A Fan’s Pilgrimage to Wimbledon

roger federer on centre court at wimbledonTwenty-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.

all england club wimbledon order of playA 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.

wimbledon all england club court 18I 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.

strawberries and creamAnd 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.

wimbledon all england club tennis centre courtThe 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.

campers at wimbledonMidway 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)

The 10 greatest sports venues

greatest sports

With The Masters starting today, the NCAA championship behind us and the Major League Baseball season just around the corner, lots of people are traveling to see their favorite teams, events, and players this week. Some of the most historic sporting venues in the world are easy to reach and boast loads of history. Here are the ten greatest sports venues and how to reach each one.

Fenway Park (above)
The oldest major league stadium has more character than most. It opened in 1912, and has been packing in fans ever since. The Red Sox have sold out every home game for over 600 games and counting – a major league record. Fenway is a legendary place that every sports fan needs to visit at least once. And since they have won two World Series in the last decade, I do not even need to mention the pesky curse.

Getting there and tickets: Located in Boston, Fenway Park is right off the Mass Turnpike in the heart of the city. Take the green line on the T to Kenmore station to reach the ballpark. Tickets can be purchased here. Since games are always sold out, it is easy to just pick scalp your tickets or grab a pair off of craigslist, ebay, or stubhub.

greatest sports

Lambeau Field
Opened in 1957 as City Stadium, the home of the Green Bay Packers was renamed after Curly Lambeau in 1965. The Super Bowl Champion Packers have one of the most loyal fan bases of all NFL franchises, and season tickets have been sold out since 1960. The stadium is a classic in football design, and Green Bay is one of the smallest markets to host a professional sports team.

Getting there and tickets: Fly into Austin Straubel International Airport in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Home game tickets for the Super Bowl champion Packers are hard to come by. There is currently 86,000 individuals on the Green Bay Packers season tickets waiting list. The best bet for a coveted spot at Lambeau is though stubhub.com.

greatest sports

Old Trafford
The home of Manchester United was built in 1910. Known colloquially as the “theatre of dreams,” the famed football stadium houses the most successful club in English football history. Man U is one of the most, if not the most, popular sporting franchise in the world. From the far flung islands of Indonesia to rural villages in Russia, the Man U brand is a recurring staple.

Getting there and tickets: Old Trafford is located in Machester, England which can be reached by plane or train. From London, Virgin Trains can get you to Manchester quick for about 23.50 GBP. Tickets are fairly easy to come by for routine matches, though exceptional match-ups and Champions League games may require purchase on the secondary market.

greatest sports

Wrigley Field
The home of the Chicago Cubs since 1916, this den of futility has never seen a world series victory. In 1916, President Taft’s epically mustachioed son sold the team and the new owners moved to the location known today as Wrigley Field. With their last world series victory in 1908, they possess the longest championship drought in major league baseball. Perhaps, 2011 will be the year. This old field is famous for its ivy draped outfield walls and old-school hand-turned scoreboard.

Getting there and tickets: Located in Chicago, take the L train to the red line stop of Addison just a block from Wrigley. Tickets can be purchased here.

greatest sports

Wimbledon houses one of the four tennis Grand Slam events, The Chamionships, Wimbledon. It is widely considered to be the most prestigious of all tennis tournaments. Since 1877, royalty and commoners have piled into the small court at the All England Club to watch the best ladies and gentlemen of the tennis world trade swings. With a strict dress code and a tradition of strawberries and cream consumption, it is a very high brow affair. While Wimbledon has roughly 20 courts, the two most storied are Centre Court and No. 1 Court.

Getting there and tickets: The tournament begins each year on the first Monday falling between June 20 and 26. For tickets, you must apply by public ballot or marry into royalty. To get there, fly to London and take the tube to Wimbledon or Southfields on the District Line.

greatest sports

Masters at Augusta
The Masters at Augusta in Georgia is the pinnacle of professional golf. The only men’s major to take place at the same location each year, The Masters has been inviting the best golfers in the world since the tournament began in 1934. The tournament is also extremely rich in tradition. The winner of the tournament is fitted for the “green jacket” and chooses the meal served at the Champions’ Dinner for the following year. The Champions’ dinner is an ultra-exclusive event reserved for past winners of the tournament. After his win in 1997, a twenty-two year old Tiger Woods chose cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, french fries, and milk shakes for the illustrious Champions’ dinner.

