Sunday, 28 June 2009

The Wimbledon Championships: Tennis whites and well-tended greens

For two weeks, and two weeks only, of every year I become a hard-core sports fan. Outside of these two weeks I could not care less for football, or rugby or cricket, or even the athletics mega-event which is the Olympics. These two weeks are immovable - they only occur towards the end of June and the beginning of July each summer - and are focussed on one sport in one place; tennis and The Wimbledon Championships. Wimbledon is the oldest tennis tournament in the world, and has been held in this suburb of London since the end of the nineteenth century. Something about this age-old tournament, the tidiness of the players in their crisp whites, the lack of clashing contact and mud, the exotic and unpronouncable Balkan names (and the fact the players are all politely referred to as "Miss" and "Mr") appeals deeply to me, and my British sense of doing things (even sweaty, sporty things) in style.
Tennis fans flock from around the world to camp out for the much in-demand tickets, even electing to sit within the courts grounds and watch the matches on a vast screen, rather than at home on their sofa, just to be nearer the action. Faces are painted with national flags, clusters of yellow and green, kangaroo-printed t-shirts scream on Leyton Hewitt, whilst Andy Murray's fans drape themselves in Union Jacks. Spectators heads really do swivel from side to side in perfect coordination following the luminous yellow-green tennis balls hurtling across the court, moving faster than suicidal courier bikes around Hyde Park Corner.

Oh, and it's the sweetest sound in the world. Despite the power in the strokes, the noise of the tennis balls bouncing on the neatly trimmed (and, by the end of the first week, worn and brown), grass is a regular, soothing metronome, ticking away the dramatic game. Punctuated by polite clapping and aggressive "Come on!" roars from the audience or the players themselves, and the thrum of planes overhead bound for Heathrow, this is the sound of the start of summer. (It is also the sound which has filled my headphones all last week. To my colleagues, I am hard at work, typing and answering emails, yet in my head, I am court-side watching a Williams sister demolish an Eastern bloc opponent.)

Wimbledon Fortnight heralds a seasonal shift in London; it must be the only sporting event with its own peculiar climate. Without fail these two weeks combine hot and steamy sultriness, with grey and rainy skies. Dark clouds fill the skyline holding the heat, duvet-like, wrapped around the city streets. The unlucky majority of us who don't have tickets watch at home, glued to televisions inside even in the muggy weather, at times feeling as hot and sweaty as those players racing around the court; better to swelter indoors than miss a second of the action outside in the sunshine. All parts of London are bedecked in celebration of Wimbledon. Sales of Pimms and strawberries go through the roof, sports shops run tennis kit promotional sales, and the most un-tennis-related of shops and restaurants suddenly dress their windows with fluffy yellow tennis balls.

And this year the tournament holds further thrill for the British watcher. As we enter the second week there is still a British hope thrashing his way through the rounds. Not since Fred Perry in 1936 has a Brit won the Men's Singles title, and who knows if that will change this year. Our nation is behind Andy Murray, watching his every serve, his every backhand, his every fault, glued to television screens (and cheeky headphones in the office). But so what if he doesn't win this year? In 2010 Wimbledon will return, with a fresh batch of ball-boys and ball-girls (one of which was once an Accidental Cousin!), its well-watered grass ready for the onslaught of rubber soles, and with Hawk-Eye and Centre Court's new retractable roof ready for action. And this time in a week I will already be counting down the days until next year...

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