A Fan’s Pilgrimage to Wimbledon

Twenty-five years ago, while on holiday in London with my parents, I insisted that we make a pilgrimage out to The All England Club, where Wimbledon, tennis’s grandest tournament, has been held nearly every summer since 1877. The tournament wasn’t on at the time, but we checked out the club’s museum, which offered a tantalizing glimpse of the fabled Centre Court, and bought some souvenirs that I hoped would make me the most intimidating, bad-ass 14-year-old tennis player in Buffalo, New York.

It was a hideous, ill-fitting T-shirt with wide horizontal green and white stripes emblazoned with a massive, tacky Wimbledon crest, along with a Wimbledon towel that probably cost my parents far more than it should have. I was still years away from being able to legally purchase a pornographic magazine and I still harbored delusions that I was going to be the next Boris Becker. Sure I was.

I wore the shirt and used the towel at every opportunity, in the belief that they might give me some mystical edge over my opponents. In the pre-Internet era, I was pretty sure I was the only kid in Buffalo who had some gear from Wimbledon and I wanted everyone to know it.My tennis “career” fizzled but I never lost my love for the sport or my desire to return to Wimbledon so that I could actually see a match on the court where my heroes – Borg, McEnroe, Becker and a host of others – had met triumph and disaster and treated both just the same.

A quarter of a century after my first visit, I finally had an opportunity to return to Wimbledon this week after I scored a ticket for “Magic Monday,” when all 16 men’s and women’s fourth round matches take place in one day-long tennis orgy unique to Wimbledon. A contact at the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) lined up a ticket for me and I was told to report to gate 9 around 11 a.m.

I was up at 6, like a child waiting to open his presents on Christmas morning and turned up at the gate around 9:30, on the hope that I might be able to enter the grounds and hit the museum before play was due to start on the outside courts at 11 a.m.

“You’re an hour and a half early,” said the puzzled young woman who was sent out to the gate to deal with me. “I can give you a grounds pass, and you can enter in an hour and then later on I’ll have a ticket for you.”

She had no idea that I’d been waiting to see some tennis at Wimbledon my whole life and another hour meant nothing to me. But the skies were as threatening as Mel Gibson in a drunken fury and I still didn’t know if I was going to be given a ticket for Centre Court, which has a retractable roof, or Courts 1 or 2, which do not.

After spending the next hour walking around cutesy Wimbledon village in a persistent drizzle, paranoid that I’d somehow manage to lose my ticket, and half-tempted to buy a tasteless Wimbledon warm-up jacket circa 1973 at the Oxfam charity shop down the road, I made my way into the club and immediately felt a giddy sense of accomplishment.

It was raining and all the courts were covered but there were self-important looking juniors lugging big tennis bags around on their backs, ushers in distinctive blue blazers with white trim directing foot traffic and hordes of well dressed white people eating strawberries and cream and drinking Pimms that wouldn’t have looked out of place at a Morgan Stanley company picnic. This was the place – Wimbledon, baby.

My fortunes improved when Kate, one of the ATP’s angels sent from heaven, handed me a ticket for Centre Court just as the rain stopped and play began on the outside courts just after noon. The outside courts have a very limited seating capacity and since those who have only grounds passes don’t have the right to enter the show courts – Centre, 1 and 2 – it’s a bit of a mob scene trying to get near the action on these courts.

I spent half an hour watching fragments of the Mikhail Youzhny-Denis Istomin through some flowers and a bush on the periphery of Court 18, (right) the intimate little court where Nicholas Mahut and John Isner duked it out for more than 11 hours in a first round match in 2010.

Before heading out to Centre Court to see Roger Federer face Xavier Malisse, I spent some time exploring the grounds and taking note of all the unfamiliar, peculiarly British terminology. There was the Officials’ Buttery, the Debenture Holders’ Entrance, Henman Hill and a host of other very British-sounding places.

And what about the food and drink? Aside from the signatures, Pimms and Kentish strawberries and cream, there’s an astonishing variety of food on offer beyond the standard hot dogs/pizza/beer sporting event fare. At the Conservatory Buffet, there’s dressed torby crab and smoked Shetlands salmon; at the reservations-only Wingfield Restaurant, where Thurston Howell and Lovey would have felt very much at home, you can tuck into some pan-fried Anglesey sea bass, caramelized summer squash, or some smoked Glousctershire Chicken.

But I didn’t come to Wimbledon to eat squash. I came to watch the world’s best brutalize little yellow balls on a court fit for royalty, so I headed up to what the Brits refer to as gangway 304 to take my seat at Centre Court.

Centre Court has been described as tennis’s cathedral or temple, and it does feel like hallowed ground. As soon as you enter the stadium, your senses are flooded by the green, pastoral feel of the place. The flood of green-the grass on the courts, the seats, the paneling of the structure, the tarps that lie on the side of the court, the Wimbledon crests emblazoned behind both baselines – all green – seduce you into a weird, content, better than drugs, everything-is-right-in-the-world haze.

The court seats 15,000 fans but it feels remarkably intimate. Federer, who has won this tournament six times, looked sluggish to begin the match and each time he shanked a ball off the sides of his racket, the crowd gasped as though they’d just heard the Queen rip a loud fart at a State Dinner.

In one game, Fed shanked two balls and a portly businessman with an American accent behind me said to his trophy wife, “What the hell is going on?” as though he was at a fine restaurant and had just been given a tough piece of meat. The crowd had paid to see Federer work his magic and had no tolerance for error.

A visit to Wimbledon is a pilgrimage for a hardcore tennis fan and the ultimate status symbol for a wealthy American dilettante. Centre Court is filled mostly with the well heeled, but take a walk up above Court 18 and check out the hardcore lot, who camp out in the hopes of scoring tickets and you’ll understand that Wimbledon isn’t just for the rich.

Midway through the first set, Federer left the court and the crowd began to murmur, speculating about what was going on. The chair umpire announced that he had taken a medical timeout, and suddenly the notion that tennis’s greatest champion, a man who has never retired due to injury in a tennis match, might actually lose prior to the quarterfinal round in a major for the first time in 8 years. What was wrong with him?

“He must have pulled something,” said the large man behind me.

“He didn’t pull anything,” said his wife, who was coated in makeup for the occasion. “He’s probably just got diarrhea or something. I mean what are they supposed to do if they have to go to the bathroom?”

Federer eventually got his act together, and won the match, as he always seems to, and the woman behind me fell asleep on her husband’s shoulder, but was rudely awakened by Victoria Azarnenka, one of the next combatants, who wails and shrieks with every shot as though she’s in the final stages of childbirth. Azarenka made short work of Serbian beauty Anna Ivanovic and was later characterized by Patrick Kidd, writing in the British newspaper The Times, as a “noise pest” who “lived to squawk another day.” Kidd opined that she sounded like a wounded seagull falling down a well and I couldn’t agree more.

I spent 9 and half hours at Wimbledon, taking in three full matches, two of them uneventful, three large glasses of Pimms, two rain delays and two trips to the Wimbledon Shop. I made my way out of the club and walked towards the Southfields tube stop, proudly sporting a Wimbledon umbrella and Wimbledon hat. These days, anyone with a credit card and an Internet connection can buy these trinkets, but still, I felt like a member of the club – if only for a day.

(Photos and videos by Dave Seminara)