With its manicured grass courts, epicurean strawberries-and-cream concessions, and stately royal box populated by tertiary blue bloods in crested blazers and baroque fascinators, Wimbledon can seem as conservative as sporting events come. It’s like Ascot with metronomic grunting and skinned knees. But thanks to its posh reputation for polish and propriety, it remains the grandest of Grand Slam tournaments. During its 138-year history, the All England Club has played host to countless firsts and bests in men’s and women’s tennis. But those superlatives tell only part of the story. The obvious part. We’ll leave it to others to compile that list. We’re more concerned with idiosyncrasy than import here. So, as this year’s fortnight heads into the homestretch, we humbly offer our Totally Subjective Ranking of the 10 Most Memorable Moments From Wimbledon Over the Past 40 Years. Why 40? Well, first off, it’s a nice, arbitrary round number (more historically far-reaching than 25; less predictably round than 50). Second, and perhaps more to the point, that’s when the most genteel of professional sports started to get interesting. So without further ado …
10. Does Anyone Here Know the Heimlich?
The U.S. men’s game in the post-Sampras era has been a decade and a half of depressing futility. Just ask yourself: Have you ever scratched your barbecue plans to sit inside and watch Mardy Fish or Jack Sock? We live in an age of patriotic narcolepsy. In 2003, however, that all seemed to change when a hot-headed Nebraskan named Andy Roddick single-handedly took a defibrillator to the American men’s game and shocked it back to life with a first serve often topping 150 mph. The love affair was short-lived. Because in spite of his often electrifying talent on the court, Roddick had one particularly fatal flaw. He choked. Over and over again. Each time more spectacularly than the last, especially at Wimbledon. Roddick reached the men’s final there three times — in 2004, 2005, and 2009 (he lost all three to Roger Federer). But it’s the last one that should have reduced him to a shell of a man — a marathon slugfest that he eventually lost 14-16 in a fifth-set tiebreaker. It never should have gone that far. Up one set and leading 6-5 in the second-set tiebreak, Roddick shanked a routine backhand volley, allowing Federer to win the set and keep the match alive. Watching it now is like seeing that scene from The Simpsons when Lisa literally breaks Ralph Wiggum’s heart by revealing that she never really choo-choo-chose him as her valentine. Take a look …
9. Williams v. Williams
As a father of twins, I often think that their birth was karmic retribution for my unhealthy obsession with sibling rivalries in sports. Separated in age by 15 months, Venus and Serena Williams have stared one another down across the net 26 times (Serena holds the edge, 15-11, after Monday’s match). But it’s their first head-to-head match at Wimbledon in the 2000 semis that remains the most indelible, simply because it’s so emotionally raw and messy. Venus would take the match 6-2, 7-6(3) on the way to winning the ladies’ title, but it’s the sibling dynamics — not the tennis — that sticks. Serena had a bad day … to put it charitably. She slipped all over court. She flubbed easy points. And she even double-faulted on match point. But at that stage of their careers, when fans still hadn’t quite gotten a psychological handle on the tennis prodigies, there was something humanizing about the way they allowed their feelings to show publicly. For the first time, Serena appeared flawed, sympathetic, mortal. Although the Williams sisters would face one another four times in the Wimbledon finals (in 2002, 2003, 2008, and 2009), it’s the sight of them walking off the court together after the match that resonates. As Serena hangs her head in … what? Embarrassment? Shame? Venus, sympathetic to the pain of her younger sister, gives a muted, humbled wave to the crowd, careful not to enjoy the moment too much. It’s a profound example of sisterly empathy.
