By Linda McK.Stewart
Of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments, Australian, French, British and U.S., only the British Open, aka Wimbledon, is played at a private club: the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, founded in 1868.
Wimbledon is said to be the world’s oldest tennis competition in continuous play. For a fortnight – this year’s tournament began Monday, June 25, and will continue through Sunday, July 8 – the 400 members of the AELTCC will suffer an invasion of some 28,000 tennis fans. If by now you have not received your invitation to sit in the Royal Box, you can be pretty sure no such invitation is forthcoming. Disappointing, of course, but no reason to consider yourself totally shut out. Admission to the matches is not by royal invitation only.
Every evening of the matches you are free to join the crowd that begins queuing up along the sidewalk on Church Street, outside the grounds. Everyone comes, prepared to spend the night. Sleeping bags, lawn chairs, bedrolls and picnic hampers are traditional. It’s common knowledge that if you’re in line by 9 p.m., you’re almost assured of getting one of the 500 “ground passes” when the admission booth opens at 10:30 a.m. the following morning. A ground pass, good for one entire day’s play, confers permission to wander but not to sit. But even ground pass attendees can enjoy the traditional strawberries and clotted Devonshire cream, the champagne which flows in biblical excess and the Pimm’s Cup, a lethal combination of gin and any of a multitude of sweeteners, the whole stirred with a slice of cucumber – for a price of course.
Alternative suggestions include buying tickets from the scalpers in the Southfields Tube station. Not advisable. The tickets are probably fakes. Less arduous but considerably more pricey is to get your ticket through a travel agent who packages the price of the seat, plus hotel accommodations, airfare, luncheon vouchers in bewildering combinations that guarantee you will never know the actual price of admission.
Wimbledon’s Centre Court is the United Kingdom’s closest equivalent to Holy Turf. The court is deserted except for the two weeks of Grand Slam play. No lines. No net. The grass is untouched through fall and winter. Come spring the cosmeticians move in and the fertilizing, watering, weeding, rolling and mowing begin. In early June the net posts are set but the lines are not laid down until the week before the tournament. From this pampered, sacred green oblong emanates a mystique that unmistakably conveys all that is charming, arcane, infuriating and irresistible about the English.
Only Wimbledon has been a steadfast holdout against the anything-goes manner of dress. It’s white and only white for all players. It’s a rule that so irked Andre Agassi in 1990 that he withdrew rather than comply. But then, only two years later, there he was on the Centre Court, hoisting the trophy, bowing to the Royal Box, all nicely turned out in white shirt and shorts.
Wimbledon also is the only one of the Grand Slams that disdains the display of sponsor ads around the Centre Court. From the very start, players were attended by 132 ball boys, age 15, working in teams of six: two at the net, one in each of the four corners. Then that much-prized privilege was extended to girls, a truly earth-shaking development. Seven years were to pass, however, before the newcomers were permitted on the Centre Court. Today the correct expression is Ball Boys and Girls or BBG’s. But not even the most adamant of the die-hards could hold back the tidal wave of modernity that in 2009 saw the first Centre Court matches played under a retractable roof.
There are the irreverent who refer to the matches at Wimbledon as Queue Gardens. You queue to get in, queue for seats, queue for food and drink, queue for the bathrooms. Yet despite inconveniences, both minor and not so minor, no Englishman would dream of moving the tournament as the U.S. Open was moved from the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills to Flushing Meadows. “Imagine,” sniffed one lifelong fan, “just to accommodate the telly!”
Wimbledon provides a field day for statisticians who tell us, among other things, that the 13-day tournament will use up 2,600 dozen cans of optic yellow tennis balls; that 12 tons of smoked salmon, 23 tons of strawberries, 75,000 pints of draught beer and 12,000 bottles of champagne will be consumed.
English fans take their tennis seriously and it’s a constant source of regret that not since 1936 when Fred Perry won the Men’s Singles for the third year in a row, have they had an English winner. A bronze statue of Perry stands directly in front of the refreshment tent. This year, with rumors that the Queen, buoyed by her Diamond Jubilee, might actually make an appearance, hopes of an English winner have revived. Ladbrookes, Britain’s renown bookmaker, last quoted odds of 95-to-1 for a UK Grand Slam winner. Welcome to Wimbledon! Welcome to summer!