Welcome to the 123rd Championships, staged for the first time this year beneath a breathtaking canopy which bids fair to enable Wimbledon to match the Theatre of Dreams title so proudly held by Manchester United and their Old Trafford stadium. Except that, in the case of Centre Court, it might be more appropriately called the Cathedral of Dreams. For one man, however, dream has transformed into nightmare with the exit, before a ball has been struck, of the defending champion, Rafael Nadal.
The Man from Majorca has taken his aching knees off for an overdue rest, opening a motorway-wide avenue of opportunity for the other leading lights in the men’s field. Despite any protests to the contrary, Roger Federer is entitled to be quietly exultant, whistling a happy tune as he fills in as the opening act on Centre Court this afternoon, since all four of the Grand Slam finals he has lost out of the 18 he reached have been to Rafa. Thus has the Swiss giant been handed another tennis milestone, the first time in the modern era that the same player has got The Championships underway for six straight years – five as defending champion and this one, to borrow from the world of football, wearing the number 12 shirt.
Serena Williams got it right when she said, of Nadal’s withdrawal, “A lot of guys on the men’s tour will be celebrating and partying.” Perhaps balloons and a funny hat would not be appropriate for Federer’s opponent, who might better be conveyed to his fate today by tumbril rather than courtesy car. The chap who came out of the bag adjacent to Federer in the draw is from Taipei and goes by the name of Yen-Hsun Lu. Lu, is 25 years old and stands at 64 in the world rankings.
His story is a heart-warming one. Rendy, as he is known on the professional tour, took up tennis aged eight at the urging of his parents, but when his father died suddenly, the 17-year-old briefly gave up the sport, coming back only when it became obvious that he was now his family’s main source of income. “My father had a dream that his son can maybe one day play Wimbledon and get into the top 100,” he explains, in which case both of dad’s wishes have been fulfilled.
This is, in fact, Rendy’s sixth Wimbledon, but the previous five years have brought him a mere two victories, a total which is hardly likely to rise to three today, despite the fact that this year his victims have included both Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian, Wimbledon’s 2002 champion and runner-up respectively.
There will, of course, be a couple of incentives lending extra power to the Federer racket arm. If he goes the distance this year, as he did every year from 2003 to 2008, he would become the leading Grand Slam winner since he is level pegging with Pete Sampras at 14 following his triumph on clay at the French Open earlier this month. And a sixth Wimbledon title would place him only one behind the all-time biggies – Sampras with seven, which matches the number won by William Renshaw in the days when Queen Victoria ruled this land.
Since the opening day has been given over to the lower half of the singles draws because of the Nadal withdrawal, it is Serena Williams, like Federer the second seed, who gets to try out the newly-roofed Centre Court ahead of sister Venus, the Williams family member who actually won here last summer. As with Federer, the opposition for Serena’s hammer-blow, high-decibel style of play is unlikely to detain the two-time Wimbledon champion for long. Neuza Silva, who got here via the qualifying competition, checks in at 155 on the WTA computer.
The other Centre Court showpiece involves Serbia’s Novak Djokovic, pride of Serbia and fourth in the world, against Julien Benneteau of France. The 27-year-old Benneteau, who knows a good cheese when he sees one, having been born within smelling distance of one of his nation’s finest at Bourg en Bresse, is ranked 80th in the world. In Britain this would have people talking up his chances of enduring fame, but in France Julien, who operates under the mysterious nickname of Muffle, is ony his country’s twelfth-best.
Will Muffle stifle the energetic Novak, winner of one Grand Slam already (Australia 2008) and favoured to add to that total soon? Don’t put money, or cheese, on it. Djokovic, seeded fourth, finds himself on the less fortunate side of the draw along with Federer while Andy Murray, who overtook Djokovic as world number three this year, dropped more conveniently into the half which no longer contains Nadal, the 2008 champion.
For the No.1 Court patrons there is a richly varied offering, starting with Maria Sharapova, going on to Robin Soderling and concluding with a British wild card hopeful, James Ward. Sharapova, the 2004 champion, is newly returned to tennis following a shoulder operation last autumn and has been awarded a seeding of 24 for The Championships despite a ranking of 59 as a result of that ten-month absence. Whatever the numbers, a return to the tournament she loves more than any other should inspire her to see off the opposition, provided by Viktoriya Kutuzova, another survivor of the qualifying process (where she was top seed) and a native of the Ukraine.
Soderling, the toast of a Swedish nation no longer awash with tennis talent following his demolition of Nadal at Roland Garros, has ascended to 13th seed for this fortnight and can expect to see off an opponent he has never previously played, Gilles Muller, the top gun of Luxembourg tennis. Ward’s task is, as so often with a British player accorded a wild card pass into the tournament, an onerous one, since he takes on Fernando Verdasco, Mr Perpetual Motion of Spain and the seventh seed.
There is a fine line-up, too, for the new 4,000-seat Court Two, with the 15-year-old British wild card Laura Robson, of whom great things are forecast, opening proceedings against tough opposition in Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia, followed by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the Monsieur Showbiz of French tennis.
And finally, as for that “breathtaking canopy” mentioned in the opening paragraph, it is entirely in keeping with the British climate that the weather is turning hot and dry just as the tennis balls begin to fly. So will the roof not be needed? In the words of Wimbledon’s wise head groundsman, Eddie Seaward, “Don’t get carried away just yet.”