Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A day at Wimbledon

The shuttle bus weaved through the tight streets of the Wimbledon neighborhood, past a golf course and gift shops and charming little rows of connected houses, with bright flowers in front in defiance of summer days with forecasted highs only in the low 60s. After a few minutes, the bus crested a hill and the grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club stretched out before us, beneath the hulking green and white monolith of Centre Court and a classically British gray sky. The bus passengers greeted the sight of the most famous venue in tennis with a gasps and murmurs. There it is.

I expected the sights at Wimbledon to be breathtaking, and that first glimpse of towering Centre Court and the grounds beneath was indeed unforgettable. But after walking down the sidewalk by the high stone wall, and through the gate, it was the sound that caught me off guard.

Tennis balls popped off racquets relentlessly, crisply. Anybody can get thisclose on the outer courts, close enough to hear the soft footfalls of the players and ball boys and girls. Even when densely packed, the crowds were quiet, almost reverential. Most restaurants are louder than these gatherings around the outer courts, except for the bursts of applause after points were won.

My senses sufficiently overwhelmed, my sister and I headed into Centre Court for the day's matches. It was a dream lineup, featuring Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Andy Murray. I was gawking and taking pictures all along the way, and as we walked up the stairs to our seats I apologized for my dawdling, but adding we had plenty of time. A white-haired usher in the walkway by the entrance to our seats heard our exchange, smiled and said, "You've got all the time in the world."

We breathlessly took our seats in the old cathedral, its grass pristine and green and ready for another year. Centre Court is all that is Britain, old and proud and dripping with history, complete with a Royal Box of seats. It was damaged during Nazi Germany's bombing blitz of London. It was a roof to ward off the seemingly omnipresent British rain. Into this arena walked the great Roger Federer, once again opening play here as the defending men's singles champion.

Roger Federer

Time was on my mind when I dreamed up this trip to Wimbledon. Federer is one of my favorite athletes ever, and I wanted to see him play in person. I had thought about trying to catch him at the U.S. Open, but then, dreaming just a little more, decided to go see him on Centre Court, sight of so many of his and tennis' most memorable moments.

Federer has won 17 singles titles at tennis' big four Grand Slam tournaments, three more than any player ever. He has won four Australian Opens, one French Open, and five U.S. Opens, so his resume has plenty of diversity, but he has won Wimbledon seven times, tying Pete Sampras and Bill Renshaw for the most. The English invented tennis, on lawns. Wimbledon is the home and soul of tennis, timeless and beautiful.

Federer won five straight Wimbledons on the hallowed lawns from 2003 to 2007, beating Rafael Nadal in the final of the last two of those. He played three straight five-set Wimbledon finals from 2007 to 2009, beating Nadal in '07, losing to him in '08, then beating Andy Roddick in a marathon 16-14 fifth set in 2009 to break Sampras' record for most Grand Slam singles titles. Roddick held serve 37 consecutive times, but Federer won the second and third sets via tiebreakers and then finally broke Roddick on his 38th service game. When Roddick mishit a forehand and the long battle in the sun was over, Federer uncorked a classic celebration, the opposite of the now-typical collapsing to the ground reaction, leaping in the air again and again, shouting.

There are a lot of reasons I became a Federer fan. I appreciate greatness; I've enjoyed so many moments watching him play on the big stages; he seems like a genuinely good person and sportsman, even if he's not immune to the intensity and emotions of a heated tennis match. But another big part is that he's an artist on the court. In an era where all the best players simply stand around the baseline and hammer away until the point is over, Federer hits drop shots, he comes to the net, he darts and crafts and glides out there. He has power and a great serve, sure, but that's not all he has.

And so I and the rest of Federer's legion of fans were delirious last summer when, after back-to-back quarterfinal defeats, he beat Novak Djokovic to return to the Wimbledon final, against Britain's hope, Andy Murray. The locals desperately wanted Murray to end Britain's Wimbledon drought, which dated to 1936, but it's a measure of how beloved Federer is that he had plenty of support that day. Murray took the first set, but then Fed roared back to win the next three sets and his seventh Wimbledon title. This excerpt from a Sports Illustrated article by Bruce Jenkins summed up the Centre Court feelings for Murray and Federer:

With Federer holding a 3-2 lead in the third set, Murray tried desperately to hold. A 10-deuce game raged on for 20 minutes, several chances blown each way. Finally, Federer unleashed an inside-out forehand that Murray could only stab with the backhand. That set ended with a Federer ace flying past Murray's backhand, and a sense of reverence filled the historic arena. Murray was their man, but Federer was their god. 

It's a bitter reminder in sports, but our favorite athletes don't play forever. There have been plenty of premature attempts to declare Fed done, but eventually the day will come when he is done. He'll turn 32 in August, pretty old for a top-shelf tennis player. Seeing him play on Centre Court was the reason for my trip, the reason the trip needed to be now, not in that ambiguous "someday" file folder of the mind.

