“Bathtubs man, this place has bathtubs.” — Leander Paes
The boy, just 16, clambered up the steps with me to the shrine, now empty, vast, intimidating. I had seen it before, but not the boy. If he closed his eyes, could he see the sullen John McEnroe shouting, “You’re the pits of the world”, and Bjorn Borg slouching with barn-door shoulders and an unshaved philosopher’s face?
No, all Leander Paes said in 1989 was, “I am going to play here one day.” The shrine, and it is one for them, calls them all. That year, another boy, on the cusp of 18, went straight there on his first visit, and sat for 10 minutes “gazing at that cool, inviting emerald green grass”. He disliked the grass at first, it baffled him, frustrated him, where chances disappeared faster than an Ivanisevic serve.
His name was Pete Sampras.
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This place where they went to genuflect, Paes, Sampras, everyone, was a court. The Court. No name attached to it, no prefix required. It is not the US Open’s Arthur Ashe Stadium, not the Australian Open’s Rod Laver Arena, not the French Open’s Court Philippe Chatrier. It is simply Centre Court. This is how Wimbledon, the oldest Grand Slam and 125 years old this year, likes it. Its very vanity and mystique lies in keeping things, seemingly, as they were.
Sport likes newness and Wimbledon isn’t averse to it. Centre Court has a roof, a new No. 1 court was built, a new media facility, a new Court No. 3 this year, new shops, but newness is not what you feel when you walk in.
They cover it with ivy and give it to you as history. They keep up with the times yet want you to feel you are entering another time. Even the new is old-fashioned here. In 2010, they introduced a poet in residence, a bard of the baseline for God’s sake. His name is Matt Harvey, who wrote as Roger Federer stumbled briefly last year against Alejandro Falla:
“Fed’s effort was concerted
disaster was averted
the tennis world order as we
know it reasserted.”
It’s like none other
You have to love this about Wimbledon, so steeped it is in ritual and the odd pretension. Like its very name, which is weighted with pomposity—it is referred to simply as The Championships. Arthur Ashe described it as “one of the great pre-emptive titles in the world. How do you top that?” Borg wrote it was as if the club felt “no other tournament in the world existed”. Then, he, five-time winner, added, “I feel the same way about it.”
But this is Wimbledon’s separation point, its selling point, its sense of itself as tennis’ home—the first tournament was held in 1877—a place of pilgrimage for fan and player. Here, tradition was protected, not summarily evicted. It had not just The Court, it had The Voice, a commentator named Dan Maskell, who talked tennis from 1949 to 1991 and whose “Oh, I say” has been borrowed by Vijay Amritraj. It had The Queue, a line of tented fans waiting overnight that became so famous that this year it is part of their exhibition. It even had The Address, for if you’re inclined to see this place as a cathedral, well then it stands on Church Road. When a Wimbledon champion once, on a stairwell, asked me to “fuck off” when I requested an interview, I half expected a steward to appear with some mouthwashing soap.
Modern sport is unconvinced by ritual, it continually—as in the case of cricket’s IPL (Indian Premier League)—feels the need to brashly reinvent itself. Wimbledon, conversely, understands the potency of ceremony, it knows there is a place for familiarity. Which is why we still go on about the 28,000kg of strawberries consumed each year, the draws which are headlined under Gentlemen’s Singles and Ladies’ Singles, the fellow who carried the finalists’ bags out for them. Permanence has its own power.
Wimbledon could also grate. As Jimmy Connors noted, “New Yorkers love it when you spill your guts out there; spill your guts at Wimbledon and they stop and make you clean it up.” This American crotch-grabber wasn’t completely wrong. Wimbledon could be a stuffy place, self-important, classist, but then so was so much of sport then. When Fred Perry, seen as a brash rebel from a humble background, won his first title in 1934 and soaked in the bath, he wrote that he overheard a club committee man tell the loser Jack Crawford, “This was one day when the best man didn’t win.”
Wimbledon has changed since—Perry’s statue even stands there now—but it changes at its own pace. It will not be hurried. Calls for a Centre Court roof resounded for years before they built one; equal prize money for women was argued forcefully but they were the last Grand Slam event to accede.
Unique Indian connect
Wimbledon was my tradition too because I grew up in Kolkata, where my father took me as a boy to the legendary South Club lawns to watch Davis Cup matches. Later, as a journalist, I’d sit in this club’s ancient veranda, sipping tea with wonderful men such as Jaidip Mukerjea and Naresh Kumar, who spoke of Wimbledon—where the first Indian, Sardar Nihal Singh, reportedly played in 1908—like words to a prayer. Grass was a legacy from the British, grass was our connection with Wimbledon, grass became our default Davis Cup surface. Grass you could smell on early mornings, still slick with dew, and some summers they’d tell you their turf was superior to the All England Club.
Wimbledon is all I heard, from Gussie Moran’s lace panties to Suzanne Lenglen’s silk skirts. It is all I saw on grainy black and white television.