8. White Balls Get the Bounce
Tradition is almost always lauded in sports. And when you start to hear that happening, it’s usually time to watch out. Think of Major League Baseball’s decades-long reluctance to integrate or the shame of Augusta. But sometimes tradition can be less insidious. As Exhibit A, I submit the White Balls of Wimbledon. In 1968, the optic yellow ball was developed for better visibility on TV. Four years later, the ITF finally adopted them. But it wasn’t until 1986 that Wimbledon’s patrician board finally caved, no longer able to keep its collective head buried in the sand in outdated, House of Lords fashion. Wimbledon had finally loosened its stubborn, viselike grip on the past. And, with that, something was lost. There was a nostalgic, old-school thrill in seeing two players thumping white balls across the net — a thrill only heightened when, after a few hard-fought rallies, the balls became scuffed with grass-stain battle scars. Were the antiquated white balls harder to follow on television? Sure. But I can’t be the only one who felt a Proustian pang when the All England got with the fluorescent egg-yolk times.
7. The Electric, Cool-Aid Isner-Mahut Endurance Test
Like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak, the epic, five-hour-and-20-minute, 112-game match between Pancho Gonzales and Charlie Pasarell in 1969 seemed like the kind of record that would stand forever. Then, in 2010, 23rd-seeded American John Isner met French qualifier Nicolas Mahut in a first-round endurance test that would last more than 11 hours spread out over three days.1 The backward-baseball-cap wearing beanpole Isner eventually won the match with a fifth-set score of 70-68 (that last set alone lasted eight hours and 11 minutes). You might think, judging from the ridiculous score, that neither player wanted to win, but it was actually more like the first Balboa-Creed bout. Ironically, Isner was bounced from the tournament by Thiemo de Bakker in his next match two days later. It lasted 74 minutes.
6. No Streaking Please, We’re British
Wimbledon has remained uniquely old-school in its tiebreak scoring system. For instance, the final score of the Gonzales-Pasarell match (when no tiebreaks were used) was 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9. Since this had the potential to essentially turn tennis into cricket, in the ’70s Wimbledon adapted the modern tiebreak system in every set except the fifth and final set of men’s matches and the third and final set of ladies’ matches, which can stretch on to infinity until one player wins by two games.
Streaking has to be the most wonderful fad ever conceived by humanity. It’s like the Pet Rock with jiggly bits. Often considered a flukey holdover from the Anything Goes ’70s (along with the John 3:16 rainbow-wig guy and the buxom Morganna, the Kissing Bandit), this exhibitionistic act of giddy rebellion turned Wimbledon’s Centre Court into a de facto peep show during the 1996 men’s final between MaliVai Washington and Richard Krajicek. The perpetrator was Melissa Johnson, a 23-year-old Manchester Polytechnic design grad who stripped off all of her clothes (except, for some reason, an apron), hopped the barrier, and bum-rushed the court with a giddy smile. In the announcer’s booth, John McEnroe — with the same deadpan wit as David Niven when he was interrupted by a streaker at the 1974 Oscars — demanded “a replay from all angles.” Was it an important moment in the history of tennis? No. Even the men’s final she upstaged is hard to recall today. But for one brief moment, Johnson gave us the wonderfully crass thrill of seeing the lock-jaws in the stands getting their monocles all steamed up by a bare-assed bit of Benny Hill tomfoolery.
OK, we’re halfway through the list. So, as a quick bonus moment, we offer this palate cleanser …
5. Pistol Pete’s Bittersweet Farewell
The greatest American men’s player in Wimbledon history (and arguably the greatest American men’s player ever, full stop), Pete Sampras could probably fill out the remainder of this list single-handedly. Sampras won seven men’s finals at Wimbledon, going 63-7 lifetime there. The obvious candidates for the chip-and-charge killer’s most memorable Wimbledon moments would probably include his victory over Boris Becker in 1995 or his trouncing of Andre Agassi in 1999 or his last win in a final at the All England Club in 2000 over Patrick Rafter. But the match I’ll never forget is the last one he would play there: his second-round loss in 2002 to the 145th-ranked George Bastl of Switzerland. Sampras wouldn’t officially retire until after his last hurrah at the U.S. Open a month later, but there was something deeply poignant, almost bittersweet, in his early exit from the place where his star had always shined the brightest. At 30, Sampras already had the creaky-backed gate of a man twice his age, and his head of curls was already thinning. The defeat was his; but the sense of loss belonged to us.
