Scenes from Week One

Sunday, June 30, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

WIMBLEDON, England—It’s Middle Sunday, and yes, both of those words are capitalized. Its a holy moment of rest for tennis writers, and anyone else who works at the All England Club every day of the fortnight. Wimbledon bowed to the forces of secularism—as well as NBC—when it allowed the men’s final to be played on a Sunday for the first time in 1982. But the Club has continued to observe a day of no play at its midpoint, at some financial cost. Personally, I say thank you, though I’m not sure that’s a sentiment anyone reading this column will share. To most fans, it’s one of the few Sundays all year when there’s no tennis to watch.

I know it’s not exactly a substitute, but here’s a Middle Sunday column on some (perhaps rightfully) overlooked sights and sounds from the first week, and the unpolished thoughts they inspired. This isn’t a definitive review or a midterm report card, just a collection of snap shots from the grounds.

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Saturday morning we were given the coincidental treat of seeing two trademark victory celebrations performed within a few minutes of each other. On one side court, Lukasz Kubot upset Benoit Paire and proceeded to trot out the high-kicking can-can dance he does after big wins. Then, elsewhere on the grounds, Mikhail Youzhny finished off Viktor Troicki and gave us his famous four-cornered salute.

On Twitter, Brad Gilbert asked which we liked better. I guess you have to go with Kubot, for the sheer joyous abandon he shows doing it, and the fact that we don't see it too often. But I like Youzhny’s as well, because it’s so farcical. I know some people don’t like either of them; nor do they appreciate Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s triumphal post-victory spins. “Act like you’ve been there before” is the traditionalist's slogan.“You didn’t win Wimbledon.”

I can see that. Plus, celebrations must feel like salt in the wound to an opponent who has just lost. It’s amazing how far tennis has come in terms of expressiveness—rehearsed, ritualized expressiveness—in the last 20 years. For the most part, though, I like it. I like to see how much winning a tennis match, and not just winning the final of a Grand Slam, means to the players—though I suppose the can-can after a first-round win at a Challenger might be a bit much. In a way, the celebrations are an acknowledgement that winning isn’t an easy thing to do in the pros.

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What are the major differences between the British tennis fan and the American tennis fan? From my time in my beloved Court 3 this week, I’ve been reminded of a few.

The Brits around me in the stands will celebrate a winner with the low but insistent compliment, “Well played.” If something truly special is performed, it will earn a barked call of “Shot!” This doesn’t sound especially insightful—yes, the player hit a shot, we could all see that—unless you add back the implied “good” that the speaker has dropped off. Linguistic abbreviations and informalities are the law of the land here. The American equivalent to “well played” or “shot” is the stoner/fraternity-inspired “Nice.” (The implied word that's dropped off here is "dude" or "bro.") The Brits obviously have the edge on this, but I doubt I’ll ever stop saying “Nice.”

I’m not sure how it works at other British sporting events, but one thing an American quickly notices at Wimbledon is that no one is walking down his row trying to keep a tray laden with three huge cokes, two hot dogs, a slice of pizza, and and a pile of cheese fries from a tipping over and crashing on the woman in front of him. Wimbledon’s fans are more discreet and practical. You might see a woman chewing on a homemade sandwich, or someone else picking from a bag of nuts or dried fruit, or a third person finishing a small cup of ice cream. No one seems to be carrying anything.

Not that the British are totally pure. An American is amazed to see fans drinking wine from wine glasses two rows in front of him. In the U.S., this privilege is reserved for the luxury suite population. (Along those lines, I'm also amazed to see young men staggering down London streets drinking beer out of pint glasses from the local pub.)

As for those little bags of nuts or fruit or figs or whatever is in them: They can be pretty irritating as well. It’s amazing how far the seemingly harmless little crinkling sound of a tiny food bag can carry. During one quiet spell on Court 3, I can hear someone rummaging in one from 20 yards away. After a few minutes of being distracted by tearing, twisting, and crinkling sounds, I want to shout, “You’re still not done with that?”

Karma being what it is, later that match my cell phone goes off right as a player is about to serve.

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The Centre Court roof is on, Serena Williams is playing, and the Wimbledon crowd is doing the Wave—or, as it’s erroneously called in England, the Mexican Wave (read how the Brits got the name wrong here). 

It’s still remarkable to long-time Wimbledon-goers how thoroughly the roof transforms Centre Court. It’s the environmental art project that Christo has always dreamed about; blocking out the sky and turning the court into an enclosed space makes it utterly new. People’s behavior changes in this more intimate venue, which feels less dauntingly historic than the outdoor version. The crowd becomes more unified and more vocal, while the players' shots reverberate like guncracks. Maybe it’s because you can hear them better, but the players appear closer to you than they do outdoors. Serena herself, who is fist-pumping her way past 42-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm, is an even more commanding presence than usual.

I’m here with my friend Kamakshi Tandon, and her question is a good one: Why can’t other indoor arenas feel more like this one? There’s nothing sterile or lifeless about this court; it adds energy, rather than sucking it out like so many enclosed, echo-chamber stadiums do. It must have something to do with how close the seats are to the court here, and how, relatively speaking, low the roof is. My only trepidation is the thought that someday the center court at Roland Garros may have a roof like this. Parisians are already loud enough.

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Speaking of Kubot's and Youzhny's post-match reactions, I heard from a few people who were unhappy that Roger Federer didn’t stop to sign any autographs as he walked off Centre Court a loser to Sergiy Stakhovsky. Did anyone really expect him to do this? Does signing his name on someone’s hat come before an honest expression of how he feels in defeat? If so, this would be a step way too far in the making of tennis into a game of heart-warming moments rather than a meaningful competition.

If losing players want to stop and scribble their names on someone's hat after they’ve lost, I can't criticize them for it. But I’m not going to criticize someone for doing the opposite. There’s a time for fan appreciation, and there’s a time to fight for your life on court, and those don’t have to be the same times. Seeing Tsonga jump for joy shows us how much the match meant to him. Seeing Federer walk out of Centre Court, head down, alone, did the same.

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Tsvetana Pironkova, Wimbledon specialist, is working her magic on a small side court, but the two girls dressed in green Wimbledon outfits near me have other things on their minds. They’re on a break from whatever their job is, and they’re sitting with their feet up on the bench in front of them, chewing gum, twisting their hair with their fingers, fiddling with the credentials around their necks, and reading funny bits from a tabloid. 

“Names of best-behaved children in Britain,” one says suddenly.

“Wut?” the other asks without looking in her direction.

“What are the names of the best-behaved children in Britain, can you guess?”

“Hmmm, Mary.”

“Not Mary.”

“Ummm, Emily?

“Not Emily. There’s four girls and only one boy.”

“I could have guessed that. Tell me the names.”

“OK. Sarah, Lucy, Hannah, Harry, Jessica."

“How do they know that? They probably just saw a baby who wasn’t crying and asked the mother what its name was.”

Pironkova continues her winning ways, and the girls flip to the next page of the paper. Walking away, I hear one of them say, “Is that Andy Murray's girlfriend? She. Is. Stunning.” 

Just one more tiny scene among thousands that made up the first week of Wimbledon 2013. The memory of that week is already fading fast. The carnival has reached its midpoint. Like the girls with their tabloid, it's on a break, taking its rest.

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We'll need that rest for tomorrow, when the calm of Middle Sunday is followed by the storm of Manic Monday. All 16 fourth-round matches are scheduled to go off, and I'm planning to try to make it to every one of them. Join me back here to hear about this quixotic adventure later on Monday.

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