A Graveyard Reborn

Saturday, June 29, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

WIMBLEDON, England—Court 3 was less than half full as Sloane Stephens and Petra Cetkovska began their warm-up on Friday afternoon. A large crowd had gathered for the previous match, in which Roger Federer’s conqueror, Sergiy Stakhovsky, had predictably fallen to earth. But those fans had since scattered, and it was too early for this young American and obscure Czech player to generate enough curious foot traffic to replace them. Through the first few games, the only sound inside the court, aside from the ball hitting their strings, was the voice of the chair umpire calling the score.

If you’ve ever been to a tennis tournament, you probably recognize the atmosphere I’m describing. You want to see a certain match, so you make it there early enough to get a decent seat, only to discover that you needn’t have bothered: The place is deserted, and now you have to sit and find something to think about while the players go through their warm-up. Even a match that you’re excited to see can be rendered lifeless if there’s no one there to watch it with you. In these cases, it doesn’t take me long to feel like somebody is having more fun somewhere else. I’m usually gone by the first changeover.

But that’s only if I have the freedom to wander. Today I was locked into covering Stephens-Cetkovska. To my surprise, my lack of choice in the matter changed my perspective on the match’s quiet early games for the better. Rather than lifeless, the atmosphere in Court 3 felt anticipatory, the opening games an essential part of tennis’s deliciously unhurried dramatic build-up. 

It also gave me a chance to inspect my surroundings. Court 3 was overhauled and expanded into a mini-arena four years ago; by now its seats and aisles and walls and tarps are a comfortable mix of the new and the lived-in. “Tradition” is the watchword at Wimbledon, but what it really specializes in is continuity—much like Fenway Park in Boston, the All England Club updates and modernizes itself without throwing away its essential look and character, all the while selling the idea of "timeless quality."

Court 3 was once Court 2, the infamous Graveyard of Champions. Past one side of it, the players could see and hear the constant flow of cars and buses that swished past the All England Club. Behind the court they could hear the knives and forks of the Very Important People who were eating on the deck above. Over the years, many high seeds who were exiled from the show courts and sent here, including John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, and Serena Williams, didn’t make it back.

That reputation ended when the court received its new number. Now, with a more spacious Court 2 a few yards away, fewer stars suffer in exile here—though on Saturday world N0. 4 Aga Radwanska will put in a cameo appearance against Madison Keys. Even if they did, the place probably wouldn’t feel much like a Graveyard to them. The vibe is different on Court 3. In the old days, noise and movement from outside the grounds spilled in; now the disturbances have been shut out. Walls have been raised and filled in to form an unbroken circle around the court. A TV booth has been installed at one end of the bleachers, and a VIP section on the other; that’s where Maria Sharapova sat to watch boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov lose on Friday. You can no longer see the tops of the double-deckers that travel down Somerset Road. Fans with grounds passes are now confined to one corner of the court; not surprisingly, that’s always the most crowded section. 

Yet none of these new, creakingly corporate features feel oppressive. The court is cut off from the hustle of the grounds now, which is too bad. But what was most important, its intimacy, has been preserved. The one element to truly mourn is the old Crow’s Nest, a tower that stood at the end of the court with a scoreboard at the top. The structure had a dark, ancient cast that made it feel like a link to British sports history. There’s nothing with that look or feel or redolence of history, for example, at Flushing Meadows. The ever-changing match scores high above served as the beating heart of the Wimbledon grounds, and a visible place of connection for every fan—there was a bustling centralized energy to this area that's gone now. The Crow’s Nest is gone as well, and the view of the sky from the press seats on Court 3 is, sadly, uninterrupted.

But the court is still a magnet for quality matches. My trips there this year have made me think about the first time I was a spectator inside that court in 2005. I had been to Wimbledon in 2002 and 2003, but only for the second week, when singles matches were confined to the two main stadiums. In ’05, Court 2, the Graveyard, beckoned.

Is it inevitable that the past will always seem like a “simpler time” in our minds? That’s how most of us characterize our memories, and it’s how I feel when I call up images of Wimbledon, and specifically of Court 2, from 2005. I know the world wasn’t simpler eight years ago, and I know tennis wasn’t all that different then. Rafael Nadal had just won the French Open, and Roger Federer would win Wimbledon. Still, history happens faster than we realize as we’re living it. While tennis might not have changed radically in the last eight years, it was enough time to watch the men’s era that was just beginning to wind itself up in 2005—Federer and Nadal had played only one Grand Slam match at that point—begin to wind itself down at this year’s Wimbledon. 

The tournament may not have been simpler then, but it was different. In those days, the entrance to the press section on Court 2 was through a sort of secret door that was haphazardly manned by two of the club’s Honorary Stewards. The media seats were located just a few feet away, and if the Stewards were lost in conversation with each other, which they usually were, you could sneak to your seat in the middle of a game. Inside, you passed through a short hallway, where a young woman sat in a small alcove, holding a machine in her hands. Her job was to relay the score of the match on Court 2 to the various live scoreboards on site. By the end of the day she would be slumped forward, her eyes bulging with exhaustion, and, perhaps, insanity. In the renovation, the media seats were moved up a flight of stairs, which are competently manned by two highly alert members of the London Fire Brigade—there’s no sneaking past them. 

It was sunny here in ’05, and with no definite deadline for the columns I was writing, I spent long hours watching tennis from the front row of the press seats, a foot or so from the court. Gasquet, Coria, Serena, Mauresmo, a young Jankovic and Ivanovic, even Xavier Malisse—it was a thrill to see these shot-makers at close range, all in white, playing on grass, in the place where the sport was invented. This was one of the rare show courts in tennis where you could get close enough to feel like you were inside the match. Maybe it was because I didn’t have as much to do then as I do now, but there was a sense of luxury to those afternoons; the more sets a match went, the more sun you could soak in, the more time you could spend with your feet up on the seat in front of you, the better. 

From close range, I could appreciate the purity of the color scheme, which ran from the light green of the grass to the dark green of the tarps around the court. There was no signage, other than an occasional tiny black Slazenger dog logo, which seemed to be purposely difficult to see. To an eye used to the heavy-handed security and chaotic commercialization common in the U.S., there was a sense of authority and order here that was palpable but restrained. 

Best were the early evenings on the old Court 2, when you could watch the sun make its slow descent over the horizon from the press seats as the last match wound to its conclusion. These were the pros, but on grass it felt like they were playing tennis in someone’s backyard, the most famous backyard court of all. As the evening wore on, more towering red buses crossed paths outside the club. But inside, thankfully, a tennis fan had nowhere else to go, nowhere better to be. Watching the players in white, you could feel like you were watching something eternal and unchanging. From the front row there, I watched Serena lose to Jill Craybas (yes, that happened). She walked past me as she walked off court; when she saw me there with my pen and notebook in my hand, she put up her hand to let me know she wasn't going to be signing any autographs.

Everything, including Wimbledon, changes. Today, watching Sloane Stephens, who was 11 years old in 2005, I wished I could still see the Crow’s Nest and watch the double-deckers come and go—both of them told me exactly where I was. This time I had didn't have those distinctive markers, and I wasn’t quite as close to the court, no longer inside the action. But I was still here, in the Graveyard reborn, and that was close enough.

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