Thursday, July 4, 2013

Battle of the Poles was vintage Wimbledon

Just when we thought this Wimbledon was going to be a damp squib after the exit of so many of the top stars, we were treated to a rare contest. The lucky few who witnessed the quarter-final between Lukasz Kubot and Jerzy Janowicz - friends, Poles and Davis Cup team-mates - had a taste of everything that's good about Wimbledon, and I don't mean strawberries and cream. It had emotion, a display of great skills and most of all, a hark back to an earlier era of grass court tennis. Most of Britain was naturally glued to the action on another court where Andy Murray was making a comeback from two sets down to Fernando Verdasco, and news feeds were otherwise caught up with the twisted knee of the Sanjay Dutt lookalike from Argentina, Juan Martin del Potro. But the quarter-final that was truly unique and refreshing was the one between the two Poles, standing six feet eight inches and six feet three inches tall.

The taller one, Janowicz, had a booming 140 mph first serve reminiscent of Goran Ivanisevic and a second serve hit equally hard but with a bit of top spin. Not surprisingly, he had eight double faults but the many aces more than compensated for them. He even had a frown like Ivanisevic, and an equally disarming smile.

In the eighties or nineties, when the tennis balls were lighter and grass courts skiddier, that service itself would have guaranteed him a Wimbledon title. Now he needs ground strokes to back it up, and Janowicz does look far more reliable in that aspect of the game than Ivanisevic ever did. In fact, he mostly preferred to play from the back court, not even following his first serve to the net.

It was his compatriot Kubot on the other side of the court - only a few inches shorter and serving only a few miles per hour slower than Janowicz - who was playing the classic serve-volley game that has vanished from the tennis circuit. Kubot used to be a good doubles player and is very skillful at the net. Some of the low volleys he made and the half-volleys he scooped up were no less impressive than anything we saw from Stefan Edberg or Pat Cash in the Wimbledon of yore.

Unfortunately, in the interest of longer rallies which are presumably more effective for generating ad revenue on TV, the soil base and grass has been changed at Wimbledon, and the balls made heavier, to slow down the game. This is mainly the reason why the serve-volley and one-handed backhand have disappeared. Anybody coming to the net in these conditions is pretty much a sitting duck.

It wasn't hard to predict the winner of the battle of the Poles, therefore. But it was remarkable how hard and well Kubot fought. He lost in straight sets, but there was just one service break separating the Poles in each of those sets. Even the Janowicz service games were not all walkovers. At least thrice he came back from 15-40 down. The way Kubot returned some of those whiplash serves and charged the net was something to behold. Many of the points may have lasted just two minutes, but it was breathtaking tennis, not the boring robotic baseline slugfest that tennis has been reduced to in the modern era.

At the end of the game, the two Poles had a long hug and exchanged shirts. The younger one had won and become the first player from Poland to ever enter the last four stage in a Grand Slam event. He was overcome with emotion and wasn't afraid to show it either. I'm sure there were many other moist eyes on that court in Wimbledon, and by the end of that quarter-final they wouldn't have minded missing the Murray-Verdasco five-setter.

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