Yesterday afternoon, no doubt like many who had time and opportunity, I settled down in front of the television to watch the BBC’s live coverage of Wimbledon – specifically, by flicking back and forth between BBC1 and BBC2, the Women’s quarter-finals between Elina Svitolina and Karolina Muchova (7-5, 6-4) and Barbora Strycova and Johanna Konta (7-5, 6-1) and then the mixed doubles match pitting Serena Williams & Andy Murray against Raquel Atawo & Fabrice Martin (7-6, 6-3).
Here are some impressions therefrom arising:
I suspect it’s an age thing, but for all the joys of attending Wimbledon in the flesh over the years, as I have done many times in various modes, I could not but fail to come away from yesterday’s experience coming down on the side of the “At Home” experience.
Discounting here for patriotism or national pride, there’s something unique and very special about the annual SW19 tournament and – to be frank – you gain as much, if not more, from watching it on television.
The sheer quality of modern TV production – the high-definition camerawork, the cutaways, the picking out of individual members of the crowd, the video playbacks of important or particularly spectacular rallies and the comments of the commentators and pundits – takes you far closer to the action than any impression you can gain in the open air from being stuck away high in the “gods”, experiencing the smells, buzz and atmosphere on either Centre Court or Court One.
One of the features of yesterday – unremarked upon by the ever-PC BBC commentators, but all too noticeable on the cameras – was the appearance of two of the female line judges to be seen from time to time at work at the back of the courts behind the players.
No getting around this fact, so I’m going to come straight out and state it: they were each the size of a small house – one of them would have done justice to a Sumo wrestling ring and the other most resembled a pillar box. Fair play to them both, I don’t doubt that they are probably both long-serving tennis nuts who give of their time freely to the game and for whom the chance to officiate at the greatest tennis tournament in the world was a lifetime highlight.
Nevertheless, the contrast between their body-shapes and those of the lithe, sweat-glistened, highly-tuned professional athletes hurling themselves around the courts was extraordinary.
Perhaps in these modern days when a fashion prevails for celebrating diversity and different body shapes it is an ungracious and discriminatory point for me to make, but I can claim in part-mitigation that I am pretty sure any observant television onlooker would have been thinking it and/or (notwithstanding quite possibly their own unhealthy size or shape) remarking upon to anyone they were sharing the watching experience with.
But to the tennis itself.
In the 21st Century women’s tennis has evolved to a position where sound technique is a given and improved fitness training, nutrition and mental preparation provides an improved and more dynamic product.
The legendary Martina Navratilova penned a piece at the weekend bemoaning the demise of the ‘serve & volley’ game in women’s tennis on grass but the modern women’s pro tour is far superior to the era twenty or thirty years ago when the majority of players were Nick Botticelli-style trained baseliners grinding out endless rallies like automatons.
Konta’s collapse against Barbora Strycova is a complex one to review.
At the last “Great Brit Hope” she came to this match as the favourite, both on paper and because of the “extra player” factor of the British public’s inevitable slavish support which, as ever, carried with it the downside of an ocean liner’s anchor-weight of national expectation.
Given the nature of her demise yesterday – and the tense exchanges that took placed in her post-match press conference that I did not personally see/hear but have learned about overnight – I am wary of ‘kicking a horse when it is down’ or indeed consigning her to every home tennis fan’s filled-to-breaking-point metaphorical box marked “plucky Brit loser tennis player who inevitably fails when the chips are down” [cue references to Tim Henman, “Ginny” Wade – although of course she won in 1977 – and innumerable others over the years ad infinitum].
Konta began looking confident (not arrogant) and determined, well-prepared physically and mentally for the contest. She breezed out into a 4-1 lead in the first set and, like no doubt most onlookers, I was anticipating nothing more a regulation two-set victory in not much over an hour with her energy reserves saved for a potential semi-final with Serena to follow.
And then Strycova somehow struck gold and changed things around.
One thing that the television screen often disguises, save when changing ends or ‘greeting’ each other at the net at a match’s conclusion, is the respective size of the players.
In comparison Strycova’s serves are going to be skidding through, not coming down from a superior height and then bouncing higher and wider like her opponent’s.
No mistake about it – Strycova won this match, Konta didn’t throw it away.
The Czech dug in. When I say Konta “cruised”, I do not mean to suggest by that she deliberately did so: she simply stuck rigidly to her ‘process’.
Let us pass over the second set which rapidly became one-way traffic. As with every game Strycova became bolder and more creative with her tactics, Konta remained resolutely focused upon her process. And that was the disappointing part.
From a body language perspective you would not have been able to tell whether she was moving to an inevitable and deserved victory … or, as was in fact the case, a puzzlingly low-key and undemonstrative defeat. From the point at which Strycova went 3-1 up in the second and final set the outcome had become obvious – the commentary team and indeed the increasingly quiet crowd could see exactly what was happening.
See here for a link to the BBC Sports website and Konta’s tart response to being asked whether her performance had been up to par – KONTA SPEAKS
Some of her returns of the Fabrice Martin serve – and indeed her general other play – would have graced a semi-final men’s singles match.
Their victory was great fun to watch – I was left hoping that they manage to go all the way.