- The Washington Times - Monday, June 25, 2007

So much for resisting change at Wimbledon. They’re embracing it.

Women will earn the same prize money as men for the first time this year, video screens will help players challenge calls and a retractable roof is on the way.

Does tradition mean nothing anymore?

Well, there is one thing — besides the white clothes every competitor must wear and the grass underfoot — that remains the same: As the defending men’s singles champion, Roger Federer again will have the honor of being the first to stride out on Centre Court when action begins today.

If it seems as if the Swiss star enters each major tournament with a chance to do something historic, it’s because he does. Two weeks after coming up just short of completing a career Grand Slam on the red clay of Roland Garros, Federer heads to the All England Club, where he will try to do something only one man has done in the last 100 years: win a fifth consecutive Wimbledon title.

“That would be absolutely incredible,” Federer said.

Bjorn Borg won Wimbledon every year from 1976 to 1980, and the only other men who claimed at least five straight titles did it back in the days when the reigning champion automatically advanced to the final — in other words, they needed to win only one match to retain the trophy.

For a little perspective, consider that greats of the grass game like Rod Laver, John McEnroe and Boris Becker maxed out at two consecutive Wimbledon championships. And Pete Sampras, who won half of his record 14 major titles at Wimbledon, was stopped at four straight.

Sampras’ streak was snapped by a fourth-round loss in 2001 to … guess who?


Roger is fun to watch. He’s graceful,” Sampras said earlier this year. “Roger is dominating the game much more than I ever did. What he’s done the last three years hasn’t ever been done in the sport.”

When Wimbledon begins, Federer will be entering his record 178th consecutive week at No. 1 in the rankings. He has won six of the previous eight Grand Slams and 10 of the past 16. He also takes a record 48-match winning streak on grass into the first round.

For him, as for many players and fans alike, winning Wimbledon is the ultimate. For him, success on the sport’s most hallowed ground takes away the sting of near-misses at Roland Garros, where he lost to nemesis Rafael Nadal the past three years.

“You do forget about it right away if you win Wimbledon the following month, you know,” Federer said. “That kind of overshadows the French Open by a mile.”

Part of that attitude stems from the prestige associated with the oldest of the Grand Slam tournaments. It began in 1877 on grass and is still played that way. The tournament is evolving, however, and two striking symbols are this year’s alterations to Centre Court: As part of the project to add a full roof by 2009, the overhang ringing the top of the arena has been removed temporarily, which could make for windier conditions this fortnight; and a form of instant replay will make its Wimbledon debut.

Federer was against the electronic line-calling system when it first emerged, but he has become more open to it. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to see him benefit from an overturned call during a big match?

In last year’s Wimbledon final, Federer beat Nadal, and they could reprise their No. 1 vs. No. 2 rivalry with a July 9 rematch. Nadal and No. 3 Andy Roddick — who lost to Federer in the 2003 semifinals and the 2004 and 2005 finals at the All England Club — might be the only players who could present a shade of trouble.

“Other than those two,” U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said. “It’s hard to think of anyone that can legitimately threaten Federer on grass.”

No one holds that kind of sway over the women’s draw, although when it comes to this major, Serena and Venus Williams often bring their best. Venus Williams was one of the loudest voices calling on the tournament to pay the women what the men get, and no one should be shocked if she or her sister winds up pocketing the Grand Slam-record $1.4 million check the women’s singles champion will receive.

One Williams or the other has won five of the past seven Wimbledon championships, despite never participating in any grass-court warmup events beforehand. Instead, they opt to go home to the United States after the French Open and prepare to play on grass by practicing on, uh, hard courts.

“They’re very similar,” Serena Williams said with a wink and a smile. “You just get on a really slick, old ghetto court that’s real fast, and you’ll be fine. It’s actually faster than Wimbledon. That’s why we’re so good.”

So, too, is top-ranked Justine Henin, who won the French Open for her sixth Grand Slam title, a total that trails only Serena Williams’ eight among active players.

While Federer is missing the French Open from his collection, Henin needs only a Wimbledon title to fill out a career Grand Slam. And like Federer, Henin has come close, losing to Venus Williams in the 2001 final and to Amelie Mauresmo in last year’s final.

Finally winning Wimbledon “would be a great achievement, that’s for sure,” Henin said. “But would that make me more happy? I’m not sure.”

How much would winning another Wimbledon mean to Federer?

On the day he won his fourth consecutive title, 50 weeks ago, he spoke these words: “I’m looking forward to next year, obviously.”

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