Smashing, Eh, Mate?

Flush with change, Wimbledon creeps closer to modern times.

The apocalypse may not be upon merry old Wimbledon just yet, but there are signs: This year, some of the gentlemen are wearing sleeveless shirts, of all unspeakable garments -- an offense to sartorial standards unthinkable in Don Budge's day, or even in John McEnroe's. There's been a distressing row over prize money, resulting in the suggestion of a male players' boycott. Meanwhile, a most irregular new advertising campaign portrays the ladies on the professional tour not as rose-scented dainties on their way to high tea, but as hard-charging athletes equipped with fierce minds and real muscles, who will gladly trample any garden en route to the round of sixteen.

What have we come to, dear Algernon? Why, this year's competitors will no longer even be required to curtsy or bow should the impossible happen and some obscure member of the Royal Family actually deign to enter the Royal Box. Aside from that, there's an awfully good chance that the 2003 singles champions-to-be -- one gentleman and one lady -- will not deploy the quick-strike weapon of serve-and-volley that defines Wimbledon grass-court history. Instead, the eventual winners might doggedly slug it out from the baseline, decorating their efforts with crowd-pleasing finesse in exchanges worthy of a chess match.

Before that, though, the multitudes will have been treated to the distinctly un-Wimbledon-like emissions of Maria Sharipova, a beautiful sixteen-year-old Russian with a hundred-mile-an-hour forehand who has turned the familiar moment-of-contact grunt (thanks a lot, Monica Seles) into a symphony of shrieks so disconcerting that players on adjacent courts regularly complain. Not in Helen Wills Moody's time. Not in Billie Jean's, either.

In other words, if the people who oversee the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club aren't awfully careful, their annual tennis tournament might regain a pulse and start to look relevant. These moves away from tradition might have even provoked the average American with 2.3 children, nightmare house payments and a frightened public-park backhand to tune the second week of the thing in on the boob tube in order to witness the artistry of 1992 winner Andre Agassi (a geezer of 33), the no-nonsense brute force of defending champ Serena Williams and -- if things continue to go this year in the leafy London suburb as they did last -- the delighted late-round exploits of three or four unpronounceable upstarts who've already beaten huge odds.

To illustrate: On the very first day of the current fortnight, last year's gentlemen's champion, the relentless Australian retriever Lleyton Hewitt, was blown out of the proceedings by an unknown six-foot-ten Croat named Ivo Karlovic -- the world's 203rd-ranked player. In one of the biggest upsets in Grand Slam history, Hewitt became only the second Wimbledon champion since 1877 to lose in the first round the following year; amid the shock waves, some sympathetic types provided the young Aussie with an attractive alibi: Two weeks earlier, they pointed out, Hewitt had remained in Paris to cheer on his girlfriend, Belgian tennis star Kim Clijsters, in the women's final of the red-clay-based French Open, rather than cross the Channel to England to get his grass game in shape for Wimbledon. Unpracticed and probably a bit cocky, Hewitt went down before a barrage of 135-mile-per-hour serves by an opponent he had never seen, much less faced.

Surprise is the soul of drama, and it's nice to see it drop in for a change at the world's stodgiest sporting venue. Say what you will for quiet tradition, but even the people who run Wimbledon were beginning to understand that the old club's solemn artifice was overdue for a few changes. To that end, they relaxed the dress-code rules a bit, and because men's grass-court tennis -- which the tour players grapple with just once a year -- had become such a boring, bang-bang affair (Booming serve! Weak return. Put-away volley), they even fiddled with physics. The tennis balls now used at Wimbledon are significantly heavier than they used to be (Coors Field denizens, take note), and the surface of the courts has been changed. The hard, slick red fescue grass of old has been replaced with a softer, spongier variety of rye that yields truer bounces. The results? A noticeably slower game that favors the high-tech cannonball serve and the instantaneous rush to net far less than it did even three years ago -- when the huge-serving American champion Pete Sampras won the last of his seven Wimbledon singles titles. For the first time in fifteen years, Sampras is not playing Wimbledon -- probably never will again -- and his absence immediately takes on an air of symbolism. To wit: It says more about the evolving, and more involving, style of play at the All England Club than about Pete's age (he's an ancient of 31) and shifting personal priorities (he's now a family man who likes to wear long pants once in a while).

Last year, two ground-stroking, all-court players -- Hewitt and an upstart Argentine, David Nalbandian -- contested the men's final on a center court where the serve-and-volley blasters had ruled for decades. This year, you can see evidence of Wimbledon's changing times with your own eyes, even 8,000 miles away. As the emerald grass wears down in the second week of the tournament, notice where the brown patches of dirt develop: no longer at the service lines and the net (the province of volleyers), but back along the baselines, where ground-strokers ply their trade. Ivo Karlovic notwithstanding, a baseliner could very well win the men's singles this year. But it won't be Agassi. Despite his withering returns of serve, superb conditioning and matchless mental toughness, he fell to big server Mark Philippoussis, and his chances for winning a second Wimbledon now grow few.

Combine Wimbledon's stylistic shift with the new no-bow-and-curtsy rules, and the male players' demands for a bigger piece of the tournament organizers' financial pie, and you've got what amounts to a major revolution in a place where change has long been equated with terrorism.

Of course, some things will always be the same on the hallowed lawns of Wimbledon. The fans still snack on strawberries and cream. In their ankle-length green cotton dresses, the lineswomen still look like weary nineteenth-century housemaids. The female players are still addressed as "Miss" or "Mrs.," and the chair umpire can still use a well-modulated syllable or three to reduce a huge crowd's murmurs to a hush. No British woman has won the tournament since Virginia Wade, in 1977, and no British man has done it since Fred Perry, way back in 1936. That isn't likely to change this year, despite the best efforts of England's favorite son, Tim Henman, who has reached the semi-finals in four of the past five years and succumbed each time to enormous pressure and superior opponents.

While we're shopping for constants, look for Serena Williams to win her second straight singles title on Saturday. A gorgeous linebacker in a self-designed dress, the younger Williams sister has elevated the unabashedly muscular game pioneered in the late '70s by the great Martina Navratilova to unheard-of heights of speed and strength. When Serena's on -- which is most of the time -- her only rivals are big sister Venus and the fleshy, powerful Jennifer Capriati, a bulldog you wouldn't dare to compete with for that last square of lasagna in the baking dish. Serena, of course, has some added incentive this year. At the French, her 33-match Grand Slam winning streak was broken in a semi-final loss to Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne. In that match, Williams felt, Henin-Hardenne used tricky gamesmanship on her, and, after Williams protested a call, the crowd turned against her not only because she is American but because she's African-American. Legitimate or not, Serena's Paris grievances -- endorsed by her outspoken parents -- have lit a fire under her. If she gets Henin-Hardenne Thursday in a semi-final, the air will fairly crackle with animus. I know who my ten-pound bet would be on.

In the meantime, consider the limits of change at the All England Club. The men may squawk about their pay (in truth, the women are the better TV draw), and with the blessings of the powers that be, the new balls may play like gobs of Play-Doh. But this business of proper attire is another thing altogether. Tear the collar from your blouse, if you must, young man. Rend your sleeves. But kindly remember this: Your clothing, like the game itself, must remain "predominantly white." One too many blue chevrons on your shirt and we'll have you quickly away to the Tower of London, there to taste your bowl of gruel and await the chopping block.

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