It was 37 years ago and I was just a little guy, but I still vividly remember the scene that Sunday morning. I had made my way downstairs in my parents’ Minnetonka home at 8 a.m. sharp for an eagerly anticipated date with our television. There I sat just a few feet away on 1970s-style brown plush carpet, watching in rapt attention as NBC opened its broadcast of the Wimbledon men’s final, timpani drums booming the unforgettable theme song and commenter Bud Collins spinning the lore of “breakfast at the Big Dubblya.”
The camera behind the dark green fabric backstop of Centre Court peered through the double wooden doors into the foyer of the All England Club. Gold and silver trophies fashioned into chalices, cups and plates adorned the walls, along with names of a century’s worth of past champions. Above the doors was inscribed a verse from Rudyard Kipling, a final reminder for competitors before taking the court:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.
Four-time champion Bjorn Borg appeared, laser-focused and stoic, ever the Swedish Ice Man, with his trademark headband maintaining a semblance of control over his long, sandy hair. He held an armful of Donnay rackets — of the wood variety — against his pin-striped Fila shirt that was worn skin-tight on his lean, muscled torso.
Close behind was his antagonist — brash, young New Yorker John McEnroe, “Superbrat” as the British press and fans nicknamed him. He was carrying something, too — a large chip on his shoulder. Beneath the red headband circling his curly mane was a pouty face and eyes that darted about like a cornered animal.
White-coated attendants took possession of their racket bundles and escorted the foes through the doors onto Centre Court, where they made it halfway to their respective chairs before turning to bow to the duke and duchess of Kent in the royal box.
One of the most memorable matches in Wimbledon history — all tennis history, for that matter— was about to commence. The lefthanded McEnroe serve-and-volleying and chip-and-charging with abandon, and Borg whipping topspin passing shots from the far reaches of the lawn. Mac saved five championship points to win a marathon fourth-set tiebreaker 18-16. But it was Borg who would drop to his knees after one last backhand pass, prevailing 8-6 in the fifth.
Wimbledon has a way of reaching deep into the soul. Stepping off the side streets of this suburban London village and through the black wrought-iron gates of the club transports you into a kind of ethereal oasis from the outside world. The historic matches that take place therein are fueled by the storied traditions, stuffy protocol and stunning surrounds, inspiring generations of players and fans.
I was fortunate to have played at this special place, first as a junior, then for many years as a pro (even taking on Superbrat in a match on Court 1), and finally in the seniors division. Playing there, especially on Centre Court, or even just being on the grounds, never ceased to exhilarate.
I watched another Wimbledon men’s final nine years ago, but this time from a different vantage point than my parents’ downstairs carpet. I sat just a few rows up on Centre Court and witnessed Roger Federer, gunning for a sixth consecutive title, battle Rafael Nadal for nearly five hours of astounding tennis. Complete with lead changes, rain delays and match points saved, it finally concluding in almost total darkness with Nadal winning 9-7 in the fifth. I have watched and played many tennis matches in my life, but only this one replaces the 1980 Borg-McEnroe epic as the Greatest Ever.
And here’s the tantalizing prospect: We could be headed for a rematch in 2017.
Federer has won Wimbledon seven times, but not since 2012. Nadal has won twice, but not since 2010. But this year has been about the unexpected resurgence of the 35-year-old Swiss and 31-year-old Spaniard, the former winning the Australian Open and the latter dominating at the French Open.
Aside from Roger and Rafa, only two other men have won a Wimbledon title over the past 14 years — Novak Djokovic and defending champ Andy Murray. But their play this year has been inconsistent, even confounding.
Federer rested during the clay season and then shook off an early loss in his first grass court tournament before winning for the ninth time in Halle, Germany. Nadal’s first match on grass will be at Wimbledon, but if he can get through the first week — something he’s struggled to do the last several years — we may be in for a treat.
The women’s side is anyone’s guess. With six-time winner Serena Williams pregnant and out for the year, and world No. 1 German Angelique Kerber playing like No. 100, you might as well throw a dart at the top 30 ranking list to pick the winner.
Maybe you’ll miss and hit No. 47, which is what Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko was ranked when she won at Roland Garros a few weeks ago. Perhaps the dynamic Czech lefty, Petra Kvitova, can lift what would be an improbable third plate, having just returned to the tour after suffering a hand injury during a home invasion. Or maybe 37-year-old Venus Williams, her fifth title overshadowed by Roger and Rafa’s historic duel in 2008, has one more in her.
One thing I do know, however, is that on finals weekend there will be 11-year-old boys and girls tuning in at their parents’ homes, who will be captivated by The Championships Wimbledon. And before too long, a few will be captivating us.
Minnesota’s David Wheaton defeated Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi on his way to the semifinals of Wimbledon in 1991. He also won the over-35 doubles with partner T.J. Middleton in 2004. Find out more at DavidWheaton.com.