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Except for Tatiana Golovin’s red knickers and another national disappointment for the British – Tim Henman lost to Feliciano Lopez in the second round, Wimbledon hasn’t picked up a personality or thrown out any really delicious stories yet, so I’m taking a one day trip 29 years back.

I’m reading a book titled Inside Tennis by Peter Bodo with photography by June Harrison. It covers the entire 1978 season of professional tennis. Let’s look at the book’s coverage of Wimbledon that year.

There’s plenty of luminous writing in the book. No one captures the psychological makeup that separates the best players from the lowly-ranked masses quite as well as Bodo. Other writers describe players, Bodo describes the human condition. Here’s an example of what I mean:

But the game held out its customary promises: the promise of success against all odds, the promise that hope could prevail over reason, the promise that for a blessed two- or three-hour span, a man could recapture all that eluded him through years of struggle.

Couple that with this comment by John Newcombe:

You can find out anything you want to know about a person by putting him on Centre Court at Wimbledon. It has a lot to do with your breaking point…

And now you understand the true measure of the value of sports: it tells you what you’re made of, taffy or steel.

Here’s what Wimbledon looked like in 1978.

There were numbers:

Two hundred twenty officials work the matches. Eighty-five students are recruited from a nearby technical school to serve as ball boys. …The armed services provide close to two hundred volunteers who serve as stewards and ushers. The Fire Brigade contributes well over fifty volunteers. The tournament uses up twelve hundred dozen Slazenger balls…

That last number was the excuse that Wimbledon officials used when Tim Henman wandered into a Wimbledon office a few years ago and found containers of unpressurized tennis balls earmarked for the tournament. They’d taken all of the balls out of their cans because it was easier than opening them during the tournament, so they said.

Tim was gobsmacked as the British say. An unpressurized ball will be less lively making it harder for serve and volleyers like Henman to win here. This is the first difference we see between then and now. Wimbledon wasn’t worried about finding enough people to open hundreds of cans of tennis balls during the tournament, they wanted to slow the game down to make the surface more equitable and they’ve more than succeeded.

There was rain. It was heavy enough to wipe out an entire day of matches for the first time in eight years. This year is marginally better but in two years, finally, there will be a roof over Centre Court.

There was another national disappointment. John Lloyd never got past the third round at Wimbledon. In 1978 he went out in the first round. See above for this year’s disappointment.

There was discrimination. Teddy Tinling was a fashion designer who created elaborate tennis dresses for the top players in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. The book suggests that players such as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova wore Tinling’s clothing because the world of apparel endorsements wasn’t yet ready for lesbians. That situation is marginally better today. Out lesbian Amelie Mauresmo has no problem but Marina Navratilova never grabbed endorsement opportunities appropriate to her status and her career lasted a long time.

There were exceptional women players. Billie Jean, Martina, and Chris Evert were in the women’s draw. That’s three of the top five women of all time (Steffi Graf and Margaret court being the other two). Today we have the promise of Maria Sharapova and the ongoing career of Justine Henin. A definite downgrade from 1978.

By the way, Navratilova showed her considerable sense of humor when her state of mind was questioned:

Reporter: How do you keep your head together?

Navratilova: I stick it between the door and the frame in the locker room.

That’s almost as good as this one which I think I also read in a Bodo book:

Reporter: Are you still a lesbian?

Navratilova: Are you still the alternative?

There was a rivalry for the ages. Britain did have one good hope in this tournament. Virginia Wade won the title the previous year, a magical feat as it was the hundredth anniversary of Wimbledon, but Evert beat her in the semifinals. Navratilova beat an ailing Evonne Goolagong in the other semifinal setting up the first meeting in a slam final for one of the biggest rivalries in sports history: Evert and Navratilova.

Navratilova beat Evert for her first slam title and first of nine Wimbledons. Interesting to note that Navratilova’s opponent when she won her first 13 slams was a U.S. player and this brings up a huge difference between then and now. Today there is exactly one U.S. woman in the top thirty and this year, for the first time in the open era, only three U.S. men got past the first round at Wimbledon.

There were exceptional male players. Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg met in the Wimbledon final in 1978. Thankfully we have the same thing today. Federer could meet Nadal in the final. Connors has the career record for most ATP singles titles, one of the few records Federer hasn’t yet snatched away. Connors lost the final easily and Borg won his third of five consecutive Wimbledons.

Five is also the the number of consecutive Wimbledons Federer hopes to match this year.


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