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Wimbledon is elegant and nutty and lovely and other words belonging to no other event - The Washington Post
A groundsman paints the white lines on the grass of Centre Court at Wimbledon in 2013. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
By Chuck Culpepper
Reporter who covers national college football, college basketball, tennis, golf and international sports.
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ReporterJuly 2 at 7:49 AM
If by chance you sat next to me on a plane back when people did such things, and I wound up confessing my line of work, and you wound up asking the most-asked question, “What’s the best sporting event?” and I narrowed it down by pruning out the quadrennials (Olympics, World Cup) and sticking with the annuals, then you probably would have ended up oh so stuck for a while.
Soon I would have been warbling on about Wimbledon and Wimbledons past, about Williams-Williams and Nadal-Federer and Federer-Sampras and Ivanisevic-Rafter and Rafter-Agassi and Jana Novotna and McEnroe-Cahill (!), about the Duchess of Kent and Bud Collins and Ted Tinling, about Pierce Brosnan and Venus Williams’s answer to a tabloid question, about Tim Henman and the great rains of 2001 and Pimm’s and the word “alight” and Princess Diana and my glorious Aunt Gayle.
I would have yammered on about how Wimbledon manages to ooze both elegance and nuttiness, as if the elegance gets so thorough that it starts to squeeze the nuttiness out the sides. I might have claimed all wild-eyed that just setting eyes on the grass courts might count among life’s therapies. I might have stated that no place on Earth has proved so well how purple plus green equals magic. I might have given my specious hypothesis that the stands at Centre Court ring with such history that when one hears applause, one can cup one’s ear and imagine hearing the applause of years and decades ago, back across one century and going-on-a-half.
That means I could claim to sit there in 2017 and still feel the roars of the “People’s Monday” of 2001, when rain pushed the men’s final off its normal Sunday, and the fans got in first-come, first-served, and the Australians dominated as they will, and the inflatable kangaroos bounced in support of Patrick Rafter against Goran Ivanisevic, and the match roused and stirred on to 9-7 in the fifth (to Ivanisevic) and to hundreds of thousands of goose bumps.
[Andy Roddick’s finest moment arrived on Centre Court as Roger Federer made history]
While muttering all this, I probably would have added that if they ever had to cancel it, as they did four times from 1915 to 1918 and six from 1940 to 1945, the summer would feel beige.
They’ve had to cancel it.
The summer feels beige.
Even from across the world’s second-largest ocean, Wimbledon always did seem a wonderland, featuring maybe even a castle and a moat but definitely Collins with his eloquent words and electric threads. From the time of first enchantment via TV — Arthur Ashe outsmarting Jimmy Connors for a smelling-salts upset in the 1975 men’s final — it dropped an anchor into summer.
[Wimbledon’s cancellation further complicates tennis stars’ Grand Slam aims]
And then every so often in life, the wonderland you encounter matches the wonderland you’ve envisioned, and so in 1989, I reached Southfields tube station and saw a sign, “Alight Here For Wimbledon Tennis,” and realized that alighting is better than mere arriving. Into this fresh realm of language I went, where an impossible early upset brewed on Court No. 2, where a 19-year-old Australian named Kristine Radford snared the first set, 6-3, from Martina Navratilova before darkness intruded, enabling Radford to call her parents that night and find them “over the moon,” the first time I ever heard that peerless expression.
(Navratilova rallied to win the next day, the prude.)
From there, across 10 Wimbledons for five publications in three decades, I reveled in the lingual possibilities, from how the noun “weather” got paired so often with the adjective “appalling,” to what journalist Alix Ramsay said in 2016, amid her respect for Andy Murray’s general candor, for a story about the respectful relationship between British media and British star: “He may have told us a few porky pies over the years, if he doesn’t want to release some news today because it’s coming out next week.”
The area outside Court 14 was a blur in 2019. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Our failure to adopt the everyday use of “porky pies” constitutes a glaring national oversight.