I saw just what I wanted to see, Federer at his best, smooth and brilliant and dominating. The crowd roared when he and his Romanian opponent, Victor Hanescu, walked out on Centre Court to renew the action on Centre Court once again. There was no PA system announcement, no playing of the national anthem; the players just came out and the crowd cheered and the tennis started.

It was the purest sporting event I've been to. No billboards or advertisements, no blaring PA system, just the game, at its highest level. With a few notable exceptions, like the crack of the bat of a big hit in football, we don't hear many sounds of the game in modern, big-time sports. There's just too much accompanying noise.

But on that pristine lawn of Centre Court, the crowd is respectfully quiet right before and during points, so quiet you can hear the chop-chopping of feet scurrying across the grass surface, the crisp pop of the ball, the players talking to themselves. At one point, Federer hit a serve that was called out. After a beat, amid the silence of 15,000 fans, he said, "Challenge." You could hear it like he was sitting in your row.  Later, Federer hit one of those heavy backspin shots that float along, and it buzzed closer and closer to the baseline. "Get in, get in," a Federer fan whispered in the row behind me.

It got in. Federer rolled to a straight-set win in just a little over an hour. I was enraptured by all the sights and sounds and history. It all happened so fast. I soaked it in as much as I could, a classic self-aware great moment. It was over too soon, but I'm so glad that it was.

Maria Sharapova

In 2004, Maria was 17 and so was I. She was young and pretty and winning Wimbledon that year. She helped get me hooked on tennis. She hasn't been dominant, but she has spent time as the world No. 1 and has won all four of the tennis Grand Slam tournaments. She is tenacious, competitive, ruthless.

She is also noisy. Her shrieks when she hits the ball filled Centre Court, growing louder in the big moments. At a Grand Slam Tennis Tours welcome dinner the night before, former Wimbledon singles finalist and doubles champion Fred Stolle said Maria's matches sound "like a honeymoon night."

She played a big server, Kristina Mladenovic, and the first set went to a tiebreaker. Maria pulled it out, then won the second set much more comfortably. At one point, the sun made a brief appearance, prompting cheers from the crowd.

Accomplished as her career has been, Maria was not the most famous woman in the stadium. Sitting in the Royal Box were Pippa Middleton, sister of Kate, the future Queen of England, and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. I naturally zoomed in for some pseudo-stalkerish photos of Pippa.

We spent the lulls in action on Pippa Watch, and at one point my sister observed, "She's talking to her brother." "So are you," I returned without missing a beat.

The next day, during out walk around central London, we walked by the front of Westminster Abbey, where Pippa's bridesmaid dress launched her to fame two years ago at the Royal Wedding. These are the visual souvenirs of Britishness from a trip to London: Pippa, Westminster Abbey and a Scottish tennis player of destiny.

Andy Murray

Murray took the court to the roar of an adoring home country crowd. Murray was last on this court during Wimbledon for that final loss to Federer, after which he wept and said, "I'm getting closer," winning any British tennis hearts he hadn't already secured. He went on to win Olympic gold at Centre Court and then the U.S. Open last September, Britain's first male Grand Slam title since Fred Perry in 1936. Perry's '36 Wimbledon triumph was still Britain's last by a male when this Wimbledon started.

Murray's a likable guy, and the British were a likable people. They are funny, they are friendly, and those accents...

They don't like Andy Murray; they love him. If I had a ten-pound bill, complete with Elizabeth's picture on it, for every time I heard one of them yell, "Come on, Ahn-dee!" I'd be going back to Wimbledon next year. There are size limits to how big of a flag you're supposed to be able to bring onto the grounds, but I spotted more than a few British Union Jacks in the crowd.

Nadal lost on Court One during Murray's match. The crowd buzzed as the scores kept getting updated, then cheered when it went final. The next day, at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, a mounted police officer giving warnings about pickpocketers spotted tourists from Spain. "What happened to Nadal?" he asked with a smile. Knowing there was a language barrier, he simply said "Murray" and gave a thumbs up, then "Nadal" and gave a thumbs down. He repeated the gesture for effect.

In his opening match, Murray was playing a German, Benjamin Becker. Two different times, someone yelled, "Come on, Boris!" in reference to the infinitely more famous Becker tennis player. Both times, the crowd laughed.

The first set was tense, but Murray prevailed. Then, he cruised to a straight-set win. It's seemingly always tense with Murray at Wimbledon. The BBC aired a Murray documentary the night before the tournament, a welcome oasis in a blur of British channels and TV shows I didn't really understand (so many were just people sitting around a desk talking about stuff, making references I didn't get). In it, Murray's girlfriend, Kim Sears, admitted she didn't really enjoy Wimbledon. Understandable, given the immense pressure her man faced on those grass courts.

But this time would be different. This was Murray's Wimbledon. Murray rallied from two sets down in the quarterfinal, rallied from down a set in the semifinal, and then went on to break through and defeat Novak Djokovic to win the title.

Murray's dream came true this Wimbledon. So did mine.