For 11 months of the year there is little happening along Church Road, Wimbledon, to indicate that this is the home of the world's biggest tennis tournament. It is a road much favoured by driving instructors and people exercising dogs. Then, in the build-up to, the staging of and the clearing up at the end of The Championships, all changes. Church Road and its immediate environs in the London suburb of SW19 are filled with those whose task it is to present the tennis and those who have come to watch it.
Wimbledon is special in so many ways. It is the only one of the four Grand Slams still to be played on grass and it remains free from subsidy or indeed any outward sign of commercialism. Because of the worldwide upsurge in tennis interest, it becomes annually more difficult to stay ahead of the rest, but Wimbledon manages to do it. As the previous chairman of the All England Club, John Curry, once said, "One of the skills we have is that we're fuddy-duddy. Once people think we're dynamic that's when we have problems."
Curry was only half-joking. In its quiet, understated fashion, Wimbledon is organised and presented with a precision, which makes it magnificently unique. In the bewildering eddies of tennis, the fastest changing of the major sports, Wimbledon has not only stayed majestically afloat but continues to be the pinnacle of tennis ambition and achievement.
The late Arthur Ashe, one of the tournament's great champions, attempted to explain this phenomenon: "Part of the reason that Wimbledon attracts such attention is that it is a bona fide, certified British tradition and British traditions are just a bit more traditional than anyone else's."
Many players built, and continue to build, their whole year round Wimbledon. Think of the planning that went into the achievements of Bjorn Borg, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Boris Becker. Think how Pete Sampras' career has always been arrowed towards this one event - with spectacular success - and how Tim Henman annually bears the considerable burden of British expectation.
It is a tournament which has changed for ever the lives of so many of its champions, for winners like John McEnroe and for losers, too, like Goran Ivanisevic, three times the "bridesmaid" as men's singles runner-up.
Another of The Championships' great champions, Jimmy Connors, calls Wimbledon the Olympics of his sport and John Newcombe, that supreme Australian competitor, has observed, "You can find out anything you want to know about a person by putting him or her on Centre Court at Wimbledon."
Much of Wimbledon's eminence comes from the historical fact of having been first in the field, but that eminence needs to be defended with what might be termed modest ferocity. Many are the sporting enterprises, which have learned to their cost that pre-eminence in their particular field of operations is not necessarily an enduring quality.
There are other tennis events which can claim bigger this or that. The US Open, for example, makes much of the fact that it offers the premium prize money. But none has ever offered the prestige that goes with a Wimbledon title. And for all its so-called amateurish attitude, Wimbledon has been brave and hard-nosed when the necessity arose.
The best example of this came when Wimbledon showed the rest of the world the way in 1968, drawing a curtain over the years of "shamateurism" and under-the-counter payments by opening its gates to amateurs and professionals alike in 1968 - the single most important change in the sport's history.
A recent headline in The Times over an article about Wimbledon pointed out: "The Bubble Keeps on Growing." So it does, and the job Wimbledon carries out so well is to ensure that bubble never bursts.
03-17-2007, 08:35 PM
Eighty Years of Centre Court
The Centre Court at Wimbledon, the most famous tennis arena in the world, reaches its 80th Birthday during the 2002 Championships. The milestone simply adds another story to the house of legends which this unique grass court has become since its opening in 1922. "It is like a cathedral out there," says John Newcombe, three times singles champion.
The countdown to the 80th birthday includes two particularly special years in the life of Wimbledon. In 2000, Pete Sampras of the United States won his seventh singles title in a finish so late on the Centre Court that the light was fading fast as Sampras eventually overhauled his Australian opponent Pat Rafter in four sets.
A year later the men's final was played in its entirety on the third Monday of The Championships before a crowd which had the opportunity to buy tickets on the day. They were rewarded with a magnificent contest between the new champion Goran Ivanisevic, who was a wild card entry into The Championships, and Rafter. Emotions ran high between supporters of the two finalists and there was an astonishing, noisy atmosphere throughout.