At the Wimbledon tent village, in a field across Church Road from the grounds, where people sleep all night for ticket privileges, a camper revealed in 2017 that the day begins with an attendant plucking the tent at 5:30 a.m. and saying, “Wakey, wakey.” If that’s a lousy way to wake with its tinge of dreadful cheer, at least they’re waking at Wimbledon, where the days through the years have brought the sight of what did feel so epic.
There’s Rafael Nadal, splayed behind the baseline in victory at 9:16 p.m. after that gripping and halting and enduring fight through the rain delays with Roger Federer in the 2008 men’s final. Here are women’s finals in 2002, 2008 and 2009, and each time, a vision: two women from the same family, sisters Venus and Serena Williams, taking the court, two decades after spending their childhoods constructing the most remarkable American sports story to date.
There’s Federer in 2001, at 19, in a ponytail and a necklace, crafting one last forehand pass past Pete Sampras for 7-5 in the fifth, then crumpling to the grass, then saying later of his hero, “Well, sometimes it was weird, you know, I look on the other side of the net, I saw him, sometimes I was like, ‘It’s just true,’ you know, kind of that this is happening now, that I’m playing against him.” When the chair umpire said, “Time,” that day, to end the final changeover, it seemed he might have meant also in general, for the seven-time champion Sampras.
Now there’s Federer in 2016, at 34, so madly beloved by then that in a quarterfinal against Marin Cilic, as Federer played his symphony upward from two sets down, one actually could start feeling sorry for Cilic, treated, like so many Federer opponents, as a prop.
There’s Serena Williams in 2009 with her uncanny ownership of big points, withstanding a hard semifinal with an excellent Elena Dementieva. There’s Rafter in 2001, proving a man’s man again after lurking two points from defeat against Andre Agassi in a towering semifinal. There’s Ivanisevic over Richard Krajicek, 15-13, in a semifinal in 1998, and there’s Gilles Muller over Nadal, 15-13, in a fourth round in 2017.
And there’s Andy Roddick in 2009, after 16-14 in the fifth against Federer, absorbing both one of the meanest defeats anyone ever took and the crowd’s greathearted chanting of his name.
[Novak Djokovic is latest tennis player to test positive for virus after protocol-flouting tour]
How does all that meaning coexist with the routine nuttiness? It does so snugly. Wimbledon, of course, is where Marion Bartoli trailed Justine Henin badly in a 2007 women’s semifinal, whereupon Bartoli rallied inexplicably to win, 1-6, 7-5, 6-1, whereupon she approached the customary BBC interview, whereupon she gave perhaps the best such interview in the dreary history of such interviews. Asked how she redirected the match against a No. 1 seed who wound up baffled herself, Bartoli said the key had been spotting Brosnan in the stands and deciding she could not continue to play poorly in front of him.
He sent flowers to her locker for the final, even though flowers also wilt against Venus Williams’s serve.
Wimbledon, of course, is where one day, in a news conference setting, Venus Williams fielded a question that could happen probably only at Wimbledon with its London tabloids nearby, about reports of a stalker of Serena Williams. What might her father do to such a guy? Venus Williams thought for a moment about her father’s unpredictability and deadpanned, “Probably take him to lunch.”
An umpire gestures during play in 2016. (Ben Curtis/AP)
It’s where, for the years Henman kept making semifinals (1998, 1999, 2001, 2002), “Henman Hill” became a noted topographical formation from which fans without stadium tickets would watch by giant video, and the whole event seemed to heave with annual hope before the annual sigh, the toughest in the 2001 semifinal with Ivanisevic that took three days and included a rain-delay Centre Court interview with … Bill Clinton.
It’s where a tabloid reporter might plumb the concentric circles of rudeness by asking Stanislas Wawrinka a question about his facial skin, or where Agassi might include in his unsportsmanlike reaction to the loss to Rafter a barb about the marital sex rate of a lineswoman, or where one might have arrived in 1989 to find a crowd wildly cheering for John McEnroe through a five-set tussle with Darren Cahill.
It’s that sporting event where there’s a Royal Box and a Royal Box seating list, of all madnesses, and thus, in 1989, a sighting of Diana right over there, wearing blue if memory serves.
