If you were to ask me what I love most about Wimbledon, I would have to reply that it’s the sound.
I’ve always loved the way that Wimbledon sounds. On a sunny summer afternoon, out in the garden, playing with toy cars and plastic soldiers, the sound of Wimbledon would float gently out of the open windows of our small bungalow. Rather than clash with the melodies of the natural world around me, as most sounds emanating from a television set undoubtedly would, the sounds from Wimbledon instead only seemed to enhance them. The pops of distant balls on distant rackets, the admiring ripples of applause, the call of an official and Dan Maskall’s unobtrusive commentary would blend perfectly with the bee buzzes and birdsong around me, creating an enveloping music that gave me deep, deep joy. To me, the world on those summer afternoons felt fuller and richer than it did at any other time of the year. Everything was enhanced, the sounds and colours of the world all turned up an extra notch.
When I finally visited Wimbledon in 2009, I took time to allow myself to become drenched in the sound of the place. My favourite moment came in the evening, when I stood for a moment or two surrounded by the beautiful musicality of the outer courts. I love the sound of the outer courts.
Firstly, there’s the low hum of outdoor chatter. Hundreds of separate conversations from around the grounds mingle together to form a uniquely summer sound that is both languid and lively. Most of the content is indecipherable, but certain individual words and phrases rise and fall above the others. There’s a shriek of laughter from one of the hospitality marquees, a conversation in the distance momentarily becomes more spirited, nearer to where I’m standing one friend calls to another as they arrange to meet after watching separate matches.
Above the background chatter comes the sounds of the tennis being played all around me, sounds similar to those I first heard coming out of the TV all those years ago. The popping of balls on rackets and grass, the grunts of the players and the calls of the officials. “Out!” “Deuce!” “Time!” And then at regular intervals, from courts near and far, comes the clapping of hands from the small groups of appreciative onlookers. For some reason, the clapping sounds different at Wimbledon. Somehow it has a unique quality.
And then, suddenly, an astonishing point brings a roar of approval from the thousands watching on Centre Court or Number One Court. A crescendo rises within the stadium, spills over the roof and then washes its way through the entire grounds, bringing with it an invigorating energy. It pours through the patchwork of outer courts and before quickly dissipating, leaving once again just the background hum of chatter and the popping of balls on rackets and grass. An umpire near to me updates the score. “Fifteen all.” A beautiful game is being played, the weather is good and life is rather fine.
Wimbledon does something to me. Relishing its sounds back in those far off garden days instilled into me a love of summer overall, so much so that I now view the year as being shaped a little like a horseshoe, only one with a big fat middle and where the thin ends curl round so they just about touch. The thin ends are winter, a fractured, fragile time of year which I wish to pass through as quickly as possible.
Summer is the big fat part of the year, at it’s widest in late June and early July – Wimbledon time – when the sunshine months are well and truly underway, yet there’s still the promise of plenty more warm days to come; unlike August, which may be lovely and warm, but where the “back to school” posters in shop windows flag that the days are once again getting shorter and autumn will soon be arriving and handing out the coats.
June/July is the part of the year I wish to always wallow in, the part of the year I try to cling to, desperate to wring out every last moment. Each summer I wish to clasp more tightly than the last. Each day I try to hold on to for as long as I possibly can.
When summer begins, I see it stretched out before me like a huge, broad valley. It is filled with trees and fields and slow meandering rivers and right there, right in the middle, at the valley’s deepest point, just visible through the beech trees and birch trees and lime tees and oak trees are the courts of Wimbledon.
I blame my mum. Personality wise, I am much more like my dad. I don’t share many of my mum’s interests, but her love of Wimbledon was very definitely transmitted down to the next generation. Thanks mum. I caught the bug.
My dad didn’t watch much sport. In his younger days he was a keen cyclist and then moved onto motorbikes, becoming a despatch rider for the army during his National Service days in the 1950s. The two years he spent zooming up and down the roads of Germany were, I think, the happiest of his life.
His interest in motorbikes remained long after he had actually ridden one and occasionally he would watch a local speedway match on TV, speedway still being popular in our little corner of England, long after its heyday in the 1930s. “Bloody marvellous,” he would say after witnessing a neat piece of overtaking, always adding afterwards, “they’ve got no brakes, you know.”
