Tuesday June 21st, 2011

WIMBLEDON, England -- We've had an early casualty on Centre Court this year, a longtime fixture put to pasture on the grass. The seeds have survived -- some more easily than others. But you'll note that as players walk onto the court, they no longer bow and curtsy before the Royal Box. This tradition has been dying slowly over the past few years. It's now officially dead. The Duke of Kent, patron of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, requested an end to the practice, claiming it no longer fits in with the modern game. (This comes months after Buckingham Palace explicitly asserted that those meeting royalty should only bow or curtsey if they want to.) The Club relented. Bowing before Royalty is now voluntary.

Instead, the citizens of the Tennis Republic genuflected and performed obeisance today before Serena Williams. The defending champion played her first Grand Slam match of the 2011 season. Diana Ross was among the stars seated courtside. Photographers lined the pit. The television coverage offered an inventory of laudatory phrases. (Note to a certain talking head: if you must resort to animal metaphors -- seldom a good idea -- it's heart of a lion and eye of the tiger, not vice versa.)

Serena played the part as only she can, losing the first two games to her opponent, France's plucky Aravene Rezai, then running off the next five games. She lost the second set, then stormed back. There were dark patches, but mostly it was vintage Serena, few indications that she went nearly a year without playing and survived a near-death experience. She was, justifiably, emotional as she walked off the court.

In the interview room afterwards -- seated, familiarly, behind a Gatorade bottle -- she declared, "It's been a long an arduous road. To stand up, still, is pretty awesome."

The details about what exactly happened over the last year have been hard to come by. It's hard to recall an A-list athlete, in the prime of their career, missing so much time and providing so few details. Serena alluded to "things you don't even know about." An intrepid reporter asked about the possibility of suing the German (or perhaps Belgian?) restaurant where she injured her foot. Then he asked for the name of a restaurant. He didn't get very far. But that's always been the Williams sisters' m.o. They dispense information on a need-to-know basis and if there are gaps in the narrative, so be it.

Here's what's, ultimately, more important: the defending champion is trying to defend. She's back the grass. She is back to pounding out winners. She is back to serving aces and then doing her signature pirouette. She is back playing her best when the situation calls for it. She's back to speaking about everything from Jehovah to '60s fashion to LeBron James. The queen is back. The sport is richer for it.

I am made nervous by all the hype about Milos Raonic. In your honest opinion, is he going to be good when he grows up? Also, what would the impact be if he could actually beat Nadal at Wimbledon, or take two sets off? --M., Vancouver, Canada

• Ask again after the (likely) Nadal match in round three and we'll have a better sense! I can think of no reality in which he beats Nadal. But the resistance he can muster -- more than taking X sets -- with tell us a lot. Relax, though. There's a lot to like here. Complete game, big serve, weapons-grade forehand, and -- maybe most important -- a winning disposition. It's easy to get swept up by irrational exuberance. But no question Raonic is a top-10 talent.

If you were to guess, which active player on tour has gotten passed at the net most in their career? I've been watching a lot of tennis highlights and it is harder to argue against Andy Roddick having the most unsuccessful ventures to the net. What gives? --Mr. Seto, Canada

• Again, this is precisely the sort of statistic that ought to exist. Are we talking about getting passed in absolute terms? Or relative to net approaches? Regardless, I think my vote goes to Michael Llodra. His signature pose is sprawling as a passing shot goes whistling by.

Help! How can I watch Wimbledon online this year? I am overseas and cannot use U.S. sites. I have watched it online directly from the Wimbledon site for the past three years. This year it is not being offered. Know any reputable sites I can watch from? Thanks. --Charles, Miami Beach

• Can anyone help? If my TV listings are correct, Charles won't be alone in his quest in, say, 10 days from now.

For anyone wondering what it says about the quality of the WTA Tour if Serena wins Wimbledon, consider 1995. Monica Seles, absent from competitive tennis for almost two-and-a-half years after her on-court stabbing, returns at the Canadian Open and not only wins the title, but drops only 14 games in her five matches. Then reaches the U.S. Open final without losing a set, dropping a close three-setter to No. 1 Graf in the final. --Jack, Connecticut

• Good call.

Don't interpret this as a reader being eager for you to take vacation from your post. But can I recommend Frank Deford as guest columnist next time you take a week off? When a professional player fills in for you occasionally, it's good to hear their perspective, but I'm sometimes let down because they (understandably) leave some of their candor back in their racket bag. While Frank Deford is, well, Frank Deford. --Paul Treacy, Washington, D.C.

• Thanks, love that idea. You're right that Frank Deford, is, well Frank Deford. We'll work on that. Meanwhile we'll link this classic.

Let's just agree that, when a player "apologizes" when they win a point after the ball has hit the net and dropped over that they are acknowledging that they got lucky, and move on. --Phillip, Wollongong, Australia

• That's reasonable. Again, luck is part of sports. But I have no issue with a gesture that says: "There are more honorable ways to have won a point."

Regarding apologies for net cord winners: I've always considered (and intended) a raised racquet as simply an acknowledgement of the "good fortune", or "deus ex machina" if you prefer, rather than apology. Seems like the (good) sporting thing to do vs. giving a big fist pump or a "C'MON!" --Rich, Crystal Lake, Ill.

• Any missives that use the phrase "deus ex machina" are given special consideration.

• Brutal day for Sam Stosur, who barely put up a fight against Melinda Czink. Maybe the best volleyer in the women's game -- and won four points at net. Just a mystifying player.

• In the Wimbledon gift shop, there's an ad campaign matching a word to a player. "Aggression" is Andy Roddick. "Precision" is Roger Federer. "Technique" is Andy Murray. "Desire" is ... Marat Safin. Really?

• Missing Williams-Williams in the doubles draw.

• Ken Wells of Woburn, Mass.: Here is a link for a tennis in literature quiz from a U.K. paper.

• PV of Fairfax, Va.: Here is an interesting video on grunting.

• Today LLS comes from: Matt Kauffman of Olney, Md.: "Novak Djokovic and John Edwards (no, not THAT one), the auto racer."

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