The ‘pock, pock’, of Wimbledon is like the ‘ping, ping’ of a submarine film; a unique soundtrack from my childhood. I got into tennis in the late 1960s, the era of John Newcombe, Rod Laver, and Billie Jean King. It was always good, and things got better in the 1970s with Martina Navratilova, and Jimmy Connors until, for me, the first superstar; Bjorn Borg. Between him and Abba, Sweden ruled the world.
Naturally, I hated Borg because young women found him attractive and I wanted them to fancy me. I burned with jealousy as they screamed through his Wimbledon matches. Okay, he was champion several times but, as an apprentice telephone engineer in 1976, I felt I had the upper hand. He’s only a few years older than me and I view our lives as being on parallel trajectories. As events unfolded, I became a teacher, and he is now reduced to flogging underpants. You be the judge.
Anyway. Enough of my facile garbage. I have always seen Wimbledon as exclusive and unattainable. I didn’t even aspire to go. Yet, it is accessible, most tickets are made available by public ballot, it’s a lottery. You apply, and if you win, you are offered tickets to buy if you wish to. Next year this lottery will be online. Check the Wimbledon site for details of how to enter.
This year we went on the Tuesday of the first week and had seats on court number two. They were near the back, but the court is intimate, so our view was superb. Now here’s the thing I think most people don’t know. The seats only cost £43 each, for eight hours of tennis. On our court that was two ladies and two men’s singles matches. I imagine that most folk think that it would cost a lot more than that. Travelling, eating, drinking, and staying in London is the pricey bit.
We lodged in Richmond Premier Inn for two nights. It’s about an hour’s journey from the tennis but accommodation prices for rooms nearer to Wimbledon skyrocket for the fortnight. Premier Inns are fine, breakfast was good, we paid about £240, including parking. After we arrived, we spent a jolly Monday evening strolling about. The Kew Gardens Hotel was a decent boozer as was Tap on the Line, a pub and restaurant at Kew Garden station. All in all, a pleasant, balmy summer evening and a couple of beers set us up for a good meal at Q Verde, an Italian restaurant nearby. We chatted to a few locals, and they recommended it; thankfully we had booked a table as it was pretty busy.
Next morning, our route to the tennis was somewhat circuitous as the District line was closed and it’s the only tube that serves Wimbledon. It’s worthwhile remembering that about 60 000 other people are making their way there. Although we thought we had plenty of time, the delays caused us to miss the first match. Outside the railway station, we queued up to catch a bus to the All England Tennis Club. We were put on one of the classic old routemasters and went straight upstairs to prove we were hard. I wanted to smoke a cigarette to underline the point. The driver’s name was Reg Varney and his mate, Stan, was the conductor who gave us a jocular guided tour of Wimbledon on the way.
It was our first taste of the ‘generosity of spirit’ which marked the day. Stan cracked gags and pointed out places of local interest. He gave advice on which gate to enter by to get in quickest. Indeed, the queue went down speedily as he had promised. As we waited to enter, there was a volunteer shepherding us. He looked in his 70s, and sounded like a local vicar. He wished us well, hoped we’d enjoy the day. His manner was genuine and of a piece with how all the staff behaved.
It was as if we were attending Wimbledon Village Fete, warm and welcoming, with free homemade jam. This surprised me as I am cynical about the image of the event. Television coverage of the tournament is smothered in BBC, establishment chummery. Sir Cliff Richard can stand up on Centre Court, sing a song, and people clap. People sit on ‘Henman Hill’ drinking Pimm’s Cup, eating strawberries and cream, and waving at cameras. Despite my love of the sport, I’ve always considered the tournament package to be smug and cringeworthy. A sporting event for people who camp out all night to cheer at Royal Weddings. Having experienced it on a warm sunny day, however, I have to say that I was wrong, and it was magical. I felt like I’d gate crashed a wedding and the couple didn’t mind.
The first match we saw was Sam Querry versus Dominic Thiem. The latter had just lost the French Open Final to Rafa Nadal, so he’s a big name. The tennis was absorbing, though I had no preference as to who won. What I did notice was that television commentary adds tension to the contest; it’s much more relaxed when viewed live. The telly draws you in perhaps, but sat in the stands there are distractions; putting on sun cream, spectators quietly chatting, noise from adjacent courts, the desire to wander off and look around, get a beer, etc. As good as the game was, we were very hot and decided went for a stroll to soak up the mellow vibe.
