My bucket list gets shorter. Having frequented London over the decades and not taking in SW19 (Wimbledon’s affectionate moniker) has been a sore miss. Regrettably, my work or holiday schedules precluded a trip to the sylvan grass courts of the Grand Slam of them all. Mind you, even if I wanted to go, I am not sure my shallow pockets would have run to the price of a ticket. So this year, I planned well in advance, approached friends in the right places and lo and behold, I was let in to the pearly gates – a proud bona fide ticket holder for the first Friday and the second Monday. And to be sitting adjacent to the Royal Box at Centre Court and Court No.1, now also adorned with the amazing, hi-tech retractable roof. That meant, getting to watch Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, as well as Kvitova and the precocious Coco Gauff. Even if the latter names don’t trip off the tongue, the first three were a mouth-watering repast fit for kings. And kings and queens there were aplenty at Wimbledon. Federer is royalty in his own right, never mind Kate, William, Harry and Meghan.
The long walk from Southfields station to the hallowed grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, along with hundreds of other tennis buffs, is a heart pounding experience. Partly because of the deceptively steep gradient of the broad pavements and more because of the breathless anticipation, the thought of entering the holy of the holies. Once you’re in, a magical world opens up. We have seen it on television year on year, but nothing comes close to being there. I shall eschew talking about the tennis. All of you know the results and how the matches went. If you don’t, please cease reading.
From the outside courts where the lesser mortals slug it out, the souvenir shops to the several food courts offering a wide variety of eats and drinks, to say nothing of Henman Hill (or Murray Mound), it was a rollercoaster ride. One simply had to savour the legendary strawberries and cream. Pimm’s cocktails was the most in-demand drink to slake your thirst. Players from the past and present were constantly seen strolling about or relaxing in the ‘Last 8 Lounge.’ Indian stalwarts like the Amritraj brothers, Ramesh Krishnan and Leander Paes were spotted. The superstars of today could only be seen on court. They were preserved in mothballs!
Which brings me nicely to my first experience of Centre Court on a day when both Federer and Nadal were bookending British hope Konta and former champion Kvitova in fourth round singles action. All in spotless whites. The Centre Court is more a temple than a tennis court. The ivy-covered exteriors are brilliantly contrasted with the blue and purple petunias and hydrangeas dotted all over the 42-acre property. Despite the packed house, spectators were guided to their appointed, numbered seats by polite, but firm and knowledgeable stewards. If you stepped out for a toilet break, you had to wait in queue for the players’ change of ends before getting back in. Speaking of stewards, one of them, David Spearing, 83, has been serving Wimbledon for 46 years. I have watched him sitting in the players’ box with his black suit and hat for several years now, a minor celebrity. I had the pleasure of buttonholing him outside and having a friendly nostalgic chat, talking of Borg, McEnroe, Billie Jean and Graff.
As for the play itself, the crowds are scrupulously correct and hardly ever do anything not ‘proper.’ When an incredibly exciting rally ends, the applause and wolf whistles are deafening, but when the Chair Umpire admonishingly intones ‘Quiet please’, the eerie silence can make you hear a pin drop. I was aware of all of this before I stepped on to Centre Court, in a manner of speaking. Nevertheless the live experience defies description. I spoke to some Wimbledon regulars and a couple of officials, and all of them were in unison that you don’t get this kind of unique audience participation in any of the other Slams. The spectators religiously follow their own unwritten code of conduct, a tradition honed and perfected over a hundred and forty years.
Then there’s the ever-so-alert ball boys and girls, scurrying hither and thither in pursuit of stray balls, like cats after pigeons. Not to forget the blazered linespersons, some of them a tad overweight but swift enough to duck and weave out of the way when a blistering ace is headed right between the eyes. The scoreboards, simple, elegant and functional, brighten and dim conversely with the fickle English weather. Finally, the Chair Umpire, the master of all he surveys, who wouldn’t think twice about rapping one of the top seeds on the knuckles if the player’s behaviour so warrants. A place of worship, this Centre Court. A devout Djokovic knelt and consumed a tuft of grass from the court after his monumental vanquishing of Federer. He did the same last year. After all, grass is for GOATs.
Tailpiece: A quick word on the cricket World Cup. In between my two Wimbledon days, I scooted off to Headingley, Leeds to take in India putting it across Sri Lanka. A historic ground Headingley, but honestly I could have been at the Eden Gardens Calcutta. India’s sea of blue was all-pervasive with fans screaming and yelling boisterously in Gujarati, Tamil, Bengali and other Indian tongues, while wolfing down khababs and khachoris. A human Hanuman was seen prancing around. A touch of Ramayana to remind the Lankans! A small plane kept circling over the ground displaying a changeable banner with anti-India slogans, but this was loftily ignored by the Indian diaspora. And the train journey back to London reverberated with incessant chants of India jeetega. Though we didn’t quite jeeta, the Bharat Army lit up the World Cup.
That said, my green and pleasant English summer was all about ‘Game, set and match, Wimbledon.’