At the 1969 Wimbledon tennis tournament, the Californian Pancho Gonzales met Charlie Pasarell, who is from Puerto Rico and for years has taken an important role in the sport as executive and commentator, in the third round. Gonzales was 41; Pasarell, 25. The match lasted more than five hours over two days, with Gonzales winning in five sets, three of them among the most arduous — 24-22 Passarel, 16-14 and 11-9 Gonzales — on record.
Sports venues have their legendary moments; the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, in earlier times a tony London suburb and since the mid-1960s absorbed into Greater London, has held the fortnight of tennis excellence known simply as The Championships, for over 120 years, so you can be sure it preserves quite a few. The Gonzales-Pasarell match was of little significance for the outcome of the tournament that year (won by Rod Laver who, like Gonzales, had missed many years due to the amateur rule, confirming that Open tournaments made sense if the idea was to bring the best players to the most storied tournaments), but it helped confirm the reputation of Pancho Gonzales as one of the toughest, as well as most athletic, players of all time. It also led to the adoption of the tiebreak.
The 2008 final, re-created in a dramatic narrative by L. Jon Wertheim in Strokes of Genius, confirmed the unmistakable contribution that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal brought to tennis – an all-court game, albeit with highly distinct styles of play.
For the better part of the decade, either Federer and Nadal, or both, found themselves in the final match at the major tournaments as well as at many of the others. Their rivalry became, according to tennis executives, one of the major attractions of the sport. With a new decade and the emergence of a new top player, Novak Djokovic, there is, reportedly, real concern that the marketability of the game will take a dive.
This must be the kind of nonsense that comes from people paid to analyze futures; if a two-way rivalry sells, why should a three-way rivalry not sell? Federer and Nadal both have an additional incentive to keep improving their game, which is what Djokovic did to catch up with and, evidently, surpass them.
One important incentive, however, is provided not by competitors but by the tax authorities, according to Boris Johnson, London’s mayor. Mr. Johnson, himself a tennis player and acute observer of the game, suggested in the Telegraph, where he writes a regular column, that one of the problems with French and British players is that they are over-taxed. Also they never win. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France knocked out Federer in a quarter-final match that turned into a gripping test of nerves with a minimum of service breaks, but he was in turn dispatched fairly easily in the next round by Novak Djokovic, who is from Serbia, a low-tax country in the Balkans.
To see what the mayor means, Andy Murray would owe over 50 percent of his million-plus pound purse (had he won it), if you count the national health insurance dues, whereas Roger Federer, who lives in Basel, a quiet large town of discreet wealth in low-tax Switzerland, would owe less than 15 percent, while Czechs and Russians, like Serbs, scarcely go above 20 percent of earnings in their contributions to the national purse. Sort of undercuts the old killer instinct, because on the margin, as Arthur Laffer and Jude Wanniski used to ask, what’s all the effort for? This may explain why the good-natured good sport Andy Roddick, carrying our colors (you have to picture them, as whites are de rigueur at the Championships, thank etiquette for small things), faltered in that other great epic, the 2009 five-set final against the mighty Federer, the last one going to 30 games; why, any Wall Street Journal editorialist can hear the voice of his accountant coming through, “Say, kid, relax, I just computed the marginal rate…”
When he was young and hungry, Andy Roddick repeatedly made it to the gentlemen’s singles finals and fell short; even so, Mr. Johnson’s notion is somewhat blunted by Pete Sampras’ remarkable run in the 1990s (seven championships), and consider too that the outstanding doubles team, Mike and Bob Bryan, won again this year, equaling the record in their category set by the great Woodies in the 1990s — the Australian champions Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde. But economic principles exist to be breached by exceptions, and neither an old sport like Mr. Johnson nor a public court derelict like myself would have the bad manners to insinuate that sports champions are in it primarily for the money, and anyway it means one thing to live in England and another to live in the Czech Republic. According to the new Wimbledon ladies’ champion, Miss Petra Kvitova, there are only four courts in her home town. She beat the shrieking Russian princess, Maria Sharapova, with relentless power shots worthy of a Williams. Off court she is sweet and low-key, drives a Skoda, a fine sensible low-key automobile. However, consider too that I have counted only two courts in Mauritania, and yet taxes are very very low there (so is per capita income), so I do not know about the universality of the famous supply-side theories and how they work outside our blessedly exceptional nation.
Still, this is an important issue and it was civic of the mayor to bring it up. Mr. Tyrrell and I have been discussing the possibility of drafting him for the Republican presidential nomination. Although we are awaiting the expert opinion of our Constitutional sage Professor J. Rabkin, it would seem that Mr. Johnson, born in New York City (in 1964), would be eligible. As the governors of New Jersey and Texas hesitate, the draft-Johnson idea may well gain steam. Londoners might resent losing the man who rescued them from “Red Ken” Livingstone, but they surely understand the special relationship has its obligations as well as its advantages.
Should it happen, I might have a better chance of playing on the White House tennis courts than visiting the All-England Championships, because Mr. Tyrrell, though visiting England, did not exert his clout with the lord mayor to get me an in and now they are over. I wanted, myself, to go on a day he would be there, in order to discuss all these important matters (not during points, of course, but you can get tea after and chat up the old boy), I hoped this could be arranged and I would focus earnestly on public issues after a fond reverie in the bleachers at Centre Court, or even in one of the lesser courts, a nostalgic walk down High Street, perhaps a tube ride to South Kensington to sit in one of my favorite pubs, though at the rate things are going I would be more likely to head for the East End. I apologize for such sentimental rot, but you know. Also I was hoping for a chance to ask Mr. Johnson about his support for Barack Obama in 2008 and his views on how it all worked out in the ex-Colonies.
But you cannot be selfish. Even if you cannot sit in the seats above Centre Court you can read about Wimbledon’s great history in numerous fine books, such as Wertheim’s or Mathew Cronin’s Epic, which has quite a few pages on Wimbledon because it is concerned with still another famous rivalry which culminated there, the one opposing John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg.. Now we are looking toward the hard-court season, and further developments in this ever-evolving game that always stays like Wimbledon like London like England in most important ways the same.