As the trail of COVID-19 devastation ran into more frequent dead-ends, the world, along with the game, teetered tediously, but anxiously waited for a time to return to what had been – Hoping. The resulting “new normal” is perplexing and testing but it fosters expectations. The anticipation for those hopes will become a reality with the staging of The Championships, June 28 to July 11.
The four majors have distinct identities, along with stand-alone slots on the annual tennis calendar. But none of the Slams is as regal or as majestic as the fortnight in London, played at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, the sport’s Holy See.
Because of continued pandemic concerns, Great Britain’s Department of Health protocols are being closely followed. Those entering the grounds are required to have a valid two-shot vaccination passport or documentation verifying a negative COVID-19 test in the past two days. While practical social distancing is encouraged, mask wearing is a dictate. The only exception is when watching a match where there are restrictions as to the number of spectators permitted at each court.
(Players and their teams follow a different set of regulations.)
In 1975 the US Open changed its competitive surface from grass to Har-Tru (clay) then hard court. The Australian Open made the move from grass to hard court in 1988, leaving The Championships as the only major played on lawns. Since then modernization in court maintenance, along with the dramatic racquet and string evolution, has put grass court playing technique (a.k.a. serve and volley) in the “That’s The Way It Was…” museum.
Though the sport seems to be following a “Make all the surfaces the same” path, nothing prepares a competitor for the transition from Terre Battue and/or hard courts to the predictably unpredictable play on today’s grass.
While winning a Junior Grand Slam singles title is never a solid indicator of success on, in this case, the Gentlemen’s or Ladies’ level, there have been a number of interesting parallels in London.
The Championships initiated its junior events in 1947. Kurt Nielsen of Denmark was the inaugural Boys’ champion. Being first of “the firsts” is noteworthy but Nielsen was the first junior winner to lose two Gentlemen’s Singles finals, both to US stars. In 1953, Vic Seixas won 9-7, 6-3, 6-4. Tony Trabert was 6-3, 7-5, 6-1 better in 1955.
Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia, who took home the 1978 Boys’ honors, matched Nielsen’s “Doubling Futility”. Boris Becker of Germany sent Lendl packing in his first Gentlemen’s final in 1986, 6-4, 6-3, 7-5. A year later, Australian standout Pat Cash, the Boys’ winner of 1982, subdued Lendl 7-6, 6-2, 7-5.
Bjorn Borg established the Boys – Gentlemen’s Swedish precedent taking the junior trophy in 1972 then the adult competition from 1976 through 1980. Chris Lewis triumphed in 1975 Boys’ play but being the 1983 “Gentlemen’s Surprise” didn’t deter John McEnroe of the US from dispensing a 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 lesson to the New Zealand native in the final.
In 1983 Stefan Edberg achieved the only Boys’ Junior Singles Grand Slam in history. The Swede added to his résumé by downing Boris Becker of Germany twice in the Gentlemen’s trophy round 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2, in 1988 and 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4 in 1990.
Roger Federer is the last player to accomplish the Boys’ – Gentlemen’s double. He claimed the 1998 junior title and began his adult victories record run in 2003 which lasted until ’07. He then added to his Gentlemen’s title collection in 2009, 2012 and 2017.
The Girls’ – Ladies’ combinations are far more unique. In 1956, Ann Haydon became the fifth junior from Great Britain to win the cherished title. She became revered when as Ann Haydon Jones, (she married Philip “Pip” Jones in August 1962), she defeated Billie Jean King in the 1969 final, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.
Two Southern Californians played their way into The Championships history book. Sally Moore (now Sally Moore Huss) was the first to earn recognition. She was the 1958 Girls’ winner and the next year was a 6-2, 6-4 semifinalist to Maria Bueno of Brazil, the eventual Ladies’ champion.
As impressive as Moore’s feat was, Karen Hantze’s was truly remarkable, actually unheard of. She earned the Girls’ trophy in 1960 and a year later teamed (and they were unseeded) with fellow Southern Californian Billie Jean Moffitt (not yet King) to claim the Ladies’ doubles.
In the fall of 1961, ignoring the “Big Mistake” caution of United States Lawn Tennis Association leaders, she married Rod Susman, a men’s circuit competitor from Texas. She returned to London in 1962 as Karen Hantze Susman, proving that those who supposedly know the game are often out of touch, winning the Ladies singles 6-4, 6-4 over Věra Suková of Czechoslovakia and the doubles once again with Moffitt.
In 1981, Zina Garrison of the US was the Girls’ champion and nine-years later (1990), she was defeated by Martina Navratilova, 6-4, 6-1 in the contest for Ladies’ honors. Martina Hingis and Amélie Mauresmo are the last of the Girls’ – Ladies’ double champions. Hingis followed her 1994 junior success with a 1997, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3 decision over Jana Novotná of the Czech Republic. It took Mauresmo a decade to duplicate her 1996 Girls’ victory. In a free-swinging aggressive shot-making final the French woman was 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 superior to Justine Henin of Belgium.
In 2021, the odds of another junior – adult double taking place is more likely in the Ladies’ rather than the Gentlemen’s Singles. Though she is dealing with a dodgy hip, Ashleigh Barty of Australia, the 2011 Girls’ winner, is the Ladies’ No. 1 seed. Iga Świątek of Poland, the Girls’ 2018 titlist, is seeded No. 7.
In the Gentlemen’s competition, the scenarios of a “former prospect” winning the ultimate singles title seem chancy at best. Denis Shapovalov of Canada, seeded No. 10, was the junior star in 2016. Gaël Monfils of France, the 2004 Boys’ champion, is the Men’s No. 13. Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, the No. 18 seed, was the Boys’ 2008 winner.
The Championships is back but the 134th version will be unlike any other. Masking and adhering to national health dictates will share the stage with the excitement generated by tennis balls being hit, sets, and matches again being played on the All England Lawn Tennis Club courts. It promises to be “Rather Brilliant”.
Title photo by Mark Winters