Wimbledon is the grubby struggle of sports carried out amid an intensive loveliness of life, from the energized village up the street to the flowing Pimm’s on the grounds to how the strawberries look when surrounded by the cream.
A young spectator watches the action through a fence in 2018. (Nigel French/AP)
Loveliness: Collins roamed annually there, and to meet him was to find a soul whose moderate fame could not possibly dent his bounteous goodness. He mastered patience and kindness. He helped every unknown face that happened by his desk seeking guidance. He asked the evening trash collector so much about his life that the young man left Collins a thank-you note at the end, noting how people didn’t tend to ask him about himself.
Loveliness: Only at Wimbledon could a narrative span five years involving a player who performed the deeply human art of choking and a Duchess of Kent who consoled her during the trophy presentation. Five years after Novotna cried on the Duchess’s shoulder in 1993 after losing from 4-1 and 40-15 ahead in the third set against Steffi Graf, one might have felt lucky to happen upon an otherwise forgettable final between Novotna and runner-up Nathalie Tauziat, if only to lip-read the Duchess saying, “I am so proud of you.”
Loveliness: The former and fleeting tour player Judy Murray of Scotland became the first architect of her sons’ tennis games, and both became Wimbledon champions, and the second, Andy, became the first British men’s singles winner in 77 years in 2013, when the sight of a strong mother sobbing became unforgettable. I missed that except on TV, but in a rollicking interview during Wimbledon 2009, she expressed how she liked to watch matches alone and in silence, as opposed to next to those who might “chat inanely to me about what they think is going on.”
Loveliness: Tinling had made it back to Wimbledon by 1989, 40 years after it banned him for making lace panties for Gussie Moran in a soaring Wimbledon scandal, seven years after it had allowed him back. The dressmaker, tennis historian and exceptional wit beheld a 1989 semifinal between McEnroe and Stefan Edberg, its smorgasbord of volleys, and summarized with typical and original brevity, “I could barely take my eyes off it.” (Reporters would go to him after Chris Evert’s final match at the 1989 U.S. Open, and he would say, simply, “Our sun has set.”)
[Tennis set to return in August with Washington’s Citi Open, Serena Williams at the U.S. Open]
That ride through the fortnight of 1989 would be his last Wimbledon, and shortly before his death at 79 in May 1990, he would tell John Feinstein this: While he had chosen to die in London, he had donated his body to science at the University of Pennsylvania, and while he had made provisions to transport the body from London to Philadelphia, the university had called to say he had omitted provisions for the trip from the airport to the school, and so, “I had to send cab fare, for I shall not take the bus.”
Simona Halep poses after defeating Serena Williams in the 2019 final. (Toby Melville/AP)
And, loveliness: In 2008 and 2009, the tennis connoisseur who doubles as my Aunt Gayle arrived in London with zero tickets, yet then managed to sit at Centre Court for a stunning 12 days, plus Court One (the other stadium) once. She did so through various means that included a nightly online lottery I would play for her; a veteran Wimbledon ticket expert said she had never witnessed such fortune. Aunt Gayle spent one of her birthdays watching Federer-Nadal — the Federer-Nadal — and I still can see her over there on Centre Court, across the way, in her purple windbreaker.
Per custom, she would finish watching and then wait for me to finish work, generally a bad idea yet, in this case, a way to bond further with Wimbledon. She would help herself to perhaps a strawberry, a beverage or a catnap. And so on the night after the great Federer-Roddick final of 2009, when I finished last in the entire workroom, she and I finally walked outdoors toward the exit about squarely in the middle of the night. Another Wimbledon had gone into memory, all the witnesses had trickled out, and the stands had soaked in another round of sounds ready for future years’ echoes.
Somehow, we two wandering native Virginians seemed just about the only souls still on the premises, save for the security guards. So in one of the best memories of my life, we walked out slowly through the stillness and the elegance and the green and the purple and the wonderland.
Wait, maybe you need to go to the loo?
A message at the All England Club declares the event will not take place this year. (Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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