Tennis: Spirits lifted by surprises galore

WIMBLEDON 96: Steffi Graf and Richard Krajicek impose a kind of order. John Roberts looks back at a fortnight of chaos
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The Independent Online
As we were saying a fortnight ago, before we were so rudely interrupted by falling seeds, regular sessions of water torture, and a streaker: "Wimbledon could turn out to be a tournament for the eccentric."

The one constant factor was Steffi Graf, who overcame her aches, pains and snuffles and won the women's singles title for a seventh time in a repeat of last year's final against Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.

"I feel I'm in seventh heaven," Graf said during her speech at the champions' dinner at the Savoy, tossing in a little joke that when the All England Club's chairman, John Curry, did not arrive promptly she thought he might have been "arranging a male streaker for me".

The chairman had one or two other matters on his mind, such as when the tournament would finally end. He paid tribute to the efforts of his foul- weather friends, Chris Gorringe, the chief executive, Alan Mills, the referee, and Eddie Seaward and his ground staff, all of whom had featured more prominently than the competitors at various times.

While Graf needed no introduction, the men's singles champion did, and perhaps the most touching moment of the evening came when the chairman presented Richard Krajicek with his purple and green membership tie.

The 24-year-old from Rotterdam is the first Dutchman to win a Grand Slam singles title, never mind the most prestigious of the four. He said he hoped that his victory would inspire young boys back home to pick up a racket. Whether that happens or not, it has certainly taken their minds off that 4-1 drubbing by England at Wembley.

Krajicek also shares with Boris Becker the distinction of being Wimbledon's only unseeded singles champions. The accomplishment was denied to eight other unseeded finalists, Wilmer Allison, Kurt Nielsen, Rod Laver, Marty Mulligan, Fred Stolle, Wilhelm Bungert, Chris Lewis and, of course, MaliVai Washington, who was defeated by Krajicek on Sunday, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.

Washington, while disappointed not to be in possession of "a beautiful cup", accepted his invitation to the dinner and was arguably the most popular person in the room. The 27-year-old American may not have won the big prize, but he certainly charmed the spectators.

As for the new champion, it would be misleading to describe Krajicek as a late developer, especially since he has suffered almost as many injury problems as Graf.

One of his most frustrating experiences came at the Australian Open in 1992, when he defeated Michael Stich, the previous year's Wimbledon champion, in five sets in the quarter-finals but had to miss the semi-final match against Jim Courier after damaging his right shoulder playing doubles.

Krajicek hardly made the most promising of starts to this year's campaign. He lost to Greg Rusedski, 7-6, 7-6, in the opening round of the Sydney tournament in January, and retired hurt during his match against the Frenchman Jean-Philippe Fleurian in the third round of the Australian Open.

Andre Agassi said of Krajicek: "He only has to think about tennis and he gets injured". A glance at their relative achievements so far this season suggests that Agassi would be advised to apply his own mind and body to the game.

Krajicek, who is 6ft 5in, always had the potential to make an impact on grass courts, but he tended to lack the confidence in his return game to maximise the advantage of a mighty serve. He advanced to the third round in 1991 and 1992, and the fourth round in 1993, but consecutive first-round defeats persuaded the All England Club not to give him a seeding, even though he came into the tournament ranked No 13 in the world.

"I was surprised I wasn't seeded, of course," he said after the final, "because I had been playing well, although it was on clay, in the finals of Rome and the quarter-finals in the French Open. But I understood a little bit, because in the last two years I lost in the first round. It does not bother me too much. It's not like I have the feeling that I have proved something to the committee."

The way he dismantled Stich in the fourth round and Pete Sampras, the holder of the title for the previous three years, in the quarter-finals, proved something to everybody.

Tim Henman, while lacking Krajicek's physical presence, can take encouragement from the Dutchman's success. At the same time, Henman's prospects of winning Wimbledon one day should not obscure the essential point, that the nation at last has a contender of substance on the ATP Tour.

The 21-year-old from Oxford's advance to the last eight was one of the most inspiring features of a tournament which in other ways threatened to dampen the spirits.

Attendances were down for a variety of reasons - Euro 96, a couple of Tube strikes, inclement weather after the previous three championships had been bathed in sunshine, and the early elimination of such notables as Agassi, Monica Seles, Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, who injured a wrist.

Few major entertainment productions would be able to withstand such a culling, and the international television networks became increasingly uneasy as the days went by.

Tennis has always been driven by personality, but the sport's transformation as an industry since embracing professionalism in 1968 has intensified the demand for star names to sell tournaments.

The position may not have been so acute back in 1973, when Wimbledon boasted record crowds even though the majority of the leading men boycotted the championships because of a dispute between the Association of Tennis Professionals and the International Tennis Federation.

In the final, Jan Kodes, the Czech No 2 seed, defeated Alex Metreveli, from the Soviet Union, the No 4 seed, but it could hardly be said that the draw was completely lacking in characters, with Ilie Nastase seeded No 1 and Jimmy Connors at No 5. In addition, a 17-year-old Swede by the name of Bjorn Borg was defeated in the quarter-finals by a Briton, Roger Taylor.

Overall, the All England Club is left with much to consider in the months ahead. And perhaps, when the item headed "streaker" is discussed, some of the older members may smile and ask themselves why "Gorgeous Gussie" Moran's lace panties caused such shock horror in 1949.