Getting there and tickets: The event takes place during the first week of April with the first round beginning on Thursday. Augusta Regional Airport is serviced by Delta, or one can drive from Atlanta or Charlotte to Augusta in under three hours. Since The Masters quit selling tickets to the public in 1972, it has become one of the most difficult sporting events to attend. Ticket brokers do sell tickets, and prices range from $1,500 to north of $10,000. Ticket Scalping is legal in Georgia (outside of 1500 feet from the venue), so you can also show up and hope for the best. Practice tickets are available to the general public.

greatest sports

Madison Square Garden
MSG is home to the New York Knicks basketball team and the New York Rangers hockey team. The earliest incarnation of Madison Square opened in 1879 and played host to boxing matches and an exhibition of Jumbo the elephant – whose name and popularity linguistically gave birth to the term jumbo. Three versions later, MSG opened the doors to its current form in 1968. It is the third busiest arena in the world in terms of ticket sales. Some significant events in Madison Square history include “The Fight of the Century” with Ali versus Frazier as well as Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday Mr. President” to JFK.

Getting there and tickets: Madison Square Garden is located in Manhattan at 8th Ave and 33rd St. Tickets can be purchased here.

greatest sports

Cameron Indoor
In the land of college hoops, Cameron Indoor is the church of basketball under the ministry of Coach Krzyzewski. Built over 70 years ago, it is a humble structure with an occupancy of less than 10,000. What it lacks for in size it makes up for in energy. The Cameron Crazies, students that sometimes paint their entire bodies blue, have made this one of the loudest stadiums in the world with a recorded decibel level of 121.3 – louder than a jackhammer. The Duke Blue Devils that call Cameron home have won four national championships and have made the Final Four a total of fifteen times.

Getting there and tickets: Fly or drive to Duke campus in Durham, North Carolina. Tickets can be bought on stubhub. Undergraduate students camp out in Krzyzewskiville for tickets – a temporary squatter settlement of tents near Cameron.

greatest sports

St. Andrews
The oldest golf course in the world is the old course at St. Andrews in Scotland. According to the mainstream, the Scots invented the game of golf. The earliest records of golf is a law put forth by James II decreeing that all playing of the sport in Scotland be halted in 1457. He felt it interfered with archery practice. Today the course is one of several locations used for the British Open – most recently used in 2010 for the men’s tournament.

Getting there and tickets: The nearest airport is Edinburgh, which can be reached by several European discount carriers. London to Edinburgh on easyjet costs about 25 GBP. From Edinburgh, car or bus is the best option. For rail travelers, one can reach St. Andrews by taking the train from London to Edinburgh and then from Edinburgh to Leuchars about 10km from St. Andrews.

Churchill Downs
Located in Louisville, Kentucky, Churchill Downs hosts the annual Kentucky Derby. The event has come to personify an embodiment of the South that includes Mint Juleps and gigantic hats. Churchill Downs has hosted the race since 1875, making it one of America’s oldest sporting traditions. Speaking of tradition, a strange one has emerged in the hard partying infield of the Churchill Downs – porta potty running. Brave entrants run the length of a row of portable toilets while other spectators heave various projectiles at them (above).

Getting there and tickets: Louisville is serviced by many airlines and tickets to the Kentucky Derby can be purchased here. For 2011, the Kentucky Derby takes place on May 7. Regular races run from Thursday to Sunday from late April to early July.

Kensington Tours announces dream trips for sports fans

Kensington Tours, a travel company that specializes in private-guided adventure travel, has announced a series of tours that are guaranteed to be a hit with sports fans. These trips include VIP treatment for travelers, offering up luxury accommodations, access to glamorous events, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and of course, excellent seats at some of the most well known and legendary events in all of sports.

This Championship Series of tours includes options to attend events on three different continents, including jaunts to Europe for Wimbledon, the Ryder Cup, and the F1 Grand Prix in Monaco. In North America the events include a chance to attend the Masters golf or the U.S. Open tennis tournaments, as well as the Kentucky Derby, or the Super Bowl, while travelers to South America can opt to experience the Brazilian F1 Grand Prix in Rio.

Attending these amazing sporting events is just the beginning however, as Kensington has taken great strides to offer travel packages that ensure an unforgettable experience. For instance, some of the luxuries include helicopter transfers, police escorts, and guided tours of the host cities, as well as a chance to play a round of golf on some of the top courses in the world and get the opportunity to take a drive in a Ferrari. Upgrade options include private luxury boxes, limos, a private jet, and VIP access to behind the scenes activities as well.

While most of these sporting events are still months off, the Championship Series tours are already filling up fast. There is a reason why these events are so exclusive, and if you’re looking for the ultimate way to experience any of them, Kensington is here to provide that experience. For sports fans, these tours really are a dream come true.