As it approaches Wimbledon, the London Underground travels
overground, sweeping tennis fans across the city's rooftops as
if they were Mary Poppins. Which is only appropriate, for the
1996 championships were a fortnight of sliding up banisters, an
upside-down, topspin-turvy tournament in which two unseeded
players reached the men's final for the first time in history.
One of those men happened to be black, which is almost as
extraordinary at Wimbledon, where even the dress code is
But then, everywhere inside the All England Lawn Tennis Club
last week, human behavior was the opposite of what it ordinarily
is. When chair umpires wanted the crowd to shut up, they said,
"Thank you." If the noise persisted, they snapped, "THANK you!"
The sun rarely shone, but every coach, player's girlfriend and
IMG-man sat grim-faced in the Centre Court guest box in
sunglasses, as if recovering from cataract surgery. In the
quarterfinals a groundskeeper was eaten by a Venus fly tarp,
giving Pete Sampras, who had won the last three Wimbledons, an
overnight reprieve. The next day he buckled to eventual champion
About the only eternal verity that held was that Steffi Graf is
unbeatable on Centre Court. In Saturday's women's final Graf
once again got the silver platter of victory, and Arantxa
Sanchez Vicario got the salad plate of second place. Otherwise:
"I don't think the press has had so much weird stuff to write
about in a long time," said 13th-seed Todd Martin, whose own
stuff was too weird for words in the men's semifinals on
Saturday. Leading MaliVai Washington 5-1 in the fifth set and
serving, Martin suddenly "froze up," as he put it, and
quadruple-faulted on his way to a 10-8 loss. It was the longest
fifth set ever in a Wimbledon semifinal, and the grisliest.
"The one thing I probably could have done better was breathe,"
Martin said after he and his lungs had collapsed. "I think
that's probably the most important thing." Yes, as the English
July 14, 1996
For his part Washington has always been MalOdorous at Wimbledon,
having lost in the first or second round in each of the last six
years. His parents did not attend this year's tournament,
instead watching Sunday morning's match on television at a
family reunion in Mississippi. "[The festivities] had been
planned for months and happened to coincide with the final,"
said Washington on Sunday night. "A lot of people wanted me to
come, but I told them, 'Let's see what happens first.'"
What happened was that this 27-year-old who grew up in Swartz
Creek, Mich., became the first black man since Arthur Ashe in
1975 to reach the Wimbledon final, and he was clearly the crowd
favorite. No matter. Krajicek, the son of Czech emigres to the
Netherlands, served Washington off the court in straight sets
(6-3, 6-4, 6-3) over 94 rain-interrupted minutes. Still, his
appearance in the final ensures that Washington will no longer
be known best for owning the tour's most mispronounced name.
It's Mal-ah-VEE-ah, but it sounded like Mamma mia when spoken by
the perplexed Italian journalist who asked NBC's Bud Collins if
there were a saint by that name. ("There is now," Collins said.)
Likewise, the 6'5" Krajicek will no longer be remembered best
for having said, somewhat indelicately, at Wimbledon in '92 that
80% of women professional tennis players are "fat, lazy pigs."
Which brings us, inappropriately, to the ladies' singles
championship. The last 16 times Graf has played Sanchez Vicario,
it has been in a tournament final. The two women have become the
game's Ali and Frazier--or, given Graf's record, the game's Road
Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Graf was almost apologetic before
this final, suggesting that it would be exciting, "even if
people say it's the same match again." Indeed, given the men's
tedious serve-and-volley style, Graf's matches were a joy to
watch. The 27-year-old used her backhand slice as a scythe to
clear the brush that was the women's field, dropping only one
set all tournament.
So much time does Graf spend before the world's prying eyes that
reporters were stunned when she suddenly dropped from sight, as
if into a dunk tank, in the middle of a question at a packed
prefinal press conference. "Uh ... hello?" asked her concerned
interrogator, but Graf had merely ducked behind the podium to
discreetly blow her nose. For, as ever, she was fighting a cold.
As well as back pain and an injury to her left knee and the
thought of her father, Peter, watching the final on television
in a German jail, where he is being held on tax-evasion charges.
Only when she had vanquished Sanchez Vicario 6-3 and 7-5 did
Graf concede that, yes, she impresses even herself. "It just
seems amazing to me, really, to come through like that," Graf
said of winning her seventh Wimbledon platter, 20th Grand Slam
title and 100th tournament. "I don't know how I do it. I just
keep doing it."
Since 1982 Graf or Martina Navratilova has won all but one
Wimbledon ladies' title. Alas, Navratilova said on TV at the
start of this year's tournament that Graf uses injuries as an
"excuse," adding curiously on Sunday that "somebody in [Graf's]
camp always lets it be known that there is something wrong with
her." Of Graf's threat to her record of nine Wimbledon singles
titles, well, Navratilova seemed to say that it's not ova till
it's ova. The Wimbledon record "seems very close" to Graf's
grasp, she conceded, "but it's still very far." Extending a last
backhanded compliment to Fraulein Forehand, Navratilova added,
"There are no players that really threaten her." And so we go
from sour grapes to....
