WIMBLEDON, England, June 19 - Tennis fans of a certain age will be feeling the weight of the years more keenly than usual when Wimbledon begins on Monday.
It has now been a quarter-century since Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe collaborated on an extended character study happily disguised as the 1980 Wimbledon final. The thousands who watched it in person and the millions who watched it on the small screen or heard it on radio, including the imprisoned Nelson Mandela on Robben Island off the coast of South Africa, might remember only the sketchiest of match details: above all, the parry and thrust of the great tie breaker in the fourth set. Some of them might not even recall that though McEnroe won that epic tie breaker, 18-16, Borg resolutely won the fifth set and his fifth straight Wimbledon.
But those who had their face pressed against the fish bowl that afternoon will never forget the basic plot line: brash, creative, net-rushing arriviste (McEnroe) and impassive, consistent, baseline-loving champion (Borg) bringing out the best in each other at exactly the right moment on exactly the right court.
It was actually an uneven contest in the early going, with neither man playing well at the same time as his opponent. But down the stretch, it was as close to even as tennis allows. Wimbledon has had other great finals - including Goran Ivanisevic's five-set victory over Patrick Rafter in 2001 - but it has never seen another occasion quite like that Borg-McEnroe summit meeting, which, in retrospect, was the sonic peak of the global tennis boom.
Twenty-five years might not be much time to a geologist, but it is enough time for the antiestablishment McEnroe, once denied membership in the All England Club because of his mouth, to have become the established voice of the tournament via his Wimbledon commentary on the BBC; enough time for Borg to have scraped bottom because of drug, money and marital problems before slowly swimming back to the surface; enough time for today's stars to have no firsthand recollection of "the match" or of Borg and McEnroe in their primes.
"Especially I remember Pete Sampras," said the 19-year-old Rafael Nadal, the freshly minted French Open champion. "When I was young, he won every year."
So it must have seemed to Nadal, the young Spaniard, as he caught snippets of the granddaddy of all tennis tournaments on his island home of Majorca. In fact, Sampras won Wimbledon three times in a row, from 1993 to 1995, lost to Richard Krajicek, the eventual champion, in the quarterfinals in 1996, and then won four more times in a row.
But Roger Federer is the one on the big grass-court roll at this faster-paced stage in tennis history, and unless Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, Mario Ancic, Nadal or somebody else plays the match of his life and Federer does not, it is difficult to imagine that Federer will not soon be celebrating a third straight Wimbledon crown.
That said, there have been hints of Federer's vulnerability on grass this year, including taxing matches with Robin Soderling of Sweden in the first round at the warm-up tournament in Halle, Germany, and with Safin in the final. But Federer still had enough to extend his winning streak on grass to 29 matches, the second-longest run of the Open era behind Borg's 41 - all at Wimbledon - between 1976 and 1981.
"I don't think I'm invincible," Federer said on Sunday. "I should have lost in the first round last week, but I came through and won. It's always very tough on grass because it's only a matter of a few points. That's been the difference over the last 29 matches, so hopefully I can keep it up."
Though Federer has lost some of his cushion and ability to intimidate in recent months, the three-of-five set format should give him the chance to bring the full heft and range of his talent to bear on grass. He clearly has the means along with the motivation to win Wimbledon, having failed to reach a Grand Slam final so far this year.
He also has the sort of inviting early-round draw that the depth of the modern game rarely allows, with Nicolas Kiefer the only player in his eighth of the draw who possesses reasonably good grass-court credentials.
Federer's seemingly smooth path is in stark contrast to the hill country that awaits the second-seeded Roddick, who could face the tallest man to play at Wimbledon, Ivo Karlovic of Croatia, in the second round. Karlovic, at 6 feet 10, engineered one of the biggest upsets in the history of the tournament by beating Hewitt in the first round when Hewitt was the defending champion in 2003. Karlovic also pushed Roddick to two tie breakers in the final at Queens Club eight days ago.
Roddick's victory gave him his third straight title at Queens. "For me, he's the biggest threat of all," Federer said.
Nonetheless, other snakes in the grass in Roddick's quarter of the draw include Soderling, Xavier Malisse of Belgium, Sébastien Grosjean of France and Tim Henman of Britain.
Henman could still have a special Wimbledon in him, and perhaps the lack of buzz about his prospects in this thus-far disappointing year will allow him to run for his forehand and rush the net more freely.
At age 30, he is ever more the long shot, however. But at least he is healthy enough to still report for duty. Andre Agassi, at 35, was unable to get ready in time after the latest cortisone injection to alleviate pain in his lower back, and he may have played his last match at the All England Club, although he is still planning a full schedule on North American hard courts heading into the United States Open.
"I'm sure this is not easy for him," said Nick Bollettieri, who was Agassi's coach when he first came to Wimbledon in 1987. "I hope and pray that he is able to come back for the U.S. Open, but one never knows."
Agassi's absence only underscores the shrinking American presence at Wimbledon, a tournament the United States once dominated in terms of quantity and quality. This year it has nine men in the singles. Spain, France and Germany all have more, and if not for late withdrawals that allowed the lucky losers Paul Goldstein and Justin Gimelstob into the draw, the United States would have been behind Britain and the Czech Republic, too.
Australia, another tennis nation that once cast a long shadow in the afternoons here, is down to four men's singles players and will also have to do without its leading women's player, Alicia Molik, who looked like a potential Wimbledon winner earlier this year but ended up having to withdraw because of her slow recovery from a serious inner-ear infection that affected her balance.
Australia does still have Hewitt, who has played only half as many tournaments this season as rivals like Federer, Safin and Nadal. Hewitt began paring his schedule three years ago in an attempt to keep fresh for the Grand Slam events and Davis Cup, but this year has been even more minimalist than usual because of a toe infection that required surgery and two cracked ribs, sustained in a fall down a staircase.
Hewitt was miffed that the Wimbledon seeding formula put him third behind Roddick, who, unlike Hewitt, has never won here. But perhaps after seeing Roddick's early draw, he feels better about his fate. The negative remains that he is in Federer's half of the draw, along with Safin, the big and emotive Russian who threatened never to return to Wimbledon after losing in the first round last year, but has been talking and playing a more positive game this season despite a sore knee.
Grass, once the game's primary surface, has now turned into a taste that usually needs to be acquired. But though neither Majorca nor Spain had grass courts when Nadal was growing up, he is much more enthusiastic about the surface than most of his Iberian predecessors. Even before he captured the French Open, he was expressing his desire to win here one day, although he cheerfully admits that the day has not yet arrived.
"At Roland Garros, I can beat Roger because it's my best surface," he said of the clay. "On a hard court, if I play my best tennis and he doesn't, I can win. But here, he is too much better."
Federer may not turn out to be his biggest concern here. Richard Gasquet, the second-most remarkable 19-year-old in the men's game, looked ominously comfortable on grass on his way to the title in Nottingham, England, on Saturday, and he could pose a greater threat to Nadal in the third round at Wimbledon than he did to him in the third round in Paris.
Nadal is not yet the sort of rival for Federer that McEnroe was for Borg, and he may never be. Too much has changed in 25 years, including tennis's place in society. But there is already at least one link between the eras. Last week, when McEnroe played a senior event in Croatia, he was wearing a version of Nadal's three-quarter length, clam-digger pants. The sleeveless shirt, for now, will have to wait.