by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

WIMBLEDON — Oh, great. As if sitting through a week of rain-interrupted tennis and having a match called because of darkness and getting stuck in the hinterlands of the outside courts where the cheers from the big stadium erupt just as you’re trying to serve — as if all that weren’t enough for Todd Martin, today he gets to be the most hated man at Wimbledon, and the enemy of all England.


“Are you aware or interested in who you’re playing in the quarterfinals?” a British reporter coyly asked Martin on Tuesday.

“I’m aware,” Martin answered. “And I’m interested — although not for the same reasons as you.”

The reason for such great interest here is simple. Martin’s opponent is a 21-year-old Englishman named Tim Henman, who looks like he should be rowing on the Oxford crew team, all high black hair and toothy smile. Henman was a nobody before last week, even in Great Britain, but he won his first match, upsetting French Open champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and he won his second match and his third match, and he keeps winning and the British fans keep leaping onto his bandwagon and one or two more victories and he can bump Prince Charles out of office.

You have to understand, these Brits are so hungry for a sports hero, they would adopt Dennis Rodman.

“Are you worried about playing Henman and being the most hated man on Centre Court?” Martin was asked.

“I look at it this way,” he said, “at least I’m on Centre Court.”

Good answer. How does Martin stay so calm? How does he remain so rational? How does he keep such a huge match in perspective?

Easy. He’s from Michigan.

Hey. If they’re gonna root, I’m gonna root.

Martin, Washington and McGrath

Besides, if there is any theme to the American players still alive in this Wimbledon Of The Small Seeds, it is our home state. I am not being shameless here. Consider:

Martin is in the quarterfinals. He’s from Lansing.

Mal Washington is in the quarterfinals. He went to school at Michigan.

Meredith McGrath is in the semifinals. She’s from Midland.

In fact, the only American player left here — male or female — who doesn’t have a Michigan connection is Pete Sampras. And I’m sure his plane has landed at Metro a few times.

By the way, as long as we’re mentioning Washington, how about a hand for the guy? He’s been grappling with his enormous potential for years now, and there is the added burden of being one of the few blacks in a mostly white sport. The minute he has some success, reporters start fishing out that angle, and he has to start answering all those questions again.

Washington had never been further than the second round here at Wimbledon, and the last two years he was knocked out in the first round. Yet today he’s in the quarterfinals, against unknown Alexander Radulescu, and he has a good chance to make it all the way to the big show on Sunday afternoon.

“In years past, I came in with a bit of a negative attitude, because I hadn’t had success here,” Washington admitted. “I would be like, ‘Jeez, we’re back on grass and it’s gonna be cloudy and raining’ and you know, just kind of feeling sorry for myself. This year, I had a fresher approach. I’m trying to be real positive.”

Of course, we know the biggest reason he’s doing well here in England: his family is from Swartz Creek, Mich.

Hey. If they can root, I can root.

And let’s not forget McGrath, whose performance may be the biggest surprise of all. Here is a young woman who doesn’t have a coach, doesn’t even get mentioned in the womens’ tour media guide, and was told by doctors to retire from the sport due to a thigh injury a few years ago, and instead, she battles on and battles back, and she is now one of the four women left standing in the world’s biggest tennis tournament.

“I just stopped shaking a few minutes ago,” McGrath said, after her quarterfinal win over Mary Jo Fernandez. “This is so exciting for me. I never expected this coming into this tournament. I was just hoping to win my first match.”

First match? On Thursday, she plays Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, and the winner goes to the finals.

By the way, for the last few years, McGrath has been living with her adopted American family in Zurich. She loves the mountains, the lakes, riding her bike in the shadow of the Alps. But next month, the family is moving back stateside. And McGrath is going with them. You know where they’re going?


Are you getting my drift here? . . .

Unfold your Michigan hand maps

OK. Let’s get back to Martin, who has to topple the new James Bond in order to keep his Wimbledon dream alive. Centre Court today will be like the Boston Tea Party in reverse, with the Brits hoping to throw the American kid overboard. Already, this place has bent in the favor of the unknown local guy, giving unseeded Henman (ranked 62nd in the world) several Centre Court matches, while Martin, the 13th seed and a former semifinalist here, has been shipped out to the cheap courts all tournament long.

“Will that be an advantage to Henman?” a British reporter asked hopefully.

Martin smiled. “Did you ever see the movie Hoosiers? This little basketball team from Indiana goes to play the big tournament in the big stadium, and they measure the court before the game and see that it’s the same size as the one back home.

“All the courts here are the same. I’ll be fine.”

Ha! How about that? The Brits don’t know what to make of such candid, lucid logic. They also never heard of “Hoosiers.”

No matter. Martin is 26, McGrath is 25 and Washington is 27. They are united by their years of patience, by their underdog status, by the feeling that now is the time to step up and finally win one of these Grand Slams — and by one other thing: The hand that they hold up and point to when you ask which part of Michigan they come from. This may be the land of strawberries and cream, but for the next day or so, there’ll be a little Sanders Hot Fudge in the mix.

I’ll explain that to you chaps in a second.

And by the way, to all those Brits who’ll be rooting against the Americans today. One last question: how are you celebrating the Fourth of July?

Oh, that’s right. You don’t.

If they can root . . .


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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