Royal Entrance

Thursday, June 13, 2013 /by
Photo by Anita Aguilar
Photo by Anita Aguilar

LONDON—“What’s so special about Baron’s Court then?”

That’s what the man with the gray ponytail in the ticket booth wanted to know. It was a fair question: I was at the Southwark tube station here, and I'd just told him that I needed to get to the Baron’s Court stop and back, each day for the next four days, and that I wouldn't need to go anywhere else in the city. This must have sounded like a highly irregular request from a tourist in London, because he eyed me as if I were from another planet, rather than just the planet known as America. 

“I’m going to a tennis tournament,” I finally explained. Back in the States, this answer wouldn’t have helped me sound any less suspicious, but it seemed to satisfy him. 

“Well, welcome to summer,” he answered with a gloomy smile. It wouldn't be the last time I heard those dour words from a local on this mostly cloudy, chilly, misty, sub-60 June afternoon.

But Baron’s Court, and a tennis tournament, it was—and will be for the rest of this week. For those tennis junkies who happen to be equipped with an elephant’s memory, the name might ring a bell. This is the tube stop just down the street from the Queen’s Club, a longtime nerve center of British tennis, and the one-time capital of the international amateur game. In the late 1960s and early 70s, it was here that the sport’s governing body, the ILTF (now the ITF), tried to hold off the forces of American professionalism represented by Texas oilman Lamar Hunt, who was trying to get his WCT Tour off the ground. In the view of the game’s traditionalists, Queen's and the All England Club were the temple, and Hunt and his tour were the money-changers who wanted to desecrate it—the fear at the time was that Hunt was going to take over the game entirely. The battle between the two sides was referred to by some British writers as “Baron’s Court vs. Dallas." The traditional, in other words, versus the tawdry.

Dallas and the money-changers would eventually tear down the temple walls, of course; four decades later, Queen's has been reduced to playing its own small part in the professional circus by staging a 250-level Wimbledon tune-up event every summer. The tournament’s mix of classic and commercial is obvious from the moment you get off the tube. You’re immediately hustled, with hundreds of other spectators, through the station and down the main artery of an otherwise quaint London neighborhood. Brick homes, small shops, and their many tiny chimneys are packed tightly along a narrow street. But it’s not so quaint that it can’t be swamped with advertising if need be. The trademark blue logo of Aegon, the life insurance company that sponsors all of the Wimbledon warm-ups, is visible throughout the area. Even the young usherettes who stand on the sidewalk and point the way to the club wear boat shoes colored Aegon blue.

Queen's at first glance looks like a Wimbledon for urbanites. There’s a lot less room—the club is hemmed in by apartment buildings on all sides—and a little more style. Or what Americans would call preppy style: Suits and blazers, bright ties and brighter skirts, pink socks, skinny-making jeans, and expensive sunglasses propped up on graying foreheads. Also, one conspicuous green dress, belonging to Pippa Middleton. She walked in, to the craning of many necks, during Andy Murray’s first match. A style trooper all the way, she braved the cold wind without covering up.

Inside the dark brick clubhouse at Queen's, tradition still rules. Its labyrinthine hallways and staircases have something of a Downton Abbey feel. The club’s blazer-wearing members play the role of the Crawley family, while the rest of us jeans-wearers spend the week slaving away in the servant’s quarters that surround them. Member and worker: Never, hopefully, the twain shall meet. Each walks his own hallways, drinks at his own bars, enters and exits his own bathrooms, and grazes at his own tables. Members dine at the club’s elegant central restaurant, just above the stadium court. The press stuffs its collective face in the loud and crowded Buttery in the back while sitting five to a table. I half expect a black-suited Carson to stride in with a huff of disgust and call everyone to order.

