Tennis: Sacred lawns awash with the tide of progress: Survival of the fastest. John Roberts gives his verdict on Wimbledon '94 and considers what can be done to curb the power game

A WONDERFUL Wimbledon; pity about the men's final. A pity, also, that Pete Sampras, a superb champion, was again expected to tender an apology for being so far ahead of the field.

'You can write what you want, you can say want you want,' he told journalists seeking some form of arms control in the power game, 'but the fact is I have got two (championships) in a row, and that's something that's going to stay with me for as long as we're all living.'

The fact, also, is that Wimbledon got the men's final it deserved. Grass is the fastest surface, and the one which can be least relied upon to give a consistent bounce, even during the second week of a tournament blessed with sufficient sunshine to harden the courts.

That is not a revelation, it has been common knowledge for as long as tennis has been played. As with all sports, however, the competitors have become stronger, faster and more athletic, and their equipment has become more sophisticated - an awesome combination. The situation is not so acute on clay, concrete and indoor courts, which can be prepared to take some of the pace out of the shots, or, in the case of clay, made faster to accommodate the attacking player.

For Wimbledon, the solution is obvious and totally unexceptable. The All England Club's redevelopment plans for the next century do not include the sacrilege of replacing the lawns. The unique ambience of the world's most prestigious tournament transcends what is viewed from within, perhaps, as a passing phase of giants with bazookas.

As was mentioned a year ago, and three years ago - Andre Agassi's 1992 ground-stroke triumph against Goran Ivanisevic, the ace of servers, interposed the debate - experimentation ought to be made of less extreme methods of curbing the power.

Suggestions have included reducing the pressure of the balls, reverting to the former foot-fault rule, which obliges the server to keep one foot on the ground at the point of impact, and endeavouring to control racket technology.

Attempting to hold back the tide of progress is a non-starter unless manufacturers feel the pinch of falling sales to the extent of producing weapons which have a uniform, medium-sized head and the flexibility of wood without necessarily costing the life of trees.

The ATP Tour, which organises men's tennis outside the four Grand Slam championships and the Davis Cup, has tended to veer towards hyping up the atmosphere for spectators, though recent suggestions concerning the actual play are worth further examination.

Restricting players to only three second serves per game, one of which they would lose for time- wasting between points, seems interesting, as does the notion of abolishing the advantage point and allowing the receiver to determine which side of the court from which the server delivers on deuce.

Whether or not these ideas are implemented, efforts should be seen to be made to try to improve the situation. Otherwise, in the current climate, accusations of complacency could be more damaging than the the most blistering of serves.

Though Sunday's attendance, 22,086, was up by 2,030 on last year, the aggregate for the Championships, 377,973, was down by 14,787 on 1993 (the record for 13 days was 400,288 in 1989). Rail strikes on the two Wednesdays did not help, but the All England Club intends to study the figures before passing comment.

It should be explained that the grounds are restricted to 28,000 at any given time, which means that people have to leave before others can be allowed in. It was noted that some of the men's matches were so long that the knock-on effect was to reduce the customary ebb and flow through the gates.

The television ratings will also be interesting, particularly in view of the knocking to which the sport was subjected during the months before the Championships.

Criticisms, some of which had featured in these columns as well as those of other publications, were gathered into a huge condemnation of the game in the American magazine, Sports Illustrated, for a cover article headlined: 'Is Tennis Dying?'

The piece was valid, if heavily slanted towards the American scene, but it did not merit the gospel treatment of follow-up features which appeared elsewhere. Sports Illustrated, one recalls, did a cover job on Ivan Lendl when the ultimate professional was in his prime: 'The Champion Nobody Wants.' Count your blessings, Pete.

Now for the good news. The sun remained faithful and the Championships were a delight from the opening Monday through to close of play on the second Saturday, and even on the final day for those who could appreciate the brilliance of Sampras's performance in undermining the challenge of Ivanisevic. It is not by chance that the 22-year- old American has won four of the last five Grand Slam titles, starting with his victory against his compatriot, Jim Courier, at the All England Club a year ago.

The men's event provided upsets (Michael Stich falling to Bryan Selton, a qualifier, in the first round; Stefan Edberg's second round defeat by the Dane, Kenneth Carlsen), epics (Sergi Bruguera against Patrick Rafter; Todd Martin versus almost everybody - he even took a set off the champ), showmanship (Andre Agassi, while the show lasted), controversy (the Boris Becker gamesmanship saga) and what is becoming a customary Brit through to the fourth round (Jeremy Bates, as in 1992, unable to pass Guy Forget).

Moreover, the women's tournament was an unexpected treat. Disappointment at Mary Pierce's withdrawal 48 hours before the event, at the very thought of her father's shadow, was replaced by joy for the unseeded Lori McNeil, whose first-round defeat of Steffi Graf, the top seed and defending champion, opened the gate for a new champion, or an old one.

Conchita Martinez rose splendidly to the challenge, becoming the first Spaniard to win the title. The final against Martina Navratilova, who was retiring but far from shy, was magnificent. The nine-times champion eventually walked off into the sunset, cheered every step. Thanks for the memory.

(Photograph omitted)

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