Wimbledon, that is. The freshly-cut grass, the polite applause, the strawberries and cream, the rain, the stoic disappointment, the endless queuing…it’s about as British as you can get.
So what is it about Wimbledon? I’m not usually very interested in sport—I’m baffled by cricket and the only thing I know about rugby is that you get points for trying—but I’ve been visiting Wimbledon for about ten years now to watch what is always referred to there as ‘The Championships’.
It’s different from the other Grand Slams (the French, US and Australian Opens) for several reasons. First, it’s the only one played on grass, which is kept to a ruthless standard by the Wimbledon groundskeepers (I’ve actually seen them measuring it). It’s always puzzled me how and why it’s thrived in Britain—the wettest place in the world (no, really, there are tropical rainforests with less rain, I swear). Even a tiny bit of drizzle stops play, because the grass becomes so slippery it’s not fit for purpose. Because of this, a new roof is being built for Centre Court which should keep the moisture off, and allow matches to continue despite the inevitable drizzle.
At Wimbledon, as soon as the umpire declares it to be too rainy, the court is cleared of net, chairs and other furniture, and a cover is pulled over the court by hand in a matter of seconds. Every single action on court, by every member of staff, is absolutely impeccably choreographed—in fact, the ball kids attend an academy where they’re taught exactly what to do, and when to do it. They march onto court in an almost military fashion, and stand with their hands behind their backs, facing away from the court, during breaks in play. The line judges wear Ralph Lauren. No, seriously.
Tradition is everything at Wimbledon. It’s the only Grand Slam with a dress code for players, who must wear predominantly white outfits (a dislike for which was Andre Agassi’s given reason for not entering the tournament about twenty years ago). There are multiple booths inside selling strawberries and cream (about £2.50 for six strawberries!), champagne, and Pimm’s.
The official patron of the All England Lawn Tennis Club is the Queen. When she is present in the Royal Box on Centre Court, players are required to curtsey to her (or to the Prince of Wales) as they enter or leave the court.
Outside the tournament grounds is Wimbledon Common, home to the Wombles. They often entertain the Queue, pose for photos, and generally confuse people who’ve never heard of them before.
Ah, the Queue. Another thing that makes Wimbledon so unique is the large number of tickets available for purchase on the day. The downside is that you have to queue for them (see, I told you it was very British. No one queues like we do!). I’ve only ever queued for ground tickets (admission to the ground and the outer courts), which usually requires arriving by about 6.30am. Gates open at about 10.30, and play begins on the outer courts at 12. If you want show court tickets (Centre, No.1 and No.2), you’ll generally have to queue overnight. This involves taking a tent and staking out your place before the close of play on the previous day. The Queue is kept in line by volunteer Stewards (in blazers and straw hats), and entertained, at least from 8am, by Radio Wimbledon. Newspapers, often carrying freebies like collapsible chairs, radios, or rain ponchos, are sold to the Queue, there are fast food stands with wonderful, life-giving supplies of caffeine, and there’s usually at least one breakfast cereal or fruit juice being given away.
All this effects a general air of camaraderie, and because we’re British, it actually adds to the experience if it rains. No really, it does. So long as Cliff Richard doesn’t start singing, anyway. Queuers are given stickers to proudly proclaim their stoicism—I have a collection saying, “I’ve queued at Wimbledon in the rain!”. So long as the drizzle has dried up by the time play starts, no one really minds all that much.
Because, really, Wimbledon’s like a lot of other things in Britain. It’s full of tradition, pride, and dashed hopes (oh Tim Henman, why couldn’t you win just once?). It’s expensive, exciting, and baffling. And if we let the weather get in the way, why, we’d just never get anything done at all.