WIMBLEDON, England—We have heard a lot about how different this Olympic iteration of Wimbledon will be, but after spending the day at the tennis, it’s clear to me that the differences are both greater and more subtle than just alterations in signage and acceptable attire.
On the surface, it’s really not that different. The airport-style security is new, but the military presence manning the gates and soldiers strolling the grounds in pairs during their breaks is neither intrusive nor unusual. Even the virulence of the ‘Olympic’ shade—somewhere between the pink of a My Little Pony and the purple of a particularly sickening bruise—on the hoardings is overpowered by the familiar ivy-covered walls and somber dark green of Wimbledon. To paraphrase Terry Pratchett, you can’t stamp your personality on Wimbledon. It stamps back harder.
What is different is the people, both those running the place and the crowd. Instead of the honorary stewards—predominantly white upper-class men; I once met one who told me he was a Russian prince—we have paid and voluntary ‘Gamesmakers’ of all ages and ethnicities, mainly women, in their branded London 2012 gear. The crowd is more diverse in every respect too; more international, more families. It’s hard not to feel that this represents the multicultural Britain showcased in the opening ceremony, and it makes a nice change from the usual hegemony of Wimbledon.
I’ve never seen so many people wearing apparel that represents their home nations, their faces painted, draped in flags, some of them guests of the various Olympic federations in immaculate tracksuits, others just fans. I’ve never heard so much chanting coming from all around the grounds. Small groups of spectators from the Netherlands in bright orange make up for their numbers by being sartorially voluble; the Australians, always good value, seem to be competing with each other to wear the most outlandish green-and-gold outfit; Swiss flags are everywhere; and whenever a Canadian player takes one of the outside courts, it becomes a haven of red and white and maple leaves, accompanied by shouts of ‘You’re doing good, buddy! Right here!’ Every player has home support; when Irina-Carmelia Begu briefly levels her match against Victoria Azarenka, scattered Romanian flags unfurl around Centre Court. As for the Brits, not even when Andy Murray plays during a normal Championships do you see so many Union Jacks, on flags, hats, ‘Team GB’ garments, and even sequined mini-dresses which appear to have been slumbering in the back of wardrobes since the Spice Girls’ last go-round.
Outside these knots and pockets of nationalist fervor, though, the atmosphere feels a little flat. When Roger Federer plays Julien Benneteau, I watch on a sparsely-populated Henman Hill between a man intently discussing redoing his bathroom on his mobile and another who is patiently hand-drawing a sign to wish his mum a happy birthday. The grounds are noticeably emptier than usual, too. Perhaps it’s because there are fewer courts in play, or perhaps it’s the absence of those Wimbledon die-hards, the contingent who queue overnight; wild-eyed with lack of sleep, grimy and determined. Perhaps it’s just the absence of something I was vaguely expecting to feel—some sort of special Olympic inspiration, the possibility of gold medals sparkling tantalizingly in the air, players rising to the occasion and committing heroic feats.
It’s not really there in the singles matches I watch on Centre Court, which is too big to be dominated by a foreign contingent the way some outer courts have been colonized, and without that it’s just, well, tennis—Azarenka punching her backhand with that killer intensity, Juan Martin del Potro’s shots resounding like short snaps of thunder, Federer ghosting silently across the grass. Maybe it will feel different when the medal rounds draw closer, but today it’s just like Wimbledon, except without much of what makes Wimbledon unique, the hush, the white.
As the day wears on, though, doubles largely takes over on the outside courts, and this feels more Olympic. The relaxation of the all-white rule works to its advantage as the pairs largely wear outfits echoing the national colors in the crowds, and just that simple fact lends the matches more of a team ethos. The best match I see is between Slovakia (represented by Dominika Cibulkova and Daniela Hantuchova) and Poland (Agnieszka and Urszula Radwanska). Before the match even starts, the Slovaks lining Court 16 are singing and the Poles are chanting.
The elder Radwanska is by far the strongest player on the court, and from the beginning she’s playing with an intensity and purpose which makes it clear how much she wants to win, having already been knocked out of the singles. She’s unrecognizable as the listless, cranky player I saw in Eastbourne a few weeks ago, ripping outright winners from the baseline—yes, really—and bailing her little sister out of trouble when she struggles with her serve. The Radwanskas eschew the customary handslap after every point whether won or lost, preferring to stay on their own side of the court and mutter darkly to each other, unlike the Slovaks, who put their heads together and giggle. Poland runs away with the match, 6-2, 6-1, but the Slovaks never stop supporting their players until the last point. It’s like a Fed Cup match, except that it’s part of a greater event which is, in itself, part of something greater.
Perhaps this is the strange tension which leaves the experience of the event as fundamentally uneasy. The specialness of Wimbledon, the fact that there is no other tournament like it, means that its brief absorption into the Olympics mothership inevitably occasions a sense of loss, its idiosyncracies and sharp edges flattened beneath the friendly face of globalization. On the other hand, the experience is undoubtedly more inclusive, more democratic, without Wimbledon’s exclusivity. If Olympics tennis inspires—as the London 2012 motto runs—to ‘inspire a generation’, perhaps its potential to succeed in that respect outweighs other considerations in regard to the sport’s place in the Games and the Games’ place at Wimbledon. ‘Olympic Wimbledon’ sometimes creaks under the weight of attempting to satisfy so many different demands, but ultimately it’s a once-in-a-lifetime fusion of the hermetically-sealed cultural enclosures of the All England Club and a larger, more colorful, noisier world.
Hannah Wilks is based in England and a frequent contributor to TENNIS.com.