But that was about it. That was about as far as sport and my dad went. My mum, on the other hand, was a keen watcher of just about any sport, as too were most of her family, football being an obsession for most of my cousins on that side of the tree. I was taken to a match as soon as I was old enough, but I didn’t care for it. It was the sound, the tribal singing, the angry shouts from fans and players alike. I sensed an ugliness. Ugly sounds on an ugly grey, cold day. No. Football was not for me.
My mum’s favourite sports to watch on television were athletics, gymnastics, figure skating, show jumping and, above everything else, tennis. And back then, tennis meant Wimbledon. As the tennis circus traveled the world, stopping off for the Grand Slam events in Australia, France and the USA, it was not given much attention by the British media. Only Wimbledon mattered. It took me a long while to realise that tennis players didn’t only play for two weeks of the year.
When I first became aware of tennis, in the early to mid 1970s, my mum’s favourite players were, on the men’s side, Arthur Ashe and, on the women’s side, Evonne Goolagong. My dad liked Ilie Nastase, mostly for his antics, as he didn’t much care for tennis and would always greet the annual news that the Wimbledon fortnight would soon be starting with an unenthusiastic groan. For years, my dad would perform what he called his Ilie Nastase impression by simply placing a tennis racket in front of his face, grinning stupidly through the strings and asking “who am I?” My mum would answer curtly, “that silly bugger Nastase”. My dad continued to perform his impression long after Nasate’s fame had faded, much to the bewilderment of some of my friends, who had no idea who Nastase was.
Looking through the list of competitors for the early 1970s tournaments, I find that I am unfamiliar with most of the names. Those I do recognise I know either because they remained in the game for many more years or because I have read about them in books or have seen glimpses of them in documentaries. I may have loved the sound of Wimbledon, but I clearly wasn’t giving it my fullest attention back then. It was at this point in my life, it seems, merely a familiar background to summer activities rather than something I actively focussed on.
But that began to change. Gradually, my attention was caught and I remember, like almost everyone who comes to tennis has to at some point, asking my mum how on the earth the scoring system worked.
“Love is what they call nothing.”
“So, why don’t they just say the score is fifteen-nothing?”
“Because they say fifteen-love.”
“It’s just what they do.”
“Why? It’s stupid.”
“Look, the other man won that, so it’s now fifteen-all.”
“Why did he get fifteen points?”
“Because it goes up in fifteens.”
“It doesn’t make sense.”
“Yes it does. The next person to score will go from fifteen points to thirty points.”
“So has that man now got thirty points?”
“Yes. Now it’s thirty-fifteen.”
“That man has just scored again.”
“Yes, so now he has forty points.”
“It goes love…”
“Why do they call it love?”
“It goes love, fifteen, thirty and forty.”
“Because that’s how they score it.”
“What comes after forty?”
“Nothing, they just win.”
“But they must have a score.”
“It goes back to love-love for the next game.”
“Look the other man is playing well now. I want him to win. Forty-thirty. Come on, you can do it.”
“Did he win that?”
“Yes. So now they’re level.”
“Why did the man in the big chair say “juice”?”
At some point the scoring clicked and I remember I enjoyed calling out the scores before the umpire did and feeling dead proud of myself.
My interest in the game itself, rather than just the sound of it, began to grow during the period when Wimbledon was dominated by Bjorn Borg. After winning for the first time in 1976 he usurped all previous players in my mum’s affections and became her one and only champion. Sorry Arthur, sorry Evonne, but time moves on.
I didn’t like Borg at all. He was known as “Ice-Borg” because of his calmness on the courts, but I thought he was boring and the fact that he kept winning year after year, and the fact that my mum thought he was so wonderful, annoyed the hell out me. I would support anyone who was playing Borg and would sulk angrily when he won. I therefore sulked quite a lot as the 1970s wore on.
My own first tennis favourite was Roscoe Tanner. I’d completely forgotten about Roscoe until very recently when I was looking through the draws of the 1970s tournaments on Wikipedia. I knew I liked someone before John McEnroe, I knew I quite liked Jimmy Connors, but I knew there was someone else there, lurking deep within my subconsciousness, buried for decades below other memories. As I checked through the results I wondered whether any particular name would stand out, and Roscoe’s did as soon as I saw it. Of course. Roscoe Tanner. How could I have forgotten? He had a name like a detective in an American cop show. That’s why I liked him. Roscoe Tanner. Cool name. He made the final in 1979, losing to bloody Borg!
