Tennis, Anyone?

Today’s slide show:Wimbledon

The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club

WIMBLEDON, England; June 21, 2004—All around me, people are speaking in wonderment about the exploits of Wayne Rooney, England’s new wunderkind hero, the scorer of a pair of goals for the national team. England is competing in Euro 2004, the second-most important tournament in football after the World Cup, and the country is obsessed with the competition. Even the English flag of St. George, long-besmirched with racist overtones, has made a comeback—the red cross on white (not to be confused with the familiar Union Jack, which represents Great Britain) flies from windows, cars, even a passing garbage truck.

This wouldn’t be surprising, except that today is the first day of Wimbledon, and even the annual soap opera surrounding English player Tim Henman and his tragicomic attempt to win the tournament is muted in contrast to football mania. England plays a do-or-die game tonight, and even the stringheads who have woken at the crack of dawn to watch the tennis are talking footy.

It is 6:30 a.m., and I’ve joined the long line of folks “queuing” for tickets on the first day of the fortnight. Most tickets are long since spoken for, but around 5,500 remain for day-of-play sale. Since it’s first come, first served, about a thousand people have camped overnight outside the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, aka Wimbledon, in order to snatch them up. I have selected the half-mad (as opposed to complete nutter) route—rising at 5 a.m., switching trains twice, and hopping a cab when a track malfunction prevents the tube I’m on from reaching nearby Southfields station.

Well-dressed ushers stand every 50 feet outside the club, directing newcomers to the rear of the queue. Actually, there are four long lines, all shunted off the main road and onto a nearby field for the sake of tidiness. We wait here for about an hour, when the lines are merged into one giant snake stretching for nearly half a mile. By the time ticket sales actually begin, I will have been in line nearly four hours.

The time passes quickly, thanks to good cheer from my queue mates. I happen to be standing behind a young American, coincidentally a fellow Syracuse University alumnus. We discuss the order of play, the best strategy for seeing potentially good matches, the relative worth of the free body gels and aftershaves being handed out along the line, and the likelihood of rain.

Ah yes, rain, the scourge of the fortnight. The sun is bright all morning, but the forecast calls for scattered showers in the afternoon. I mutter a silent prayer for drought as I finally purchase my grounds ticket, which grants me access to all but Centre and No. 1 Court, a bargain at about $25 (by contrast, first-day tickets for Centre Court check in at $55 and increase in cost as the fortnight unfolds).

Play begins at noon and lasts for all of 15 minutes before the first rain delay. I’m watching Martina Navratilova demolish a Colombian just more than half her age when the shower hits. Later, the 47-year old wild card will finish off a 6-0, 6-1 trouncing, and her opponent will liken it to “playing her mom.” You don’t see many middle-aged moms with Martina’s powerful physique and agility.

I move over to Court 18. The cognoscenti in the queue tipped this match as the one to catch, and the contrast is compelling. Ivo Karlovic, a 6’10” Croat who appears to have overdone his South Beach diet, faces Thailand’s favorite son, Paradorn Srichaphan, all quick feet and sharp angled shots. At first, the higher-seeded Srichaphan has his way and takes the first set 6-2. But then Karlovic leans on the Thai with his giant serve, and Srichaphan caves in. Every time it seems Srichaphan might gain some momentum, whap! an ace off the scoreboard; whap! an ace off the bleacher pole; whap! an ace off an unlucky woman’s forehead in the first row. Karlovic wins it in four sets.

It takes sitting through two more rain delays to see the match to its conclusion. The endless rolling and unrolling of the tarpaulins is maddening because no rain is falling. A couple of fat drops, a whinge from a player, and it’s at least 45 minutes of down time, even though there’s barely a drizzle. Wimbledon is no longer the playground for the very proper it once was, but there is still a military, orders-from-on-high feel to the organization of the tournament. Regardless of the barracking from the crowd, the officials cater to the safety of the players, and that’s that. If a match takes three days to finish, well, feel free not to come back tomorrow.

I decide to make the most of one of the delays to give a taste test to that most fabled of English delicacies (OK, the only one)—strawberries and cream. I’m expecting sticker shock, but at about $3.50 for 10 fat, luscious berries drowned in a tangy cream, I don’t hesitate to line up for seconds. I can only dream of the sensation of biting into one on a steamy hot summer day. The sausage roll, on the other hand, is a decidedly acquired taste. It’s from the pigs in a blanket family, except the pastry is ice cold and the sausage is mealy and flavorless. It’s a Wimbledon tradition to bring your own sandwiches—now I know why.

Those who have been favored with tickets for the show courts give them to stewards upon leaving the grounds for the day, and another queue forms at 5 to snap them up. I am lucky enough to have been given a No. 1 Court ticket by another fan, so I head inside to see some action. Third-seeded Guillermo Coria is playing, but I am more interested in the court itself. Immaculate, spacious yet intimate, refreshingly free of a Royal Box, it’s the best of Wimbledon, without the preciousness and vastness of Centre Court.

I’d happily stay here and watch till dark, but I have to get going—I’m invited to a friend’s flat to watch the football, and kickoff is fast approaching. I’m not alone. A sea of fans hits the exits, all rushing to the pub or home to the telly. The world’s greatest tennis tournament may have begun, but the nation’s attention is elsewhere.