Interest in professional tennis may be said to bud each spring at the French Open, but Wimbledon is where it bursts into full bloom. The English tournament begins its traditional two-week run outside London on June 24, and the game often comes to life in the popular imagination at this point.
"The media coverage at Wimbledon wakes everybody up to tennis for the fortnight," says Barry MacKay, an analyst on HBO's coverage and a former Wimbledon semifinalist.
The intimate Centre Court, the royal spectators, the tradition, and the grass help lend the proceedings a vividness and richness ordinary tournaments lack. Then, too, one clearly senses that history is being written, which motivates the greats to produce some of their most superlative shotmaking.
As Peter Bodo writes in Tennis magazine, "The very best all-around players still are the only ones who win at Wimbledon." And sometimes win and win. Take the defending champions, for example. Pete Sampras is seeking his fourth straight men's crown and Steffi Graf her seventh overall women's title.
"[Five-time winner] Bjorn Borg had the formula and now Sampras has the recipe," MacKay says. "In tennis terms it puts him a point up in every game. It's like he starts off at 15-love."
Tracy Austin, the former playing great who now does Wimbledon commentary for NBC, says that Sampras's booming serve gives him a very real jump on his opponents.
Graf, meanwhile, has a good serve, but not one that totally handcuffs people. What she does have, Austin says, is "tremendous mental strength. She just seems to be able to rise to every occasion." Her ability to concentrate is all the more amazing given the personal turmoil she's experienced. Graf's jailed father, Peter, faces tax evasion charges in Germany, yet Steffi remains unbowed playing in a media fishbowl.
Austin points also to Graf's tremendous forehand, foot speed that allows her to track virtually every shot, and slice backhand, which is perhaps most effective on grass because it bounces even lower than normal.
Graf has only lost twice this year and not to her chief rivals. Martina Hingis beat her at the Italian Open and Kimiko Date followed suit as Japan upset Germany in Federation Cup play.
But Graf is at her finest in Grand Slam events - Wimbledon and the Australian, French, and United States Opens. She is the only player to win each of these four times and has tied Helen Wills Moody with 19 Slam singles titles, placing them second only to Margaret Smith Court, with 24. The German star also has held the No. 1 world ranking longer (337 weeks) than any player in history, man or woman.
As impressive as this record is, Spain's Arantxa Sanchez Vicario clearly is not intimidated. In last year's Wimbledon final the Spaniard took Graf to a third set, and a spectacular 20-minute game at 5-all. And just weeks ago at the 1996 French Open, Sanchez Vicario again went the distance before Graf prevailed in the longest women's final (3 hours, 4 minutes) in French history.
Sanchez Vicario is fourth-seeded at Wimbledon, behind Graf, Monica Seles, and Conchita Martinez, the 1994 champion. Next come Anke Huber, Jana Novotna, and Americans Chanda Rubin, Lindsay Davenport, and Mary Joe Fernandez.
In the men's draw, Sampras is the favorite to score a "Four-Pete," yet the results of the recent French Open indicate that other players may currently own hotter hands. Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who has played more matches than anyone else on the pro circuit the last two years, beat Germany's Michael Stich in the French.
Ron Woods, the US Tennis Association's director of player development, says probably six to 10 players could do well. "Boris Becker [seeded second] has played some of the best tennis of his career this past year. Andre Agassi [seeded third] went out early at the French and is probably determined to do better in his next Grand Slam event." Other contenders are Goran Ivanisevic ("a former finalist who has gotten better every year"), Stefan Edberg, a two-time winner who retires at the end of the year and would like to cap his final season with a spectacular victory, and Todd Martin, who has the big serve and strong return so important at Wimbledon.