It’s interesting how my memories of this time don’t quite match up with what history now tells me. In my memory, John McEnroe – my absolute sporting hero – arrived on the scene as a fully formed agitator, bringing a sense of punk to the sedate courts of the All England club the moment he first stepped off the plane from New York. But it wasn’t quite like that. The full force of McEnroe’s on court personality only developed gradually. Perhaps his most famous outburst – the “chalk flew up”, “you cannot be serious”, “you guys are the absolute pits of the earth” one – occurred in the first round of the 1981 tournament, by which time he was already a household name. He’d been playing Wimbledon since 1977, making it all the way to the semi-finals on his first attempt. In my memory, the chalk dust outburst occurred the first time I saw him, which is wrong.
It feels now as if the Borg/McEnroe rivalry lasted for years, but in actual fact it was very brief. Borg and McEnroe only met at Wimbledon on two occasions. The first time was in the 1980 final, a match which was lauded as one of the greatest games of tennis ever played even before the final ball had been hit. McEnroe won the first set 6-1 and looked to be well on his way, before Borg came back, taking the second and third sets 7-5 and 6-3. The fourth set went to a tiebreak, which McEnroe eventually won 18-16, but only after saving five match points. Borg then went on to win it in the fifth, 8-6. My mum was ecstatic. I sulked.
The next year – the “you cannot be serious” year – saw a rematch in the final, which this time McEnroe won in four sets, two of which went to tiebreaks. And it was finally my turn to be ecstatic for once. Revenge was sweet.
And that was it.
A few weeks later, the two met again, this time in the final of the US Open. McEnroe again won in four sets, claiming his third successive US Open title. As soon as the match was over, Borg not only walked away from the court, not wanting to hang around to watch someone else’s victory celebrations, he also walked away from tennis. It was his turn to sulk. Not so ice-cold after all. He played only one tournament the following year and in January 1983 announced his retirement, at the age of just 26.
The Borg/McEnroe rivalry may have been brief, but it upped the profile of tennis massively and my friends and I started to take tennis rackets to the park instead of cricket bats. This was a relief to me, as although I’ve always been useless at playing most sports, for some reason I’ve never had any problems using a racket.
Our games of tennis were not serious affairs. They mostly consisted of us attempting to whack the ball at each other as hard as we could and we spent most of the time trying to retrieve the ball from under a bush or from the middle of an impeccably kept flowerbed that we knew we shouldn’t go anywhere near. When my uncle hammered a swingball pole into his back garden it meant that endless ball retrieval was thankfully a thing of the past and also that he would have a ruined lawn for much of the next decade. We played swingball for hours and hours and the pole was moved around the lawn until all of it was threadbare.
During this period, we also spent a lot of time arguing over which player we were going to pretend to be. If four of us were playing, at least three of the gang usually wanted to be McEnroe. If a girl was playing, she usually wanted to be Borg. As I knew more about tennis than most of my friends, I could easily sidestep these arguments by declaring myself to be a player the others hadn’t heard of, such as Vitas Gerulaitis, another player I liked simply because of his name.
So tennis became talked about at school and played (kind of) in the school holidays and my interest therefore grew further. As the 1980s rolled on, I watched the TV coverage more attentively. Harry Carpenter presented the daytime coverage, whilst David Vine and then later Des Lynam presented the late night highlights show with tennis expert Gerald Williams, in what became known colloquially for a few years as the “Des and Gerry show”. With live coverage taking up both of the BBC’s television channels, Wimbledon offered an early example of multi-channel entertainment. With the old Number One Court being basically just an annex stuck on the side of Centre Court, the sounds emanating on one court could easily be heard on the other. If whilst watching the action on Centre Court (live on BBC1) a roar erupted from Number One Court (live on BBC2), you could quickly change the channel in time to catch the slow-motion replay. It was bliss.
McEnroe remained my favourite player throughout the 80s. Indeed, I never really had another favourite player after McEnroe. You see, it wasn’t so much the sport of tennis I fell in love with, it was the event of Wimbledon that I became more and more seduced by. Rather than be amazed at a particular player’s backhand or groundstroke, my passion developed instead for the overall drama and the stories that would unfold each summer. I’m not sporty and I don’t have a mind that retains sporting information, but I am addicted to stories and an event like Wimbledon is chock full of them.
I began to learn that each Wimbledon is unique, a thing that blooms and flowers and then falls away in the space of just 14 days. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Each Wimbledon develops its own personality. At some point, usually three or four days in, something will happen that will provide that year’s tournament with its defining shape. A giant slaying perhaps, as a top seed crashes out in an early round leaving the rest of the draw wide open, or perhaps one of those glorious evening dramas on an outer court where the fading light becomes a factor. It sets the stage. That year’s Wimbledon will be unlike any other played before or since. It is always unique.
