Wimbledon: steeped in tradition and still loved by all

Generations of players look forward to playing the All-England club each year and William Johnson cites memorable moments in the event's history, from Court to Agassi to Nadal.

Wimbledon's grass courts are regarded as the pinnacle venue of the tennis calendar by players.
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When Rafael Nadal describes the All England Club as the venue of the "nicest tennis tournament in the world", it sums up why the top players down the generations regard the Wimbledon Championships as the pinnacle of the calender. Nadal was not renowned for his grass-court prowess until two years ago, when he won the London warm-up event at Queen's Club and then disposed of Roger Federer in a memorable Centre Court final.

If he was not in love with the most famous arena in the game before that epic, five-set triumph in near darkness, he is now. "This tournament is very special," Nadal said. "This is true for everybody because it is the nicest tournament in the world. "For me it was always a special ambition to play well here. I did that for three years and finally won. So to be here brings back very nice memories. "It is always a pleasure to be at this very beautiful club."

Wimbledon, despite being perceived as a stickler for tradition, has had a happy knack over the years of winning over its more sceptical visitors. While Nadal, clearly more at home in his formative years on the red clay of European courts, was a relatively easy convert, Andre Agassi, another outstanding former champion, was far from it. Agassi, now 40, portrayed the archetypal non-conformist American teenager when he made his first Wimbledon visit 23 years ago.

Preferring to dress in garish colours normally seen in skateboard parks, he took one look at what he perceived as the whiter-than-white stuffiness of the tennis establishment and promptly lost his first-round match to Henri Leconte, of France, claiming only five games in three one-sided sets. Agassi made a public stance against traditionalism in the four years that followed, declaring in defence of his decision to stay at home that players of his era should not have to forgo their normal attire in order to satisfy Wimbledon's "predominantly white" dress rule.

In 1991 he had a dramatic rethink. He appeared on Centre Court without even a fleck of a rogue colour on his immaculate outfit, reached the quarter-finals, became the darling of the crowds, and returned the following year to become one of the tournament's most popular champions. Agassi's complete transformation from Wimbledon sceptic to ambassador led to him being invited to play in a special match last year. He and his wife, Steffi Graf, seven times the women's champion, were invited to mark the opening of the Centre Court's revolutionary new roof.

The sliding ceiling, though welcome and long overdue in the eyes of many supporters tired of being frustrated by rain breaks, will mean that magical moments like Goran Ivanisevic's emotional victory in 2001 will be fewer from now on. Ivanisevic, the enigmatic Croatian who had lost in two finals, was given a last-gasp wild card that year and capitalised by beating Australia's Pat Rafter in a magnificent final which took place a day later than planned.

That was possibly the pick of a string of fantastic men's singles finals in modern times. The women have had their moments too, including Margaret Court's fantastic 14-12, 11-9 verdict over Billie Jean King in 1970, which helped stake her claim to be the best. One of the most surprising in recent years was Maria Sharapova's interruption in 2004 of a dominant last decade by the Williams sisters. Sharapova, the Russian former world No 1, is dreaming of repeating that success over the next fortnight now that her serving shoulder appears to have recovered from surgery.

"When you arrive here a few days before the tournament you know that something big is round the corner," she said. "I always look forward to it. I love this tournament as much as I did all those years ago." The favourites on the women's side are Serena and Venus Williams, who are seeded 1-2 and have combined to win eight of the last 10 Wimbledon championships. Serena, who earned her third title by beating her sister last year in the final, has tweaked her tournament preparation in anticipation of a visit on Thursday by Queen Elizabeth II, who is expected to attend Wimbledon for the first time since 1977.

"I've been working on my curtsy," Serena said. wjohnson@thenational.ae