The year Wimbledon stayed green

Image: Julian Finney/Getty images
As a teenager I looked forward to two events each year more than anything else. One was Christmas and the other was Wimbledon.

I looked forward to Wimbledon because I was about as nerdish as a tennis-playing teen could get, and grass court tennis was my text book.

I looked forward to Christmas because that nerdiness would be satisfied through the gift of a Stefan Edberg tracksuit.

Yes, the presents (if you were lucky) food and sneaking of underage booze was all well and good, but for a period between 1988 and 1993 the new Edberg outfit defined Christmas for me.

My parents must have had an Edberg only account at the local sports store, because that is all I wanted as a gift, which is lucky because at the ludicrously inflated sports gear price it was all I was going to get.

He was my hero.

Edberg’s symphonically smooth grass court play had such a formative effect on me that without it I would certainly not be the tennis-obsessed man I am today.

I would often wear my Edberg inspired warm-up suit as I stayed up watching him try (sometimes in vain) to ward off that other handy serve-volleyer in Boris Becker.

Wimbledon has always been that most quaint and polite of sporting contests, where every man in the crowd seemed decked out in Panama hats trying vainly to keep the rare English sun off their face, while the ladies used their programs to fan themselves while all heads shifted back and forth following the fluffy, bright yellow ball.

And before players decided that performing their best Screaming Jay Hawkins impersonation seemed appropriate each time they hit a ball, it was the most quiet of events.

A place where the squeak and scrape of tennis shoes was replaced with the almost beautifully deadened sound of sneakers on grass, grass that from the moment it appeared on your television screen behind ‘Newk’s’ Cheshire Cat-like smile almost dazzled you with its greenness.

But over the course of the tournament Edberg and his fellow net-rushing raiders would forge white worn paths to the Wimbledon nets, all in the hope of picking off a kick serve-effected, looping return with a backhand volley into the opposite corner.

This white path was the main indicator to how deep into the tournament the match was occurring, and the deeper you got the more grass court tennis you saw.

It was a style so different to that which was played just a week or so earlier on the Paris clay, and it spoke volumes to the diversity of style in the sport.

Fast-forward to 2013 and not even the English Channel can separate the players from their French Open style.

Recent Wimbledons have stood out less for a player’s stellar net and traditional grass court play, and more for a player’s ability in clay court-style lateral baseline scrambles.

Wimbledon tournaments that included players like Edberg, Becker, Navratilova, Graf, Rafter, Sampras now seem like odes to a bygone era, when grass court tennis was an art form and players used the whole of a court, rather than merely the baseline in between the doubles tracks, to beat an opponent.

This years Wimbledon seems to have exposed the lack of grass court experience professionals are afforded, and it’s the absence of the hitherto white tracks leading to the net on centre court that gives this away.

Those that get to the hallowed Wimbledon net greet it like a sinister stranger, and maybe it is this fear of the unknown that causes panic and a sudden shift on unworn slippery grass.

The net snares another unprepared victim.

Like an unused bushwalking track, those white paths have not reappeared and the evidence of how to get from the baseline to the net has vanished.

Wimbledon now starts and ends green.

Many are blaming this greenness on the spate of injuries and big name loses that plagued the early rounds, like an unforgiving environment swallowing up ill-prepared explorers.

Wimbledon is not only a major, but it is also one of only eight tournaments that is still played on this most traditional of surfaces, and it’s the apparent slow death of supporting grass court events that will see Wimbledon even more isolated on its sea of green, leaving even less traditional grass court tennis.

The game is certainly not the same and the job of Wimbledon’s centre court curator just keeps getting easier.

'Now's The Time' for Jackson Bird

Here's hoping Bird can blow a few English wickets away
With a name like Jackson Bird, there are so many word plays and analogies you could riff on. There’s ‘a Bird in the hand is worth two English wickets’ or ‘Jackson’s 5-for’, to name just a couple.

But my favourite, and perhaps most appropriate, references the 1940’s Jazz great, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker.

The baggy greens have already had one supporting fast bowler linked by name to a famous jazzman. So I wonder, could Jackson Bird put a beat on England and become our next Dizzy Gillespie?

I have no idea if Jackson Bird enjoys jazz, or whether or not he has heard of the likes of Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk or indeed Charlie Parker.

If his musical interests are cut from the traditional moulds of the Australian cricket team, he will no doubt espouse the virtues of pub rock, be able to monkishly recite the lyrics to Khe Sanh and believe the Choirboys never got the recognition they fully deserved.

But metaphorically, and perhaps literally, Bird has more in common with the smooth and subtle jazz greats than howling Aussie rockers.

On a superficial level, Parker’s nickname, ‘Yardbird’, or more commonly ‘Bird’, is an obvious starting point.

And then there’s the fact that Charlie Parker played with, and for a time was mentored by, Dizzy Gillespie, a name not unfamiliar within baggy green circles.

But more importantly, Charlie Parker was a formidable and precocious talent. From the first time people saw ‘Bird’ on stage, his potential to become one of the greats was barely questioned.

Jackson Bird has himself proven a formidable and precocious talent. In just two first class seasons, Bird has taken 101 wickets at 19. Perhaps even more impressive is that in 37 innings, he has taken four or more wickets on 13 occasions.

And when Bird graduated from the dark jazz club underground of domestic cricket into the shining spotlight of nationally televised performance, he played with the precision and accuracy that bellied the nerves he must have felt.

Charlie Parker hit every note pitch perfect and on time, a rhythmic ability that saw subtle shifts in his progressions seem like monumental swings.

Jackson Bird hits the pitch at seemingly perfect points, a rhythmic ability that sees subtle shifts in his actions seem like monumental swing.

Parker was smooth and metronomic, and mesmerised those that stood before him.

Bird is smooth and metronomic, and can mesmerise batsmen that face him.

He has only played two Tests but his record of 11 wickets at 16 and the way in which he gained it, was mighty impressive. He bowled tight and hit a consistently worrying length. (Though admittedly, these results came at the expense of a somewhat overpowered Sri Lankan team.)

The 2013 Ashes tour sees Bird get the opportunity to cement his place in an Australian team crying out for stability and consistency, something he can surely offer.

One of my favourite ‘Bird’ tunes is titled ‘Now’s The Time’, and for his Australian cricketing namesake, this song rings very true.

His time is now and Bird’s bid for a Test berth begins with the coming tour match against Worcester.

If Bird delivers a typically accurate and miserly performance in his opening tour match, it will be very difficult for selectors to ignore him and his metronomic action, one that is potentially so well suited to Anglo conditions.

In this regard, he has inevitably (maybe unfortunately) been hailed as the second coming of another Australian cricket bird, the one more specifically known as ‘pigeon’; Glenn McGrath.

McGrath, along with Shane Warne, is increasingly becoming a messianic figure in Australian cricket. Players we all hope will be somehow reincarnated and return to lead our bat-wielding band into the next era of success.

But in the words of a true jazzman, Bird is his own man, man. He won’t have the same greatest of all time support that McGrath so often enjoyed at the opposite end. He will likely be better suited to a supporting role, much like Dizzy before him.

And like the great saxophonist, Australia will hope Jackson locks into a groove that seldom falls out of time, tapping a beat that resembles the fluttering hearts of English batsmen as Bird helps blow their wickets away.