Back in 1921, when it became clear that The Championships should be moved from their first home at Worple Road to what is now Church Road in Wimbledon in time for the 1922 tournament, there was an expectant atmosphere as the new headquarters took shape. The Centre Court, like all the others, was surfaced with Cumberland turf and the demand to provide more spectator accommodation than Worple Road meant an initial provision of 9989 seats. There was standing room for 3600 spectators, divided equally on either side of the court, an arrangement which continued until 1990 when seats were introduced on safety grounds.
The attention to detail for the spectator was considerable and carefully thought out. Nearly all spectators would have such a clear view that they would be able to see a tiny piece of paper on the grass, no matter where they were. Potential patrons were reminded that in shooting it was possible to distinguish between differing game birds in flight and none of those moved as fast as a tennis ball. "No sportsman with average eyesight has the slightest difficulty in distinguishing birds at this distance and therefore the general public should be able to see all the niceties of the game," said a memorandum. In addition, no shadow would appear on the court until 7 p.m.
It may seem entirely appropriate to those who have followed Wimbledon's relationship with bad weather over the years that the momentous first day of the Centre Court was affected by rain. Play was due to start at 2.45 pm but the covers stayed on after a wet morning. King George V and Queen Mary appeared briefly but it was 3.30 pm before the King struck a gong three times to signal the opening of the grounds - and 15 minutes later play began. It rained on every day of The Championships and the tournament was completed on the third Wednesday. The champions were Gerald Patterson of Australia and Suzanne Lenglen of France who were the first players to take the titles after the abolition of the Challenge Round.
The King and Queen were regular visitors to the 1922 tournament, thus setting a pattern of Royal visits which has been maintained ever since. All players on Centre Court bow to royalty in the box and Rod Laver, four times champion, describes the feeling: "It was an ordeal. . . . . it's something I worried about. . . . the main thing is not to bend too far because you might fall flat on your face which would be a bad show. "
Attendances proved that Wimbledon's new home was as popular as anticipated and the Centre Court crowds who occupied the three miles of seating, with 21 miles of wooden slats providing "comfortable backs", were the forerunners of the millions of spectators who have followed in their footsteps. It was six times champion Bjorn Borg who said it was not an unusual sight to see four thousand people standing outside the Centre Court waiting for nothing in particular to happen but that kind of congestion is a thing of the past thanks to the various methods to help spectators to move around the grounds. But the chance to see famous players of yesterday and today in and around the Centre Court remains a fascination for many visitors.
Naturally the Centre Court has established many landmarks over the years. In 1931, a player wearing glasses appeared on the Centre Court for the first time and in the same year a lady played without wearing stockings. A male player in shorts first appeared in 1933.
By 1949 the trophies were presented on Centre Court for the first time, the first lady umpire to officiate on the Centre Court was in 1981, and the first lady to take a final was Georgina Clark who umpired the last match in the ladies' centenary championship. A year later some spectators took the chance to swim in one of the passageways under the court after an immense storm produced one and half inches of rain in 20 minutes. Nine years later a temperature of 115F was recorded on the court on the final day of The Championships.
The Centre Court was re-roofed in 1992 and has four support pillars instead of the original 22. It had to take a back seat for a while when the new No. 1 Court was opened in 1997 but there has never been any loss of stature for the famous old place. It has housed tennis of quality, of character, and of style in its unique pathway to becoming the only Grand Slam Championship to still be played on the game's original surface.
03-17-2007, 08:37 PM
Fred Perry Remembered
Fred Perry's name is brought up each Wimbledon as Britain searches for a successor to him as the Gentlemen's Champion.
It is 70 years since he completed the first of his three Singles titles the All-England Club. The achievement has cast its shadow over every male player with GB in parenthesis by his name on the draw sheet at the world's greatest tennis tournament.
If today's chief torchbearers of the odyssey, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, needed any reminder of Perry's legacy and missed the FJP stamp issued in Gambia in 1990, it is embodied in the gates named after him at the Somerset Road entrance and, more strikingly, the statue by the main Church Road gate in the shadow of Centre Court. The bronze monument to Britain's most successful male tennis player of the 20th century, by David Wynne, depicts him as he was winning Wimbledon in 1934, 1935 and 1936; long-trousered and elegant.
