After a 17-year roller coaster, the glittering and sometimes controversial career of Maria Sharapova has come to an end.
Wimbledon 2008 is a story of redemption and a tale of one man refusing to lie down when faced with a powerful opponent. There was anguish and tension. And there were moments of self-doubt, when all seemed lost.
There were those around him that said it could never be done. But when things got dark, justice was served… and I finally received the tickets in the mail.
Oh, sure, the match itself was fine, but the real titanic struggle took place not on the worn grass of Centre Court, but in the ticketing offices of the All-England Lawn and Tennis Club.
It was a drunken Wednesday evening when I picked up an envelope postmarked SW19. Inside a letter informing me that I had won the right to purchase two tickets to Centre Court on Sunday July 6. “Top banana!” I cried (employing my most recent British witticism). It was not until the following morning that I truly understood what lay ahead, for July 6 is the men’s final – the last day of the competition.
The odds of being selected in the public ballot for Wimbledon are astronomical – the odds on that day, unfathomable.
Inexplicably, I put the envelope to one side – deciding to pay for the tickets on the first of next month. I assumed I had plenty of time and was, at that moment, poorer than some of my own attempts at humour. Never would Rudyard Kipling’s quote, which sits above the Centre Court entrance, ring more true: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.”
When the March 1 rolled around, I connected to the Wimbledon website to be quickly informed that I had missed my payment date and I should contact the ticketing office. Through my own stupidity, I failed to see the date on the letter.
Who puts a payment date in large, bold type, surrounded by red arrows in the middle of the page, anyway?
Would I still get the tickets? The old-ducks at the ticketing office gave me mixed messages. One lady said everything would be fine, pet, perhaps hearing the quiver of my lower lip.
Another lady compared my chances of seeing the men’s final with those of her compatriot, Andy Murray.
Postal orders were sent, emotional letters written, while so-called “friends” taunted me as a cat does a rubber mouse, until – one fine May day – the envelope arrived.
I was born with rugby union in my genes and during my time in Europe, I came to crave the tense, technical beauty of football. Yet I discovered something about the sporting spectacle on July 6, 2008 that comes down to basic math.
Put aside for a moment the tension, the heritage, the atmosphere, the witnessing of two champions on a different level of skill and determination from the next man – this was really just a matter of time.
Specifically, 288 minutes of it.
When the Wallabies won the Bledisloe Cup in Wellington in 2000 – in that match where future Australian President John Eales famously converted a penalty goal seconds before the siren – the combatants would have been on the field for around 100 minutes.
When Liverpool came from three goals down in the 2005 Champions League final to draw level with A.C. Milan, force extra-time and win on penalties, about 130 minutes were spent on the field (plus 15 minutes in the sheds with manager Rafa Benitez at half time, which I imagine was unpleasant).
When Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, they were on court for more than four and a half hours.
Four and a half hours. 288 minutes. That’s a shift at work. That is six games of NBA. In fact, if you sat down to watch the entire ‘Rocky’ series on DVD, after 288 minutes Apollo Creed would be dead. Five hours in play, seven in the stands.
A walk around the Wimbledon grounds before the game was impeded by the rain, which is perhaps more historical than the strawberries and cream. This was the final year of the tournament without a roof on Centre Court, and nervous punters peered from under their ponchos and over their Pimms, into the gathering gloom.
As 2pm approached, people made their way to their seats and suddenly the sun shone.
The players entered the ground and the French umpire called “play”.
What happened next was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The air was sucked from the ground and fourteen thousand chattering people became stone silent as Roger threw the ball in the air to begin the match. I sat with my new camera in hand, too frightened to pull the trigger and release the cannon-noised shutter.
The whirring of the press cameras behind us seemed offensive in this small space – a mobile phone ring like a klaxon.
Both my heart and my money were on Rafa to win (which is always a smart combination). More importantly, though, was that the match went to five sets. Nobody wanted this spectacle to end. People cheered for Roger because he’s Roger. I cheered for Rafa until straight sets became an issue. People cheered for Roger because he was down.
I cheered for Rafa with my eyes on the money. Everyone cheered for Roger when he survived.
They played with implausible mastery. Federer’s backhand – his “weaker” side – would whip from the corner with eerie precision, pass directly over the centre tape of the net and dip in time to land safely.
And Nadal would be there waiting – a shot was only a winner in this match if the other guy agreed to it.
But in the end, with darkness quickly descending on the court and only the glow of the scoreboard piercing the night, the crowd sensed play may be halted, and they turned to the man most likely. Finishing a magnificent point to make it 7-7 in the fifth, Rafa leapt into the air with a cry of, “Vamos!”
The crowd responded and chants of “Roger” became chants of “Rafa”.
Even security got caught up in the moment when the Spaniard won – allowing him to climb up into the Royal Box despite the fact that he was armed with two guns (his left one and his right one).
They call it the greatest final of the modern era. I could have sat there in the twilight for hours, in my uncomfortable Wimbledon chair, until security asked me to leave. I rode in silence on the Tube home, feeling privileged to have witnessed such a transcendent spectacle. It is unlikely to be repeated, if only because of the shiny new roof.
Even the rain added to the experience – the rain brought the darkness, the darkness brought the magic…
I still fill in my Wimbledon application every year, but in the likely event I won tickets again, I would give them away.
I can’t go back. I’ve done Wimbledon now.