemen’s and ladies’ draws, and resulting in the early exit of many of the game’s undoubted favorites.

It was unpredictable, chaotic, mind-blowing and at times downright maddening, and I loved every second of it. With every disaster emerge heroic and inspirational stories that are as captivating as they are improbable. They are most of all real and relatable, and while the stars fill the seats and sell tickets, it’s these varied personalities and stories that grow the game.

Journalists were quick to dramatically coin the day the tennis world was turned upside down as Black Wednesday, as if a dark immutable substance had engulfed the culture and years of tradition of the All England Club, seeping into its pristine lawns. It was the darkest of fortnights, only it really wasn’t.

For every Rafael Nadal, there is a Dustin Brown. For every Roger Federer, a Lukasz Kubot. For every Maria Sharapova, there is a Kirsten Flipkens. For every Serena Williams, a Michelle Larcher de Brito.

On the very first day of the tournament, a 29-year-old journeyman named Steve Darcis sent former world number one and two-time champion Rafael Nadal packing in straight sets. Darcis played a controlled attacking brand of tennis, moving well and executing his game plan perfectly. For the past few years, the Belgian had been recovering from multiple injuries, including back and shoulder ailments and he was even forced to withdraw from the tournament the day after upsetting Nadal. Ranked 135 in the world, it was his second top-ten win of his career and second ever at Wimbledon. What made it even more remarkable was the fact that it was the first time Nadal had been vanquished in the first round of a Grand Slam.

Who else captivated our imaginations during the fortnight? On that fateful first Wednesday of the tournament, the mighty Roger Federer, a seven-time Wimbledon champion, had his streak of 36 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals snapped by 116th-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky. The Ukrainian was an astonishing 0-20 against top-10 opponents in his career entering the match and, like Darcis, had previously won just one match at the All England Club.

Unlike in all team sports, there are no guaranteed contracts in tennis. It is one of the few in the world which pays its players based on their performance on the court. For many, surviving in their profession requires winning. If they are not winning, they are not getting paid and that is often the harsh reality of life as a professional tennis player. The majority are not enjoying life in the top-10, lamenting a Grand Slam quarterfinal finish and worrying about the best endorsement deal on the table.

Earlier that Wednesday, Dustin Brown and his world ranking of 189 entered No. 2 Court against 2002 Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt, and played the match of his life. The man they call Dreddy ousted the Aussie favorite in four sets, marking just his third career match victory at the Grand Slam level and first since 2010. An eccentric personality and Twitter entrepreneur, Brown is an extremely relatable character for the fans. His story is the quintessential rags-to-riches tale. Well, “riches” is in the eye of the beholder.

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Brown (Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth, AP)

A wandering tennis player with a dream of one day playing in a Grand Slam, the Jamaican-born German traveled to small tournaments in Europe in his Volkswagen camper. Financially strapped, Brown would spend his evenings stringing racquets for other players. This year, he earned just under $66,000 USD in prize money entering Wimbledon. In reaching the third round, he more than doubled his earnings in just one week. With the charisma and drive he displays, both on and off the court, it’s impossible not to be captivated by Dreddy.

Other players emerging from the gentlemen’s draw with equally improbable runs included a pair of Frenchmen, then world number 111 Adrian Mannarino and 80th-ranked Kenny de Schepper, and a duo of Poles, rising star Jerzy Janowicz and veteran Lukasz Kubot. Mannarino and De Schepper had never advanced past the second round of a Grand Slam in their careers, posting a combined 4-17 record, yet both stunned their quarters of the draw with runs to the Round of 16. As for the Poles, Janowicz and Kubot inspired a nation that is not known for its tennis history, becoming the first Polish men to reach the quarterfinals of a slam since 1980. Janowicz would defeat Kubot in straight sets, but the match itself seemed rather insignificant after witnessing their emotionally-charged embrace at the net. On that stage and in that moment, their match took on an identity that superseded the game itself. Not a dry eye remained in the stadium.

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Kubot and Janowicz (Photo: Reuters)

The ladies’ draw was far from immune to the upset virus as well. Michelle Larcher de Brito, ranked 131 in the world and without a tour-level win to her name in almost a year, stunned former champion Maria Sharapova in straight sets in the second round. There was also Karin Knapp, a 26-year-old from Italy who hadn’t won a Grand Slam match since the 2009 Australian Open. She inexplicably found herself in her first Round of 16. Sabine Lisicki, a 2011 semifinalist, overcame a career-threatening ankle injury that resulted in months of painstaking rehabilitation. This year, she denied Serena Williams a repeat title and reached her first Grand Slam final in the process, with tears of unadulterated joy perpetually streaming down her cheeks. You cannot make this up.

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Lisicki (Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

And how could you discuss Cinderella stories and not mention semifinalist Kirsten Flipkens? With a ranking outside the top-250 this time last year, the Kim Clijsters protégé couldn’t even qualify for the Wimbledon qualifying draw. Fifteen months ago, her funding was stripped by the Belgian Tennis Federation after she was sidelined with life-threatening blood clots in her legs. A little over a year later, she found herself in her first Grand Slam semifinal after shocking 2011 champion Petra Kvitova in the quarters. I defy anyone to find a more inspiring story of overcoming adversity.

And then there were the champions themselves. Andy Murray, Great Britain’s native son, launched the world’s biggest monkey off his back and into the stratosphere, with a straight-sets victory over world number one Novak Djokovic. It ended the country’s 77-year Wimbledon men’s drought, as Murray powered through a depleted draw with the composure and tenacity of a true champion. For someone whose Achilles heel has long been lack of confidence and mental fortitude, the Scot revealed a newfound maturity and acceptance of his role as Great Britain’s savior.

A day earlier, the oft-misunderstood Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli, Wimbledon runner-up in 2007, claimed her maiden Grand Slam title. One thing to know about Bartoli is she competes with a passion few have replicated in tennis. From her zany workout regiments to her ferocious practice cuts before each point and unorthodox approach to the game, she is an unrelenting warrior on the court; exhibiting an attitude we can all learn from. She is compelling to watch and with an IQ of 175, as articulate and charming a person off the court as you will ever meet.

As Bartoli and Lisicki walked off Centre Court, their arms draped over each other’s shoulders, they created a powerful image never before seen on such a grand stage. It was irrelevant who had won the match. In that moment, it was them rising above all expectation and they were both victors.

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Lisicki and Bartoli (Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

These are the players, the personalities, the competitive spirits that have defined this year’s Wimbledon. With over a century of history, tradition and great champions woven into the fabric of The Championships, it would almost seem disrespectful to depreciate the 2013 edition as a fortnight unworthy of comparison, solely because it failed to follow a similar script to those of years’ past. As I said, while the stars may fill the seats and sell tickets, it’s the varied personalities and stories that grow the game. Instead of rejecting change, embrace it. Parity and its underdog characters are what drive sports and it’s no different in tennis.

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