The weather is sometimes a factor, of course. The 1970s saw two gloriously hot British summers. 1975 was a god one, but 1976 saw temperatures rise to record levels and Wimbledon that year coincided with the height of the heatwave. From the Wednesday of the tournament’s first week onwards, the temperature exceeded 30 degrees celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) every day. Wimbledon’s courts in 1976 looked baked. Whilst the back pages celebrated Borg’s rise to the top, the front pages, by the second week, were dominated by news of water shortages.
The late 1970s and 1980s saw rain delays replace heatwaves as a regular defining feature. During this time, newspapers on the Monday of the first week would be full of articles and special pull-out sections brimming with excitement on the spectacular tennis about to unfold. That excitement would be crushed at 1:00pm that very day when BBC1 would go over live for their first broadcast of the week and audiences would be met by a glum looking Harry Carpenter staring forlornly into the camera whilst a storm of apocalyptic proportions raged behind him.
For some reason, the weather at Wimbledon always seems to be a more extreme version of what is happening elsewhere in the UK. If it’s hot in the UK, it’s hotter at Wimbledon. If it’s raining, it’s raining harder at Wimbledon. 1985 was particularly bad. On the first day the BBC filmed an impressive flash of forked-lightning, which they then replayed during their broadcasts for much of the following fortnight. Men’s semi-finals day saw a horrendous summer storm and the highlight of that day’s television coverage was Harry Carpenter and Arthur Ashe describing the scene as if reporting from a war zone.
Rain delays in the 1980s meant, above all else, two things. Firstly, at least one newspaper the next day would include the headline “Wimbledon Washout”, which would simultaneously refer to both the weather and to the combined hopes of that year’s British contingent. Secondly, the BBC would dig out one of their archive recordings from the early days of colour television. More often that not, the match they chose to show was the 1969 epic between Pancho Gonzales and Charlie Pasarell, which was for many years the longest match played at Wimbledon, until John Isner and Nicholas Mahut smashed that record to smithereens in 2010.
Footage of the 1969 Gonzales/Pasarell match shows how much Wimbledon had changed over the years. When I first saw highlights of that match probably in the late 1970s, it looked ancient even then. There were no seats for the players, so after every other game they just stood around the umpire’s chair looking a bit awkward. Also, the umpires were not professionals back then, so the man in the chair was probably a school headmaster on his summer holidays. If a rainy fortnight caused Wimbledon to overspill into a third week, which it occasionally did, it caused a huge headache for the organisers as many of the officials needed to get back to the jobs they held for the rest of the year.
Wimbledon the place has changed a lot too. Four new courts were introduced in 1980 and in 1981 the old Number One Court was given a £3 million refurbishment, which included new facilities for the players. Sadly, the new refurbishment didn’t last long. The old Number One Court was demolished in 1996. A favourite with many players because of it’s intimate atmosphere, it was also a favourite of mine, though I never had the pleasure to see it for real. Over the years, I witnessed some truly wonderful moments broadcast from the old Number One. This was where John McEnroe had his “you cannot be serious” outburst. Later, it was also the scene of the closing games of the remarkable 1992 men’s doubles final, again featuring McEnroe. The match, tied at 13-13 in the final set, had been suspended at 9.22pm on what should have been the last day of the championships, so the grounds were opened up the next morning and free seats were given to anyone prepared to queue for what might be just a few minutes of tennis. A lot of people, it turned out, were prepared to queue for just a few minutes of tennis and the players, McEnroe in particular, who by this time had earned his rightful place as one of the all-time greats, were welcomed with a standing ovation as they made their way on court. The game finally ended at 19-17. It was the final trophy McEnroe would win at a Grand Slam event.
The old Court Two, another favourite of mine, survived until 2010, by which time it had been relegated for a couple of years down to Court Three, the new Court Two having been built down at the southern end of the grounds. I did managed to see this old lady in the flesh before the bulldozers moved in and the new Court Three was built in its place. Unlike the old Number One Court, the old Court Two was not a favourite of many players and a number of high profile defeats earned it the nickname “Graveyard of Champions”. John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pat Cash, Andre Agassi, Serena Williams and Venus Williams all experienced the humiliation of crashing out early on Court Two.