We missed the last set, and Querry’s victory, and returned in time to catch Pauline Parmentier versus Maria Sharapova. This game held little attraction. Our plan was to stay for ten minutes and giggle at Sharapova screeching. In the end, we watched a set before we left to explore. It was a good game, but we had itchy feet and there’s so much to see. Between court number two and the big main courts, there are six others with games going on featuring lower seeds. There’s the big screen in front of Henman Hill, and practise courts where you can try to spot some big names. It’s fascinating simply to mooch about.
There are bars and food outlets. Prices are a bit steep, but not insane; £5.50 a pint. More annoying is the poor quality of some of the food. My scampi and chips for nine quid was gruesome. Yet, you can bring food and drink with you and I wish we had. The allowance is a bottle of wine each (or two cans of whatever) and a picnic. I think that’s quite a generous. Wealthy punters eat in the posh restaurants… where you can’t see the tennis. I have no explanation for this.
We planned to watch the end of the Parmentier versus Sharapova match as we reckoned it was going to go the distance. However, Sharapova folded in the last set and retired injured at 5-0 down. Leaving the court, she walked right past me, up the path to the changing rooms, escorted by some security people. On telly, it sometimes looks like they’re ‘putting it on’ for effect with these injuries. Yet she was crying, shaking, and clearly in a right state. Her plight was moving.
Still. Not my fault. We headed back in to watch the next game; John Isner versus Caspar Ruud. Isner is a big server and holds the record for knocking out 214 aces in the 2018 championships (yawn). Ruud was the new kid on the block, his first Wimbledon. The match had the feel of a pride of lions pitted against a lone Christian in the Roman Coliseum. The match went true to form; young Caspar tried his best but was easily beaten in three sets. Sadly, today’s martyr is always tomorrow’s lion shit.
We didn’t see the end of the game. It was about 7.30 and we wanted to get back to Richmond and go for a meal. There was a Franco Manca nearby, and we fancied a pizza, after a few beers by the Thames. We walked to the, now functioning tube line, about fifteen minutes away. As we left, a few hundred people were queuing up to catch the end of play. Tickets for them were £21, with proceeds going to charity. As we strolled along, I looked back on the experience and I’m not ashamed to say that I filled up. Many things about Britain in 2019 disgust me and it was wonderful to experience something charming, magical, and British.
I watched the rest of the finals at home on TV with a vested interest. I was able to understand the commentators’ oleaginous hyperbole, if not quite forgive it. Over to Sue Barker;
“Twelve finals for Federer and six for Djokovic. I mean, these two, they are Wimbledon, aren’t they?”
Well, no dear, but while the crassness of her remark sinks in, here’s Andrew Castle;
“Whatever sport you’re into, motor racing, cricket, tennis and… (pause… camera pans to the royal box…) I’m glad the Duke and Duchess are here.”
Why is he glad? Have they no work to do in Cambridge? But at least the forelock tugging Andrew Castle goes off piste; as the camera focused on an oddly dressed couple, he observed; “They got dressed in the dark.” Or referring to the long hair and headband of an ageing hippie in the crowd; “That was a mistake, wasn’t it?” You have to be quick to catch him, but he can be funny. He’s tennis’ answer to Graham Norton at times.
The commentary of the ex-pros, however, is informative. Boris Becker commenting here on Djokovic;
Boris; “All the games they’ve played, and Novak still can’t read Roger’s serve.”
Castle; “How do you know that, Boris?”
Boris; “He keeps asking me.”
One of the slightly embarrassing facets of Wimbledon is the partisan nature of the crowds and commentators were often vexed over this. Federer’s tennis enjoys a level of affection normally reserved for a grandchild’s artwork, whereas applause for Novak Djokovic is as welcome as flatulence in a lift. The truth is that the former is exciting, and the latter is merely ‘consistent’. Praising Djokovic for his tennis is like admiring a singer for having a loud voice. You do understand that I’m not remotely biased?
Should you go?
No. But do apply for tickets and email them to me if you are fortunate in the lottery. I will put them in a charity raffle.
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