I hadn’t been to Wimbledon for thirty years. It had become one of many events on this overcrowded island of ours that was simply impossible to get to. Minus the time difference it might as well have taken place in Melbourne. It had come to exist solely—and quite satisfactorily—on TV.
And then yesterday I made my triumphant return. Have you been. No? Oh, then you’re missing out. It’s fantastic—probably the single best thing England has to offer. What I hadn’t realised, after all those years of watching it on TV, is that Wimbledon is a festival—without the litter and the scruffs. Even if you’ve got tickets for one of the show courts you still spend quite a bit of time doing that festival thing: wandering around aimlessly and enjoyably. You’re conscious, of course, of the headline acts on the main stage, of where and when they’re playing, but you catch all sorts of other performers you never intended seeing for the simple reason that you’d never heard of them. Great matches can erupt anywhere, in any round, on any court.
As you wander around you are conscious of another festival-like quality. All the people there—staff, stewards and punters alike—are on their best behaviour. Everyone is polite and friendly and not in a hurry because they’re already where they want to be. They’re in that festival zone, an alternative and improved reality. At first it can seem a little off-putting having soldiers and sailors showing you to your seats as if you’re living under a military dictatorship but they are courtesy itself. A rather stupid objection is made to Wimbledon that it is some kind of hideous outing for, and indictment of, middle England and the home counties. Well, all I can say is that if it’s a choice between a crowd applauding the arrival of the ball boys and girls, who cheer the opponent even when he or she rips a ball past—and eventually defeats—whoever happens to be the great British hope of any given era, then give me that over a mass of males telling the referee he’s a blind cunt and generally heaping abuse at the visiting team in a football stadium any day of the year for the rest of eternity.
Don’t get me wrong. As will soon be seen, there are opportunities for abuse at Wimbledon but mention must first be made of another great thing about it: the Royal Box in Centre Court. I became interested in the Royal Box when a French friend somehow got invited there and described its atmosphere, with exquisite Gallic snootiness, as “a bit chavvy.” C’est superb, non? Owen Jones himself couldn’t object to that line, surely. I was particularly lucky on the day that I went: Prince Charles and Camilla were in attendance. Even I was surprised at the intensity of my reaction but how often does one get a chance to see, at relatively close range, some of the people one most despises on earth and hurl invective at them? “Go home!” “Spongers!” and—rather pompously—“I’m a citizen not a subject!” was all I could manage on the spur of the moment. If I’d had my wits about me I’d have reprised the famous “Off with their heads!” line from a couple of years ago (uttered, I’m proud to say, by a personal friend of mine) when they strayed into the student demos, but I don’t think the crowd would have appreciated the quotation (a lot of the Centre Court crowd seemed to be monarchy-doting foreigners; certainly I was the only person, at the end of Federer’s match, to call out “Don’t bow to them, they should bow to you!”)
As with any festivals there is, of course, the perennial torment of the rain. The rain is an absolute downer but that’s part of the definition of a festival: an event that is overwhelmingly at the mercy of the weather. Which is why it’s so great to have access to the weather sanctuary of Centre Court. Unlike the monstrous, thoroughly vile main stadium at the hideous US Open at Flushing Meadow, Centre Court is surprisingly small and the newish roof is an architectural and aesthetic marvel. What is really surprising in the realm of corporate-sponsored sporting events and festivals, though, is that this is about the nearest you’ll get to a no-logo environment outside of the Burning Man Festival. To have resisted all the temptations to the contrary, to have avoided turning the whole of the Club into some architectural and decorative equivalent of a Formula 1 driver’s outfit is nothing short of a triumph.
I feel sure there’s another great thing about it too that I’ve forgotten to mention. Oh yes, that’s right: a constant overload of tennis of a superhuman quality.