There’s the last minute manicuring of the famous grass courts, the ‘just so’ placement of signage that will guide thousands of fans who know how privileged they are to attend the world’s most historic Grand Slam; somewhere close by you know there’s a committed leader readying the ball boys and girls to perform with absolute precision; somewhere else a team preparing for the excited yet orderly queues that are so synonymous with Wimbledon.
Amid the buzz, the tradition and – let’s just say it – the rain showers passing over this prestigious pocket of London, there’s the nervous expectation that accompanies the lead in to every major event. Beneath seemingly relaxed (or, in some cases, carefully manufactured) exteriors are players who understand that the next two weeks could become the most important in their professional life.
This, after all, is where careers can be made – think the unseeded Boris Becker claiming his first Wimbledon title as a 17-year-old in 1985, which at the time, made him the youngest male winner in Grand Slam history (and which he emulated as an 18-year-old in 1986 and at age 21, in 1989);remember Lleyton Hewitt adding to his US Open title and world No. 1 ranking with Wimbledon success in 2002; consider the 17-year-old Maria Sharapova’s first Grand Slam victory – defeating Serena Williams in the final no less – in 2004.
Last year there was Novak Djokovic’s history-making win over Rafael Nadal in the final, which saw him become the first Serbian man to claim the world No. 1 ranking, and a compelling breakthrough from Petra Kvitova, which made the then 21-year-old the first player in the 1990s to achieve Grand Slam success. For Australian tennis fans, it was all about the breathtaking run of Bernard Tomic, who qualified and stunned Nikolay Davdyenko, and Robin Soderling, among others, en route to his first Grand Slam quarter-final at just 18-years-old.
All of those players understand that even more is at stake in 2012. Djokovic must at least advance to the final to retain his world No. 1 ranking, while Petra Kvitova understands that with six different female champions in the past six Grand Slams, defending her title is far from guaranteed. Tomic perhaps loves a big stage more than any other player, but last year’s success adds weight to this year’s expectations.
Tradition dictates that Djokovic, the defending men’s champion, will open Centre Court proceedings at 1pm London time. Highlighting the intense competition that exists in tennis today, the current No. 1 meets a former No. 1 in the evergreen Juan Carlos Ferrero, the 32-year-old Spaniard who claimed the French Open in 2003 and still retains a top-40 ranking.
That match will be followed by Maria Sharapova taking on Australia’s Anastasia Rodionova – who must be wondering how she’s drawn world No. 1 first-round opponents in two of the past three Grand Slams, having also experienced that dubious honour against Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open. Sharapova will be all business, knowing that Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska also have conceivable claims on top spot.
Outside court encounters could be even more intriguing. On Court One there’ll be a battle between two recent No. 1s in the soon-to-be-retired Kim Clijsters and the always-entertaining Jelena Jankovic. Court Two offers five-time champion Venus Williams – surely in the shadows of her career at age 32? – taking on Elena Vesnina.
Whether there’s more drama in those matches or in the dozens of other first-round remains to be seen – but make no mistake, there will be drama on the first day of play at the grand old All England Club.
Between the rain that’s an inevitable talking point pre-Wimbledon, players have been practicing with the intensity the occasions demands. Tomic has teamed up with seasoned countryman Hewitt, while Davis Cup captain Pat Rafter and other influential observers keep a careful eye on the equally-prominent Aussies. Azarenka’s trademark scream loses none of its volume as she hits against Yanina Wickmayer; Tommy Haas, fresh from a return to the winner’s circle in ‘s-Hertogenbosh, is relaxed but keenly focused opposite Paul-Henri Mathieu, the towering Juan Martin del Potro is near-silent as he prepares with the similarly-driven Richard Gasquet.
All around the All England Club and nearby Aorangi Park, countless other names prepare for what could be the most important weeks in their careers. As they fine-tune their strokes, players are also calming their nerves and perhaps daring to dream about bigger breakthroughs than ever before. That combination of excitement, apprehension and sheer ambition characterises the lead in to every major but there’s nothing quite like the ceremony of this Grand Slam – and nothing quite like keeping watch on Wimbledon.
For more news go to Wimbledon.com