Just over a fortnight ago, I arrived at Wimbledon on a Friday morning. It is always a zombie-like feeling, to get off a flight from San Francisco to London and by afternoon be on the grounds of the All England Club. Some years, all I can do is stagger. Other times, events snap me into attention.
Immediately east of Tennis Channel’s Wimbledon Primetime studio lies Court 14. On that Friday, I strolled to the court. There, practicing on the pristine lawn, was Roger Federer. No more than two dozen of us sat alongside it in the bleacher seats, watching Federer from a distance of ten feet.
Much to my delight, one of the spectators was John Barrett. Without turning this into a dissertation, the man informally known as “JB” is tennis’ true renaissance man – a daunting and dazzling combination of Davis Cup player, racquet designer, BBC broadcaster, elegant writer, fitting inductee of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. JB has authored numerous books about tennis, including several on various aspects of Wimbledon. Consider him the gold standard of tennis historians, knowledge, style and longevity fitting him like a glove.
So to take in a Federer practice session alongside a man of Barrett’s significance was sublime. We compared notes on the stylistic affinity Federer has with the greats; among the legendary Australians, arguably more so with the deft and enduring Ken Rosewall (Barrett’s lifelong favorite) than the more familiar Rod Laver. Barrett and I are both lefthanders, so naturally the conversation drifted from the southpaw Laver to other notable lefties, particularly those of Barrett’s time such as ’54 Wimbledon champ Jaroslav Drobny – “a big serve and great forehand,” said Barrett – to a McEnroe-like player, ’50 US winner Art Larsen. “Larsen liked to extend rallies just to hit all his wonderful shots,” said Barrett.
Then it was back to Federer. “Such balance, so light on his feet,” said Barrett. The question hung in the air: Could Federer win a record eighth Wimbledon. Barrett, having missed just one day of The Championships since 1950 (to attend his son’s graduation), might well have said this: That’s what we’re here to see.
And so, full circle, here is Federer once again in the finals. Barrett will be there, paying close attention, as he always has.