- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2003

WIMBLEDON, England — Once upon a time — like, say, last week — the All England Club was an exciting place to be.

There was a sensationally bratty defending champion in Lleyton Hewitt. A revenge-minded superstar in Serena Williams. Even the promise of a tabloid-tizzying babe battle between Kourni-klones Ashley Harkleroad and Maria Sharapova.

But faster than you can say Ivo Karlovic, the championships have become deadly dull. Duller, in fact, than the intolerable tennis “po-ems” that John Lloyd narrates during BBC highlights. Which is saying a lot, given that Lloyd’s pained flights of literary fancy are usually the last thing we hear before drifting off to fitful hotel bed sleep.

Indeed, Karlovic’s first-round upset of Hewitt was, in retrospect, nothing if not an omen. At first, we were delighted: Standing a preposterous 6-foot-10 and armed with a booming serve, Karlovic had all the superficial makings of Croatian countryman Goran Ivanisevic, the wildly entertaining tennis schizophrenic who referred to himself, with good reason, as “911 Goran.”

To our deep disappointment, Karlovic turned out to be a gentle giant, a downright charming qualifier. Even his pronounced stutter made him a sympathetic figure.

And who wants that?

Tennis fans respect straight-laced Pete Sampras. But they love, hate and generally care about John McEnroe. Even if he’s only shilling Heineken. Simply put, the sport needs rivalries and controversy, boorish behavior and sex appeal. Strip away its snooty Strawberries and Cream image, and Wimbledon has long been a bastion of cheap, entertaining melodrama, a theater of the absurd in a nation renowned for its stiff upper lip.

Yet with the exception of Greg Rusedski’s expletive-laden Week One outburst, these championships have been sorely lacking in soap opera substance. And that’s without mentioning the painful absence of Enrique-dating, paparazzi-baiting, victory-evading lawn Lolita Anna Kournikova.

Consider: The biggest buzz producer at this year’s tournament has been the Kirsten Dunst star vehicle “Wimbledon,” a tennis-themed flick in production on the grounds. In the film, a British man wins the singles title. Talk about suspension of disbelief.

Back in the real world, the major off-court stories have been snoozers. Instead of reveling in Hewitt’s grudge-induced, sublimely stupid slander lawsuit against the ATP, we’ve been forced to take notes on the ATP’s threat to boycott the Grand Slams — a farcical idea given that the latter don’t particularly need the former to make oodles and oodles of money.

On the women’s side of the draw, there’s been a glaring lack of nasty feuds and teary outbursts. Overbearing tennis dads are few and far between. Even Richard Williams — perhaps the most consistent comedy gold mine in sports — has been relatively subdued.

Stepping into the breach? Billie Jean King, whose iron-fisted Fed Cup captaincy would undoubtedly raise our hackles if only we cared about the event. Apparently, you agree: Just 1,500 tickets have been sold for the upcoming United States-Italy match at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park.

To put things another way: The price of salmon in the Wimbledon cafeteria is an eye-popping 10 pounds. That’s nearly $20. For a minuscule piece of fish. Where’s Damir Dokic when you really need him?

The players themselves have been little help.

The men’s draw is dominated by callow dullards and journeyman bores. You thought accidental finalist David Nalbandian was a nobody? Obviously, you haven’t met German quarterfinalist Alexander Popp. Or maybe you have — it’s doubtful you’d remember.

Popp’s round of eight opponent, Mark Philippoussis, used to be a skirt-chasing, sports car-collecting clown, the sort of fellow you could build a whole series of jokes around; now, he’s an Agassi-aping fitness-minded pro. Where’s the fun in that?

Likewise, Andy Roddick’s former hothead charm — will he or won’t he blow his top, taking his ready-to-tailgate visor with it? — has given way to steely resolve. The Great American Hope now plays with quiet, efficient purpose, low-slung ballcap framing a focused stare. Good for him. Bad for us. At least those of us who appreciate a proper tantrum.

Usually quite generous when it comes to catty tactlessness, the women have been even less accommodating. Earlier this year, Jennifer Capriati took the court to the wildly inappropriate strains of “Bombs over Baghdad”; given a chance to drop a verbal bomb on rival Serena Williams, she instead offered nothing but praise.

Speaking of Serena, she had every right to hammer semifinal opponent Justine Henin-Hardenne, given Henin-Hardenne’s sneaky gamesmanship in their contentious French Open duel. But the world’s top player refused to take the bait, protesting that “what happens in Paris, stays in Paris.” Can somebody get her a Chunnel ticket? Please?

Even Sharapova, so promising as a Kournikova substitute, turned out to be friendly. And on top of that, pretty darn good. Which isn’t much for a black heart to go on. Never mind Fleet Street.

In a tournament of tedium, Venus Williams made fitting use of a short rain delay during her quarterfinal win over Lindsay Davenport. She took a nap. We can relate.

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