You know things have changed at Wimbledon when they anoint clay court specialist Rafael Nadal as the favourite to win when, till a few years ago, backing anyone but serve-and-volley specialists such as John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras would have been suicidal.
Yet there’s an unmistakable sense of continuity once the wrought-iron gates at the main Church Road entrance to Wimbledon open. At the All England Lawn Tennis Club, some things never change. The attire is still all-white, strawberries and cream are still sought after, and rain can cause long disruptions. While the Centre Court roof may correct that, the outside courts are still susceptible. It’s this sameness that sets it apart from the other Slams. Here are some traditions that never go out of vogue.
Get those umbrellas out
“Rain—it’s a part of the charm of Wimbledon,” said Jimmy Connors while commentating on the BBC network during a rain-interrupted semi-final in 2005. Charming it may well be, but never have the vagaries of the British rain been felt more than at Wimbledon.
From entire days being completely washed out (30, since the event began in 1877) and five-set matches reduced to best-of-three (1982; all but four men’s doubles matches) to play being stretched to the third Monday (13 times so far), match schedules are thrown into disarray when it starts pouring.
Players try ways to kill time while staying focused. Roger Federer is said to play cards, Nadal prefers PlayStation; Andy Roddick played poker on a few occasions. What does the crowd do?
Tradition twist: Wimbledon made a rare exception for Nadal’s shorts. Reuters
Apart from the various military and youth bands that play at Wimbledon, spectators sometimes try to create an atmosphere of revelry, like engaging in a bit of slow handclapping and whistling.
In 1996, British singer Cliff Richard sang his popular numbers in an impromptu performance. He was soon flanked by Martina Navratilova and Gigi Fernandez in a singing frenzy that made for scant melody but lots of entertainment. Prominent personalities are hunted in the stands for surprise interviews, such as former US president Bill Clinton in 2001.
Court No. 2, dubbed the “Graveyard Court”, has consumed many top players in their early matches here, including Pete Sampras in 2002 to George Bastl, ranked 145 then. That was the seven times Wimbledon champion’s last match, ever, at Wimbledon.
Martina Hingis, Serena Williams, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi, among others, have faced unexpected losses on this court.
After consuming endless victims, Court No. 2 was finally put to rest in 2008. A new Court No. 2 was pressed into play from 2009. The new, 2,000-seater Court No. 3— to be built in place of the old No. 2—will be ready for the 2011 games.
Do it right, dress in white
The facility may don purple and green, but the players’ attire has to be white. Strict rules apply, compromises are not entertained.
In 2005, Nadal was allowed to wear three-quarter-length shorts that went below his knees and a sleeveless vest that he had grown accustomed to, but a green vest he wore at a warm-up event leading up to Wimbledon was not allowed.
“People have played in longer trousers in the past, so if he wants to play in them he can,” a Wimbledon spokesman had told BBC Sport then.
Andre Agassi’s dislike for rules made him stay away from Wimbledon for years. “I resent rules, but especially arbitrary rules. Why must I wear white? I don’t want to wear white. Why should it matter to these (sic) what I wear?” wrote Agassi in his autobiography Open that hit the stands last year.
He finally relented, played in 1991 and won the title the following year. Years later, when he opened a school in his hometown Las Vegas for underprivileged children, he made uniforms mandatory. Talk about impact!
In 2007, French player Tatiana Golovin stepped on to the court wearing red knickers. Wimbledon officials went into a tizzy, but it later appeared that since her knickers were covered by the hemline of the dress, they qualified as knickers and not shorts and were exempt from the “predominantly white rule”.
Honouring past champions
Unlike other Grand Slams, in which past champions are lost in the crowd, Wimbledon offers a chance to cheer for them. Virginia Wade, Billy Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and many such champions are still welcomed with as much warmth as the Williams sisters when they walk out on the Centre Court. Like the jubilee championship celebrations in 1926, when 34 of the then surviving champions were honoured. Or the 100th Ladies’ Championships celebration in 1993, when 19 champions were presented with a 9-carat gold bracelet. Or the Millennium Championships in 2000, when 59 former champions walked on to Centre Court for a Kodak moment.
You do well at the All England, and Wimbledon remembers you.