It was also our history. It is where Amritraj led Connors two sets to love in 1981; it is where Ramesh Krishnan dismantled world No. 8 Joakim Nystrom in 1986; it is where the late Premjit Lall would sit one morning and think “Why? How? If only ....”, a man wounded by defeat. He led Rod Laver two sets to love in 1969 and had he won, he would have interrupted history, for it was the year Laver won his second Grand Slam—all four majors in a calendar year. Yet Laver fought back and later wrote: “Premjit Lall ... is a University man from Calcutta where he sometimes works as a cement salesman. Fortunately for me, some of his better cement lodged in his right elbow at a critical stage of the third set.”
But mostly Wimbledon for India was Ramanathan Krishnan, who had a sculptor’s hands and an architect’s brain, or at least so my father insisted. I never saw him play, but was privileged to meet him, a gentle man swollen with modesty. He cleared for us an artistic path still never matched with semi-final placings at Wimbledon, first in 1960, then again in 1961, where he manhandled Roy Emerson—who went on to win 12 Grand Slam titles—in straight sets. The effect of these lawns, their pull on men such as Krishnan, is told in a lovely tale in his book, A Touch of Tennis. Jack Kramer, who started a rebel pro tour whose participants were then banned from the amateur majors, offered Krishnan $150,000 (around Rs 67.5 lakh now), a staggering sum then, to join.
But the Indian went home, spoke to his father and decided “nothing in the world was worth staying away from Wimbledon and the Davis Cup”.
It is to these lawns I first went in 1987 as a young writer, only 24, awed and rebellious. I disliked the bowing by players and only this month, while researching this piece, I grinned when I read that Donald Budge, in 1935, waved his racket in Queen Mary’s direction and said, “Hi, Queen.”
As I covered Wimbledon for six straight years, I was gradually overwhelmed. Wandering the courts early at 9am (play started at noon), stopping for a smoke, inhaling the grass, Boris Becker practising here, Henri Leconte laughing there, clay-courters swearing as the ball skidded through too fast, umbrellas swishing open as the rain dripped down to turn fast courts even more oily.
I like that there is no music at changeovers. I like its white clothes, ensuring that not all of tennis’ past is erased, even if Anne White in a rather fetching bodysuit in 1985 told us white wasn’t quite always virginal.
I like its subdued advertising in a time of flamboyance. Of course, it is not all staid. A female streaker inaugurated the 1996 men’s final between Richard Krajicek and MaliVai Washington and in a picture I found, Krajicek is grinning as she strides past. Perhaps he is appreciating her fitness. After all, four years earlier at Wimbledon, Krajicek, under the influence of no other substance but stupidity, had remarked that 80% of women players were “fat, lazy pigs”.
Later, he sought a retraction. He had meant only 75%.
The tennis then was quick, frenetic, reflexive, Stefan Edberg like an ethereal figure at the net, Pat Cash all scowling athleticism, McEnroe still hitting drop volleys that sighed and died on impact. Then, a worn line of grass down the centre of the court spoke of a collective rush to the net. Now it is gone, now only the baseline is frayed, now almost no one serves and volleys.
It doesn’t feel like Wimbledon and “forward, fellows, forward” you want to cry. The grass, says Paes, has changed, the soil is packed, the bounce higher, the balls fluffier and baseliners, who can hit passing shots through a keyhole in a gale, now feel at home. Some say Wimbledon has lost its essence, some say it is more democratic. Either way, everyone still wants to win there.
To be the best, be the best here
Our associations with tennis may encompass all geographies—I prefer the gritty chess of Parisian clay—but Wimbledon retains the strongest resonance. Legendary duels have occurred on every surface, yet ask most people and two matches spring off the tongue. Roger-Rafa in 2008, on which a book—Strokes of Genius— already exists. And McEnroe-Borg in 1980, a match of such significance that this summer, 31 years later, a second book surrounding that match—Epic—has been published. Both were Wimbledon finals.
For players, this is still tennis’ coronation headquarters, its holy land. A player can be great without a Wimbledon title—Ken Rosewall, Ivan Lendl, Justine Henin—yet it is where greatness is also confirmed. Any conversation on tennis’ ultimate player involves three men: Laver, Sampras, Federer. Of his 11 majors, Laver won the most, four, at Wimbledon; of Sampras’ 14 majors, seven came there; of Federer’s 16, the most (six) arrived on these lawns. Even Borg, who won more French Opens (six) than Wimbledons (five), is revered more for his transition to grass, leaving us forever with the victorious image of him like a praying monk on bended knees.
The women are no exception, the “greatest” a 10-beer argument between Martina Navratilova (who won nine of 18 Slams at Wimbledon) and Steffi Graf, who won more majors on grass (seven) than elsewhere while collecting 22. One might say their games fit Wimbledon well; one might say they lifted their games to fit at Wimbledon.
Now, as summer dawns, and players have traversed the Channel to English shores, it begins. Clay shoes will be exchanged for grass ones and backswings will be abbreviated. Footwork will be adjusted and returns polished. Federer will see the champions’ board and convince himself he owns this turf, Rafael Nadal will know he owns Federer, Novak Djokovic will believe he owns the tour. They will adjust their strings, the crowds will descend into a funereal hush, the umpire will call play and history will begin anew.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.
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