I mean the game of professional tennis in all its aspects. Wimbledon is better with its expanded facilities for players, media and public as are many of the world’s other leading tournaments such as the Australian Open with its roofs over three courts and the US Open where the covering for the giant Arthur Ashe Stadium is almost in place. The BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, California is setting new standards of excellence thanks to the stewardship of Larry Ellison and, at long last, there will be more money for the lower end of the game where the ITF is upping the ridiculously low levels of prize money for their Futures events and the ATP is doing the same for the Challengers.
This is a sport on the move, learning how to capitalize on its increasing popularity through television and social media, especially as the foresight of people like Tennis Channel’s CEO Ken Solomon are combining the two mediums to offer the fan a seamless viewing experience.
We have seen great moments for the sport in years gone by and I can recall many, looking back over a perspective of 55 years. The great Australians, headed by Rod Laver, Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall; the emergence of Bjorn Borg as the first champion to gain pop star appeal with the squealing teenagers who mobbed him at Wimbledon; the unsurpassed 14 year rivalry of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova; the skill and mayhem of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ilie Nastase whose talent and frequently outrageous behavior landed the sport on the front pages; the bombshell Boris Becker created when he won Wimbledon at 17; the dominance of Pete Sampras with Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang making it a special era for American tennis; Steffi Graf with her grace and power and then the arrival of the Williams sisters whose time is clearly not yet over.
But all of these players and events became building blocks for the game as it grew and grew, touching unimagined levels of prize money for the top players and reaching audiences in every corner of the earth. Only soccer surpasses tennis as a sport followed in every city and nation in the world.
And much of it is because of the kind of feast that has been laid before us on the beautiful lawns of the All England Club these past two weeks. It was by any standards a great Wimbledon, blessed by lovely weather and embellished by one great match after the next.
New names sprung out of nowhere and demanded attention. Elias Ymer, a Swede of Ethiopian parentage whose brother Mikael made the final of the Junior singles, took Ivo Karlovic, eighteen years his senior, to 4 tough sets in the fourth round before the ageless Croat ended up succumbing to Andy Murray in the fourth round. Nick Kyrgios ousted No 7 seed Milos Raonic before losing to eventual semi-finalist Richard Gasquet in controversial circumstances and got grilled by the news hungry media for apparently not trying for a game.
Vasek Pospisil helped Canadian fans get over the disappointment of Eugenie Bouchard’s first round loss to Ying-Ying Duan and Raonic’s third round exit by reaching the quarter finals, looking an excellent prospect in the process. And Denis Kudla saved face for the American men by at least getting as far as the fourth round.
Britain’s Heather Watson raised her game to unexpected heights as she shocked Serena by leading 3-0 in the third set of their dramatic third round clash. Heather had points for 4-0 before Serena was able to scramble to a 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 victory.
Coco Vandeweghe, having taken the experienced Craig Cardon on board as a her coach in Paris, enjoyed the best Grand Slam of her career by beating No 6 seed Lucie Safarova to reach the quarter finals where she took a set off Maria Sharapova.
But there was no newer or more highly acclaimed personality emerging onto the world stage than the tall, elegant and delightful Garbine Muguruza who beat Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska before making a highly unexpected appearance in the final.
The score of 6-4, 6-4 did not reveal how well Muguruza played as she broke to lead 3-1 in the first set and fought back in the second from 1-5, denying Serena twice as the world No 1 served for the match. Murguruza was born in Venezuela but is being claimed by Spain where she now lives. No matter — she will soon belong to the entire tennis world.
American tennis is on the verge of becoming better, too. There were four American boys in the Junior quarter finals which was won by the giant Reilly Opelka over the younger Ymer following Opelka’s semi-final victory against the No 1 seed Taylor Fritz. All have bright futures.
People who have played this game and keep in close touch from the commentary box like Wayne Ferreira, a Grand Slam semi-finalist from South Africa and Mark Petchey, a keen analyst who once coached Murray, agree that standards are rising across the board at a spellbinding rate. Both men had been dazzled by the unerring skill of Djokovic in the final and the glorious exhibition of grasscourt tennis offered up by Federer during his semi-final victory over Murray.
“It’s just getting better all the time,” said Ferreira. “Federer is playing better than ever because the players of today are playing better tennis than they were ten years ago when he started winning Slams. He is in a Wimbledon final and he’s No 2 in the world so he has to be better.”
And, just like the sport itself, Djokovic is better still.