I met Perry in the media and Championship officials canteen as he took a break from his pithy, erudite and frank Wimbledon commentaries for BBC radio, a job he had done every year bar one (when he suffered a blood clot on his lung) since 1947.
He rather liked Wynne's sculpture, telling me: "With the statue and gates with my name, it's all a great thrill. People are now saying ' I'll meet you at the Perry statue'. It's a strange feeling, makes you feel a little queasy. It's a beautifully-done statue. People don't know how I used to be, they only know me as I am now."
He clearly felt good about having something there for future generations to remember him the way he was. Perry said: "The old people will get fewer and fewer as time goes by."
He had positive emotions about Wimbledon. "It's a very nostalgic place. I've had a love affair with Wimbledon ever since I can remember. It stays with you.
"When I was there with the surviving champions celebrating the hundred years of Wimbledon in 1977 I realised I hadn't walked on to Centre Court at Wimbledon with people in it since 1936."
Perry appreciated what the event means to all its champions. "There haven't been any rich players, in the main, who have won Wimbledon. They have been unmonied players who have become rich as a result of winning the title at Wimbledon."
He also knew about Wimbledon uniqueness and enduring popularity: "You can ask players 'are you going to the Australian Open or the French Open?'. You don't ask 'are you going to the British Open?'. You ask ' are you going to Wimbledon?' All tennis players want to play Wimbledon and spectators like to go to it."
But the answer as to why Britain had not produced a male champion since his era eluded him. "Don't ask me why there hasn't been one since, I don't know. Why should it have been me? I don't know, but it happened to me."
Perry was the first player to win all four Grand Slams, a feat only equalled by Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver and Andre Agassi. He claimed the US Open (three times), the French and Australian Open titles.
But it was his victories at the All-England Club that he cherished above all others. In his autobiography, he said: "Wimbledon has been the scene of my greatest triumphs."
He overcame Australian Jack Crawford 6-3, 6-0, 7-5 to capture his first Wimbledon title before consecutive final victories over German Gottfried von Cramm, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 and 6-1, 6-1, 6-0. It made him the first Briton since Laurie Doherty in 1904 to complete three consecutive Wimbledon final wins.
His second triumph against Von Cramm took just 40 minutes and was the swiftest final since William Renshaw defeated John Hartley in 1881. His opponent might suitably have been renamed Von Cramm-p that day. In his book, Perry revealed the inside information that helped.
Perry said: "He (a pre-match masseur) told me Von Cramm had been out to practice that morning, had overstretched his muscles before he was sufficiently warmed up and had suffered a groin cramp... he is going to have trouble stretching wide to the right.
"I was always a believer in stamping on my opponent if I got him down, at Wimbledon or anywhere else. I never wanted to give him the chance to get up. If I could have beaten him six-minus-one instead of six-love I would."
The secret behind his successes was the ruthless streak, a running forehand and supreme fitness allied, of course, to ability. The fact he trained with the Arsenal Football Club reflected his approach which he used it to good effect when getting professional tennis rolling on moving to the United States.
His attitude put him at odds with the amateur outlook of his day, but any rebukes were forgotten by him when it came to remembering his Wimbledon era. He had mellowed from the "rebel" - as he was labeled by some elements of the tennis establishment in England - who admitted to being "sometimes a little brash and arrogant about what I regarded as the class-ridden set up there (Wimbledon)"..
In Fred Perry: An Autobiography, he recalled his farewell to the courts as a player before turning professional after helping Britain to their fourth successive Davis Cup victory; the last three being at Wimbledon.
It was against Australia in July, 1936. "As I walked off court, Dan Maskell came out to take my rackets, as he always did. As we went behind the barrier leading to the dressing rooms, I said 'just a minute Dan' and I walked back on to Centre Court and took a final look around at the crowded stands. In that instant Maskell knew I was going to go pro, that I had gone from Wimbledon and the Davis Cup.
"I knew I would never play on Centre Court again because I had been back in England since April and nothing had been done to encourage me to stay in the amateur game. "Those seven Wimbledons had been wonderful, and in spite of everything that had gone on in the past two years, my great love affair with the place had never faltered. To me it was and always will be the greatest tennis venue in the world, and all my memories of Wimbledon are fond ones.
