LONDON—The Sunday before Wimbledon is usually a fine time to walk between the green rectangles at the All England Club and smell the freshly cut grass and newly laid down lime, before both of them get their annual two-week trampling. But as anyone following the game for the last couple of weeks knows, it’s been raining in England, which meant that all of those freshly cut mini-lawns, from Centre Court to Court 18, were covered with billowing plastic bubbles. Instead of the scent of grass, when you breathed in today, you got a nose full of tarp.
Wimbledon doesn’t schedule anything for this day, no Kids’ Day, the way they do at Flushing Meadows and Melbourne Park, and certainly no first-round matches, the way those determined secularists in Paris do. This is a club that still observes a day off on its middle Sunday, and for its first 100-odd years didn’t allow any tennis at all on the Christian holy day. Borg and McEnroe played their 18-16 tiebreaker on Saturday, July 5, 1980.
There was a calm before the storm vibe to the grounds today. Or, when it inevitably began to rain, a calm within the storm. Inside Centre Court, security personnel sat in military-style uniforms and received their traditional pre-tournament pep talk. Outside, ball kids in dark red jackets got some last minute instructions and reminders. Between rain drops, grounds crews measured the grass and checked the net heights one last time.
In the press room, scattered early-bird reporters were treated to audiences with the defending champs, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams. Nadal seemed happier and more at ease than he had in Paris; after all, he said, he’d played "fantastic rounds of golf" since the French Open. He happily talked about his admiration for golfer Rory McIlroy; Nadal always seems relieved to be able to talk about another star athlete—he’s the same way when asked about Roger Federer—and direct the attention away from himself. Nadal also took issue with a reporter’s assessment that he was “closing in very quickly on Roger’s 16 major events.”
“No, very far,” Nadal said.
“I am not close to the 16 of Roger’s; 16 is a lot. What do you think? (He smiled.)
The reporter wasn’t buying it. He thought Rafa would be closer very soon. “It could be three or four by the end of the year if you win here and the U.S. Open.”
“Yeah,” Nadal said with a snort, “I don’t know. We can dream about a lot of things. For me is a dream. Maybe not for you. You watch that in a different perspective of mine. I saw that very, very far, how competitive was this sport. Last year was in my opinion, very impossible to repeat: three Grand Slam in a row. . . . Repeat what I did last year is something that I for sure don’t think.”
Now it will most likely be said that Nadal is poor-mouthing his chances here again, intentionally downplaying them to take the pressure off himself. He’s not. He’s saying something that’s true from a player's point of view, which is a point of view that, to my surprise, most observers don’t share. We seem to think that Nadal should win majors all the time, because he’s the best, he’s No. 1. He did it last year, why can’t he do it again? Only Nadal knows how many dozens of little things in those Slam runs could very easily have gone wrong and sent him away a loser on a given day. He knows that he should win most of the time, but that he should also lose some, too.
Serena followed Rafa in. She carried a big handbag and wore a sweatshirt with Nike emblazoned across the front. She showed reporters her foot scars and told them that she still didn’t know how she got the cuts there last summer, but that when it happened there was a puddle of blood around her. She also said that she’s off blood thinners, but she did take an injection of Lovenox to guard against deep vein thrombosis.
Serena was also in a good mood. My favorite part of her pressers is when she starts talking as if she’s on the phone with a friend. “I was fine physically when I got off the court,” she said of how she felt last week. Then her eyes bulged and she smiled; her guard was down. “My mom was so worried about me. I keep telling her I’m OK. She’s like, ‘If you feel anything, just stop, come off the court.’ I’m like, ‘Mom, the doctor said I would be OK.’”
A little later the clouds parted long enough to allow a few practice courts to dry. It had been a quiet scene in that area for most of the day. Early in the afternoon, Milos Raonic and Juan Martin del Potro chatted—giants attract, apparently—while Novak Djokovic returned serves on the only open court. One problem: It didn’t have a net, so two guys from Djokovic’s team tried to hold a rope across the court at net level. It didn't work.
By 4:00, though, a few more courts had opened, and there was a mad rush of pros for them. They went four to a court for rapid-fire 40-minute practice shifts. Grass has always been about winging it to a degree, and this was all the warm-up on the stuff that they were going to get before going live tomorrow. It was bang-bang-bang, hit as many balls as you can before you have to go. Sam Stosur hit with Sabine Lisicki and next to Melanie Oudin; media sensation John Isner pounded serves from on high; Ernests Gulbis and two other players formed a line and waited to take their cuts, as if they were in a junior group lesson. Ferrer did crosscourts with Simon, while somehow Ramirez-Hidalgo had a whole side of a court to himself.
Even from several courts away, one player stood out in this mass turbo-workout. He was down in a far corner, slapping balls without moving much—you don’t get to move a whole lot when you have to share a baseline. While his colleagues did their thing in T-shirts, this player was in collared shirt and monogrammed sweater vest. He banged forehands and backhands back to Ivan Ljubicic and often made a grunting noise that didn’t go with his immaculate attire.
At one point he came to the net and hit a volley. After he hit it, he picked up a ball and kept moving forward. Without breaking stride, and while he was on top of the net, he took a Ljubicic drive and volleyed it behind his back. It went in. He kept moving forward. Ljubicic hit another drive, at head level. This time the sweater-vested player reached across the net and flicked the ball straight down. It bounced off the net, on Ljubicic’s side, before hitting the ground. I’d never seen that before.
Roger Federer had invented a new shot. It was time for Wimbledon to begin.