WIMBLEDON, England — As we begin the second week of the world’s most famous tennis tournament, let me bring you up to date on what’s happened:
I know. That sounds like soccer. And I said I would talk about tennis. But the fact is . . .
OH, YES! A GOOD STRIKE FOR ENGLAND!
…even at the tennis, the biggest story is …
ENGLAND ADVANCES TO THE SECOND ROUND!
Yes. Soccer. Even at Wimbledon the grass is greener on the other side of the channel — namely, France, where the World Cup is being played. Why, Brits who normally attend this tennis tournament with their noses in the air are now sighing and yearning to be “over there,” where their lads are kicking balls, and their fans are kicking heads.
(By the way, I asked a local cabbie why Brits get so violent at soccer games, and he said, “Well, we’re good at violence, aren’t we?” They could say the same thing about having bad teeth. That doesn’t mean you brag about it.)
Anyhow, all this soccer, or “football,” as they call it (although it’s hard for me, as an American, to call anything “football” that doesn’t have at least one Dallas Cowboy getting arrested), is causing a lot of hand-wringing at Wimbledon. The folks who run this tournament have always believed there is no other sporting event in the world. They ignore the World Cup. They ordered the matches not to be shown on the big-screen TVs around the grounds.
And everyone just laughs at them. Because the fact is, as long as England is winning, the World Cup is Leonardo DiCaprio and Wimbledon is Danny DeVito.
Want proof? The other day, British favorite Tim Henman was playing on Centre Court. He’s the best hope for a tennis champion that England has had in years. And he was constantly interrupted by British fans yelling, “Hurry ‘er up, Tim! We want to get home and see the football!”
A tragic Tuesday looms
As you can imagine, Wimbledon is embarrassed by all of this. And it’s going to get worse, as England plays another World Cup match Tuesday, against hated Argentina, at 8 p.m. — which means somewhere around 7 there’ll be an exodus from Wimbledon that Moses would envy.
And I haven’t even mentioned the players who have made their exit. Particularly the men. Andre Agassi, the only American who seems to interest the Brits, bowed out in the second round to a 20-year-old German named Tommy Haas. (Be honest. You hate to lose to anyone named Tommy.) And Marcelo Rios, the No. 2 seed and perpetually hot-tempered star from Chile, not only lost in Wimbledon’s first round but spat at its legend on his way out.
“Wimbledon isn’t really important,” he sniffed. “Tennis on grass is not tennis. It’s boring. I’m leaving. I want to see the World Cup.”
Ouch. Talk about the wrong thing to say.
The men’s side also lost last year’s runner-up, Cedric Pioline of France
(don’t tell me, he’s going home to watch the World Cup), and local favorite Greg Rusedski, who was raised in Canada, now claims he’s British, and who cares, he’s out.
Whom does that leave? Oh, such stirring names as Petr Korda, Goran Ivanisevic and Wayne Ferreira. And of course, Pete Sampras. He’s the four-time champion, the best in the business. He may be the best tennis player ever.
And last week, he walked right through the main gates of Wimbledon and not a single person came up to him. Not an autograph. Not a pat on the back.
Of course, if he were carrying a soccer ball….
Maybe women will attract fans
Women. Who said women? Oh. I did. And it’s a good thing. Because the women will provide most of the drama, plot lines and personality of Wimbledon. Monica Seles is weaving a feel-good comeback attempt. And as far as I know, fans haven’t yelled at Martina Hingis to hurry up so they can go home and watch Switzerland kick soccer balls.
Hingis is still playing well, still grinning that toothy grin, and still talking as if she’s the most popular girl in high school and she knows it. When someone asked her last week if she were concerned about the return of seven-time Wimbledon champion Steffi Graf, Hingis seemed to bite her lip.
“Let’s just say it takes a lot of willpower for her to come back,” she said.
Sound cocky? It was. It was also prophetic. Graf, still recovering from injuries and family woes, was knocked out in the third round by unseeded Natasha Zvereva. You have to wonder if, at 29, Graf hasn’t become your favorite old pickup truck, too sentimental to leave behind, but too broken down to make the long trip.
Besides, how old must Graf feel when she looks at the challengers? Here is Hingis, already the defending champion at age 17. Two coming rivals are the American sisters, Venus and Serena Williams, ages 18 and 16. And a semifinalist last year was another 17-year-old, Anna Kournikova, whom Detroiters know as Sergei Fedorov’s “special” friend and whom the Brits know as “sex kitten.”
The tabloids are so in love with Kournikova that, when she withdrew with an injured thumb, one paper declared “MEN: WIMBLEDON IS OVER!”
That’s not true, yet. But Tuesday night at 8, you might fire a cannon through this place and not hit anything but Sampras.
Let’s hope he has some ID in his wallet.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.