Chris Lewis: How the world number 91 reached the 1983 Wimbledon final

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Only three men have faced John McEnroe in a Wimbledon singles final: Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Chris Lewis (left)

If Novak Djokovic justifies his pre-tournament favorite tag, this will be the 20th consecutive Wimbledon that one of the ‘big four’ has won the men’s singles title.

Even surprise finalists are rare: Only three times in the past two decades has the runner-up come from outside the world’s top 10 in those finals against Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray.

One man who knows all about causing a Wimbledon upset final is Chris Lewis.

40 years ago, the New Zealander stunned the tennis world by reaching the men’s singles final as world number 91.

His is the story of a boy passionate about tennis who set an ambitious goal at age 11 after watching his idols compete at a tournament in New Zealand.

“That’s when I made the decision that I wanted to become a professional tennis player and that Wimbledon for me was the dream of my life,” he told BBC Sport.

But his journey to realize that dream would take several turns.

In 1975, Lewis seemed well on his way – as the world’s number one junior, he won the boys’ title at the All England Club. But senior success was harder to come by and when Wimbledon came around in 1983, there was no sign of a Grand Slam breakthrough.

In fact, it was quite the opposite.

“I had been a professional for nine years and I was playing the worst tennis of my career to date,” he says. And a bout of food poisoning at the French Open weeks before Wimbledon did little for his confidence.

But his lack of form “was also a catalyst” for him to start playing well at Wimbledon.

He decided he must not “tread water” any more and, aided by Australian tennis legend Tony Roche – his former idol who was now his coach – and fellow Kiwi Jeff Simpson, Lewis threw himself into some intense physical training the championships.

The hard work paid off immediately as he came through two five-setters in his first three rounds to reach a Grand Slam fourth round for the first time.

But along with success came nerves – the night before his round of 16 match against Nigerian Nduka Odizor, who had already defeated fourth seed Guillermo Vilas, Lewis “didn’t sleep a wink”.

His unorthodox solution – a 90-minute pre-match nap on the dressing room bathroom floor – worked and he won in straight sets and “played some of the best tennis I’ve ever played”.

A hard-fought quarter-final victory over American Mel Purcell, who, like all but one of Lewis’ seven opponents at Wimbledon, was ranked higher than the New Zealander, meant he was in the semi-finals.

Standing between him and the Wimbledon final was South African-born Kevin Curran, the grass-loving 12th seed who had beaten world number one Jimmy Connors earlier in the tournament.

The semi-final was an epic – described by legendary BBC commentator John Barrett as “the match of the Championships” – with Lewis finally victorious after three hours and 45 minutes.

“I actually got a call from British Telecom who told me they had never seen so many telegrams for a single player in the history of the tournament,” says Lewis, who also received a congratulatory call from then New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon.

Waiting for the final was John McEnroe, who was in the midst of a streak of five consecutive Wimbledon finals.

“People always ask me, ‘did you think you had a chance to win?’ and the answer is a definite ‘yes’,” he says. “The reason is that you’ve just won six matches against the best tennis players in the world – there’s almost a feeling of invincibility that goes out on the court.

“Unfortunately, John felt the same way and he played the best tennis of his career.”

“To put it in context, had I beaten John, it probably would have been one of the biggest upsets in the history of the game,” he says. “I look back on it with pride because I gave it my all. It was the culmination of what was 15 years of dedication and relentless hard work.”

He had secured his place in the history books and not just as the first unseeded player in the Open era to reach a Wimbledon singles final. He was also the first man to reach a Grand Slam final with the then revolutionary rackets with oversized heads.

“In the late 70’s/early 80’s there was a technical revolution in racquet and tennis equipment that the world had never seen before – it went from a 63. [square] inch head size to mine, which was 110,” he said.

“It was basically like learning how to play the game again. I took a lot of time off to familiarize myself with the new racquet because I saw that it was going to be the future. It turned out that I was one of the very first to make the transition, but it was not an easy task.”

Lewis moved to the US in 2006 and now runs a tennis academy in California where he oversees the development of 800 young players.

It’s a fitting occupation for someone who has always been quick to credit the importance of environment and role models in his own career.

He will return to Wimbledon in July, although he also has another reason for visiting the UK.

Forty years after he took the stage in London, his daughter Geneve will do the same, although her talent lies in strings of a different nature – a highly regarded violinist, she will be soloing at the Royal Albert Hall during the Proms season.

“I can remember everything so clearly it’s like it was yesterday,” Lewis says of his Wimbledon run. “And I still feel so much pride today – it was just incredible, an amazing experience.”

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