Centre Court hasn’t escaped the onward march of modernisation either. It only became an all-seater stadium in 1990. Before then, two standing sections along each side of the court separated the front handful of rows from the higher grandstand seats behind. You can clearly see the standing spectators if you watch old clips of Wimbledon on YouTube. I can’t imagine standing for the duration of an entire tennis match, especially a five-setter on a blazing hot day, but the free standing areas had their adherents. For just the price of a daily ground pass, you could watch your tennis heroes from just a few feet away. The American writer Tim Crothers described it as “the biggest bargain in spectator sports.” And some spoke of a camaraderie between spectators in the standing areas that didn’t exist elsewhere in the stadium. When the All England Club, adhering to the Fire Safety and Safety of Places of Sport Act 1987, replaced the standing area with new rows of seats after the 1989 Championships, some, including its then Chief Executive Chris Gorringe, felt that Centre Court’s character had been damaged.
A more welcome change occurred in the first decade of the twentieth century when Centre Court got a retractable roof. The 2007 Championships looked odd as the old roof, which just covered the upper stands, had been taken off, so Centre Court that year lost its famous intimacy and looked strangely exposed. The 2008 Championships looked more familiar. Although the retractable roof was still only partly built, the roofing above the grandstands was back in place.
An irony of the retractable roof was that the last Men’s Singles final to be played without it has gone down in history one of the sport’s greatest matches and rain played a crucial role in the drama. The start of match, the third successive final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, was delayed due to rain and a further two rain delays impacted the play. The first delay, which lasted for 80 minutes, occurred after Nadal had won the first two sets. Federer then took the next two sets. At 2-2 in the final set, the rain came again and this time the players were off court for 30 minutes. When play resumed at 8:28pm, light was already fading and it looked almost inevitable that the drama would have to be rolled over into a second day, Finally, however, in near darkness, Federer sent the ball hurtling into the net and Nadal finally clinched the trophy for the first time. So long roofless Wimbledon. What a way to go out.
The irony continued the following year. With the retractable roof completed and ready and waiting, the weather responded by supplying day after day of sunshine. The Monday of the second week saw temperatures rise even higher, with British newspapers printing “hottest day of the year” type headlines, but the increased heat eventually triggered a thunderstorm and at 4:40pm, during a fourth round women’s singles match between world number one Dinara Safina and former champion Amelie Mauresmo, it was finally time for the roof to be used. Mauresmo took the first set, but then lost the next two. Whether the roof played a part in her defeat is debatable as she was already 1-4 down in the second set when the rain started to fall.
Even though the weather quickly improved, the roof remained closed for the next match as well, a decision which created a bit controversy at the time. The All England Club had been careful to stress that although they now had a roof, the tournament would remain true to its tradition of being an open air event. So some thought that keeping the roof closed for a high profile evening match between Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka smacked of the All England Club chasing television ratings. The game would not be stopped by fading light and could, if it turned out to be a humdinger, stretch well into the primetime evening television schedule. Quite why this was seen as controversial I don’t know, but Murray and Wawrinka rose to the occasion and provided a unique night time, four-hour, five-set spectacle that didn’t finish until 10:39pm, with Murray finally clinching it.
I was there that day, my first ever visit, but I did not get to see the historic Murray and Wawrinka match. Our seats were on Number One Court, which due to a retirement and lack of a dramatic five-setter was all done and dusted by the early evening. I had proposed that we follow the Murray match on the big screen in front of Henman Hill, but on walking to that part of the ground, we found that there was not an inch of hill left on which to stand let alone sit. So we decided to head home and in retrospect that was a good decision. We made our way along the side of Court 18, where the longest match in the history of tennis (8 hours 11 minutes) would be played the following year; we passed the media centre where journalists were tapping away on laptops and phoning their editors; we walked down the steps and over the very spot where the old Number One Court used to stand, the very spot where McEnroe had once shocked a nation by yelling “you cannot be serious” at the umpire; we made our way past the soon to be demolished Court Two where so many greats had fallen; we looked up at the soon to be demolished crow’s nest scoreboard from which the famous which lightning strike in 1985 had been filmed; we wandered down through the courts on the southern side of the grounds and there, down there, on that wonderful warm evening, was that sound. Oh that sound! The background chatter, the pops of balls on rackets and grass, the officials confirming the scores, the polite applause of the crowds. And then a mighty roar burst through the roof of Centre Court and came flowing through the grounds. The roof may have been closed, but the roar still managed to escape.
I was no doubt missing an amazing match, but I was gloriously happy. I stepped out of the grounds knowing that I would return. The love affair would continue.