4. There’s No Crying in Tennis
There may be no more dominant season in the history of women’s tennis than the one Steffi Graf had in 1988, when she won all four Grand Slam events and tacked on an Olympic gold medal as an exclamation point — the so-called Golden Slam. As impressive as all of that may be, I prefer a bit of a sadistic streak in my champions. So it wasn’t until 1993 that I really fell for Graf. Facing Jana Novotna, a sort of Czech Andy Roddick as far as choking is concerned, Graf was down a double-break of serve in the third and deciding set. If Novotna won the game, she’d be up 5-1 and probably coast the rest of the way. Instead, Graf clawed back, simultaneously winning improbable points and putting the psychic zap on Novotna’s cabeza. When it was over, Graf was the Wimbledon ladies’ champion for the fifth time and Novotna was left a quivering pool of goo, bawling her eyes out on the shoulders of the Duchess of Kent.
3. Arthur Ashe Makes History
Depending on where you’re standing, 40 years as seen in the rearview mirror can seem like a blip or an eternity. Maybe that’s why Arthur Ashe’s upset over Jimmy Connors in the 1975 men’s final seems both unimaginably distant and remarkably thrilling. On July 5, the 31-year-old Ashe took the first set from the defending champion in just 19 minutes. Off court, the two players couldn’t stand one another. Ashe later said of his rival, “I swear, every time I passed Jimmy Connors in the locker room, it took all my willpower not to punch him in the mouth.” And to make matters more feisty, before the match Connors had filed a $5 million libel suit against Ashe for calling him unpatriotic for refusing to join the U.S. Davis Cup team. As payback, Ashe mentally devastated Connors, dishing out a crafty, Niekronian junk baller’s arsenal of lobs and dinks for which Connors had no answer. Ashe’s tennis that day was cool, decisive, and methodical. His victory was historic.
2. The Match
John McEnroe called it “the greatest final ever.” And anyone who sat with their jaw in their lap for the better part of five hours as no. 2 Rafael Nadal beat no. 1 Roger Federer at the clash-of-the-titans men’s final in 2008 had to agree. Either player could have won (it would have been Federer’s sixth consecutive Wimbledon title), but it was Nadal, with his bullwhip forehand and relentless court coverage that seemed like something out of a Flash comic, who proved to be tougher mentally. After blowing two match points in the fourth-set tiebreaker, Nadal summoned unimaginable reserves of toughness. You don’t have to love — or even like — tennis to appreciate it being played on this level. How good was it? The highlight video is almost 28 minutes long.
1. Fleet Street, the Super Brat, and the Greatest Tiebreak Ever Played
Christened the “Super Brat” by London’s tabloids, John McEnroe was pure, uncut Fleet Street catnip. His fiery arias of profanity and “You cannot be serious” outbursts would have been pathetic if he weren’t so uniquely gifted. He would have been David Nalbandian, but with a red headband fighting a losing battle to contain his white man’s Afro. So before the men’s final between McEnroe and four-time defending champion Bjorn Borg even began in 1980, the 21-year-old Queens native was showered with a Centre Court chorus of boos. The shorts were short, the rackets wooden. Otherwise the two players had nothing in common. McEnroe was a master of improbable shots, a serve-and-volley attacker whose touch was feather-light; the stoic Swede was a patient, baseline grinder — cool and consistent. The fourth-set tiebreaker is when punk rock would finally square off with Abba. McEnroe saved five match points on his way to winning the mini-battle. But it was Borg who would ultimately win the war, taking the fifth set. By the time it was over, the raspberries coming from the stands in Centre Court had turned into a respectful standing ovation. By the time the two men squared off in the final again the following year, the cheers were for the gritty McEnroe, Super Brat no more.
Chris Nashawaty (@ChrisNashawaty) is a film critic at Entertainment Weekly.