"All the hatchets have been buried now. To its great credit, Wimbledon has been a leader in bringing about change and improvement in the sport."
Perry, who predicted that Pete Sampras would dominate Wimbledon before the American had made his mark at the top level, lived in the real world. But he was always emotional about the lawns that brought him his fame. He passed on three months from his 86th birthday in 1995 but will be forever young thanks to a bronze work of art.
03-17-2007, 08:38 PM
Greatest Champions: Bjorn Borg
Though his modern-era record of five Wimbledon Singles championships has been overtaken by Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg remains at the pinnacle of the all-time greats of The Championships by virtue of two statistics: those five successive victories between 1976 and 1980 and the fact that he also pulled off in three consecutive years the most difficult “double” in tennis, victory on clay at the French Open and on grass at Wimbledon.
Becoming champion in quick succession on such alien surfaces has been achieved before, most notably by Rod Laver in his Grand Slam years of 1962 and 1969, but since Borg only Andre Agassi has managed to win both Roland Garros and Wimbledon – and in his case seven years separated the two achievements.
There was, alas, a price to be paid for Borg’s genius, and it was a heavy one. After annexing 11 Grand Slams singles (six French, five Wimbledon) in the space of eight years, the enigmatic Swede quit the sport at 26, mentally drained and physically exhausted by those extraordinary demands. It is unlikely tennis will ever see his like again in terms of an athlete driven by single-mindedness to such success.
In nine tilts at the Men’s Singles between the years of 1973 and 1981, Borg won 51 matches and lost four. Between his 1975 quarter-final defeat by the eventual champion, Arthur Ashe, and his loss in the 1981 final to John McEnroe, Borg won 41 consecutive singles at The Championships.
What is less well known about Borg’s grass court prowess is that he also won Junior Wimbledon in 1972 at the age of 16, recovering from a 5-2 deficit in the final set to overcome Britain’s Buster Mottram.
But it was on clay that Borg had his earliest big wins, at the Italian and French Opens of 1974 on either side of his 18th birthday. The Roland Garros title was again captured the following year, and a burgeoning reputation meant that the Swede was seeded fourth for the 1976 Championships.
In an astonishing sequence Borg demolished seven opponents, culminating with Ilie Nastase, without dropping a set. It was only the fourth time a man had done that at Wimbledon, and it has not been accomplished since.
It had thus been demonstrated in devastating fashion that Borg’s finest qualities, speed about the court, heavily topspun groundstrokes and mental strength, translated readily from clay to grass. It was that mental strength, allied to his sheer never-say-die quality, which subsequently rescued him four times from looming defeat in his incredible run of Wimbledon success.
In 1977 he trailed Mark Edmondson by two sets in the second round before sweeping the next three, and in the semi-final his close friend Vitas Gerulaitis was a break up in the fifth set before succumbing to lack of belief, since he had never beaten Borg.
In 1978 he trailed on the opening day by two sets to one against Victor Amaya before finding his rhythm, having newly arrived in London from triumph in Paris. Two years later Vijay Amritraj led Borg two sets to one in the second round, and Borg was taken to a fourth set tiebreak before prevailing. Beneath that headband worn severely low on the forehead, the will to win was strong as ever.
It was needed in the 1980 final against McEnroe, a match nominated by many as Wimbledon’s greatest ever. Having lost the opening set 6-1 to an all-out McEnroe assault, Borg took the next two 7-5, 6-3 and held two Championship points at 5-4 in the fourth. But McEnroe averted disaster and went on to level the match in Wimbledon’s most memorable tiebreak, which he won 18-16, saving five more match points.
That renowned mental quality saw Borg through a testing 8-6 fifth set for his fifth straight Wimbledon title, but 12 months later it was noticeably absent when the same pair contested the final again. The spark had gone. Borg was on the brink of burn-out.
“Here I was, in another Wimbledon final, the biggest thing you can play in,” he said recently. “But I didn’t have that sparkling feeling.” McEnroe won 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 and Borg’s subsequent comment says everything about him at that time: “Of all the Wimbledon finals I played, that is the one I should have won, yet it didn’t bother me when I lost. So I decided it was time to go.”