Seedless grapes. That's what the men's field was filled with by
the time the quarterfinals came around. To be sure, the men's
action had its moments. Britain's Tim Henman temporarily induced
Henmania, which was like Beatlemania only more maniacal. As the
first Englishman to advance to the quarters since 1973 (when the
tournament was boycotted by nearly 80 members of the pro tour),
the scrawny 21-year-old played well above his world ranking of
62, eliminating French Open champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the
first round. Three of Henman's forebears had played at
Wimbledon--including great-grandmother Ellen Mary Stawell-Brown,
the first woman to serve overhand in the tournament--but none
required five bobbies just to get in and out of the grounds.
By the time Henman had reached the quarters, no area of
Henmanship was out-of-bounds (SECRET AGONY OF WIMBLEDON WONDER
BOY, the Mirror wrote). Like Krajicek, the Wimbledon Wonder Boy
was only too happy--or rather, "very pleased, absolutely
delighted," as he said ad nauseam--to erase his own Wimbledon
ignominy: He had unintentionally hit a ball girl with a ball in
a fit of pique in last year's doubles competition, an act that
got him bounced from the tournament and forced him to return the
next day with flowers and a kiss for his victim. ("I was
Henpecked," said the 16-year-old when the tabs tracked her down.)
Henman himself was tracked down, by Martin, and bounced from the
tournament in three sets. In the other half of the draw,
meanwhile, Krajicek was serving 29 aces in his quarterfinal
against Sampras, constantly cleaving the center service line and
the linesperson behind it. The match was delayed by rain with
Krajicek leading two sets to love, and when the grounds crew
raced to cover Centre Court with a tarp, groundsman Mark Hillaby
fell beneath the cover and was conked on the noggin by a metal
clip. When the tarp was pulled back again so that Hillaby could
be rescued and attended to (eventually he was trundled off on a
stretcher), the court became soaked, and play was suspended
overnight. Thus was Sampras given 17 more hours to ponder Bjorn
Borg's record of five consecutive Wimbledon titles.
That mark now appears untouchable, for when play resumed on the
Fourth of July, Krajicek quickly ended Sampras's string of 25
consecutive matches won at Wimbledon. The No. 1 player in the
world left quickly, weeping as he climbed into a courtesy car.
Of course, it wasn't merely an exit wound that Sampras was
lamenting but the death of coach Tim Gullikson from cancer in
May. "Once you are a champion here, you should leave like one,"
two-time winner Stefan Edberg, making his final Wimbledon
appearance, had said after being eliminated earlier in the
tournament. Sampras did just that, remaining ever gracious after
undergoing the laser surgery of Krajicek's serve. "He was the
better man," Sampras said of the Dutchman, who was without
question the best player in the world for this fortnight in
which the usual order of things was suspended.
There's that word again. "Ladies and gentlemen, play is
suspended" was the public-address mantra last week, when rain
interrupted the matches every day but one. Aging English pop
star (and knight and All England Club member) Cliff Richard took
cordless microphone in hand to entertain his fellow Centre Court
spectators during a long Krajicek-Sampras rain delay July 3,
singing All Shook Up a cappella while backed by Navratilova, Pam
Shriver and Virginia Wade, who danced behind him like very
white, very wooden Pips. Still, the display personified
Britain's bulldog spirit. "Like World War II," Sir Cliff said
afterward on the BBC. "We made the best of a bad situation."
In the end the same could be said for the entire tournament. The
English are masters of the muddle-through, and this was their
Wimbledunkirk. When 23-year-old Melissa Johnson, who spent the
fortnight working in a Wimbledon pizza stand, streaked across
the court in a brief apron and nothing else moments before the
men's final, her appearance was greeted by the All England Club
as a godsend, something to buck up the troops. "Whilst we do not
wish to condone the practice," went the club's official
statement, "it did at least provide some light amusement for our
loyal and patient supporters, who have had a trying time during
the recent bad weather."
Too right, as the Brits also say. Washington, for one, was taken
aback by the sight of the streaker "just wobbling around" in all
her glory and smiling at him. "I got flustered," he said,
"and--boom--three sets later I was gone."
Gone, but not likely to be forgotten. Washington will represent
the U.S. at the Olympics, but before that he will return home to
Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and find that he has become a historic
figure. Told that his face, once adjudged by People magazine to
be one of the world's "50 most beautiful," had adorned the front
pages of America's Sunday newspapers--the news sections, not the
sports sections--Washington appeared to consider his new
circumstances for the first time.
"I've been focused on my tennis over here," he said, accepting
the unsolicited role of the new black tennis role model. "I'll
have to see what the response is at home. I hadn't thought about
gaining notoriety at all. If it comes, I can deal with it, I
It was 8:30 p.m., and Washington stood in a tunnel that led to
the darkening Centre Court. Stragglers and security guards
called out their congratulations. As they did, the natural laws
that had been suspended during the tournament were suddenly
reinstated. "MAL-uh-vie!" some well-wishers said. "Mal-EE-vy,"
"That's one thing that won't change," said Washington, smiling.
"My name will ever be mispronounced."