In the amateur days, the players were on the worker’s side of this divide. Now that they’re multimillionaires, it’s hard to say where they stand. They form a sort of second, equally sequestered elite. But the the club’s business doesn’t stop for them. Queen's, which was founded in 1886 (it was named for Victoria, not Elizabeth II), is home to every possible racquet sport, the more ancient and esoteric the better, and they continue to be played even as the pros take over what are still known as the lawn tennis courts.

While Andy Murray was beating Nicolas Mahut on Thursday morning, I walked in from the stadium, made a wrong turn, and stumbled onto a hotly contested court tennis match between two middle-aged men. Member and worker: Never the twain shall meet. Except when they accidentally do. I made a second wrong turn later and ended up barging through a door marked “Gentleman’s Dressing Room—Members Only.” Inside, heads turned and eyes narrowed; who was this tie-less interloper? After mumbling my apologies, I beat a hasty retreat. I’ll have to take solace in the fact that club has been forced to shut down one of its squash courts for the tournament and turn it into our media room.

There’s no question who the lord of the manor here is at the moment. The fans came out for Andy Murray today, and he didn't disappoint; the Hulky green sleeves on his Adidas shirt were even something of a match for Pippa’s dress. Rain had held Murray’s second-rounder with Nicolas Mahut over from yesterday, with the Brit up a set. On paper, No. 2 vs. No. 224 was a mismatch, but the announcer who did the introductions was properly polite about it. After running through the litany of Murray’s career achievements, he finally came to Mahut. Rather than bring up his ranking, he told the crowd cheerfully, “He can be trouble on grass!”

And he can be—Mahut is a former finalist here who, slicing and diving with abandon, pushed Murray to a tiebreaker in the second set. Muzz was annoyed enough that, after making two consecutive errors at one stage, he put his tongue in his cheek and gave his player’s box, which included Ivan Lendl, a death glare. No one glared back; his coaches and trainers stared down at their feet or up at the sky. Murray was more royal than normal in this setting. When he wanted a towel from the ball kids, he again put his tongue in his cheek and pointed his finger in their direction, like a rock star picking out a groupie from the audience. A couple of times the kid didn't take the cue, and Murray was forced to repeat the gesture, with the same nonchalance all over again.

The top-seeded Murray did his part and won two matches today, as did the tournament’s No. 2, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. But it wasn't easy for Jo. In his first one, he was pushed deep into a three-setter by countryman Edouard Roger-Vasselin. For me, their match was a welcome back to grass-court tennis after two months of clay. The silence is the first thing you notice. There are no sneakers squeaking or grinding up the surface, as they do on hard courts and clay. There are also no shouts of “Allez Jo!” from the audience, either. The Brits clap, nothing more, nothing less, for everything. 

The next thing you notice is how much tougher it is to defend on this surface. That used to be an obvious statement, until scrambling baseliners like Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Lleyton Hewitt began to win Wimbledon. But it’s still true at Queen's today. The ball skips forward, often erratically, on the still-green grass—it’s hard to say why a certain ball won’t come up, but it happens roughly once a game. Depth, more than anything else, is key. Passing shots are difficult, not because the approach shot is moving too fast, but because each player must run for the ball and take a swing, while also keeping himself from slipping. This means running fast, but also taking enough tiny steps to slow down immediately. Not surprisingly, winning passing shots are rare. All-court tennis still has its rewards on grass. 

Or does it? I watched this match from a favored perch in the press seats, where you can see all three courts at once. In the distance, I caught Lleyton Hewitt and Sam Querrey playing a traditional all-baseline contest at the same time. Their long rallies made them look like they could be on any hard court in the world. Perhaps now it's grass that rewards the widest variety of styles and shots.

Hewitt, as fired up as ever, won in three. Afterward, he was asked what it is about the court that suits his game.

“Over the years I grew to love it,” says Rusty, who will play Juan Martin del Potro tomorrow. “It’s no doubt my favorite surface. I’ve always moved well on grass, which is a massive thing. I’ve always had a positive attitude towards it as well, which is huge, to go out and be positive playing on the surface.”

The 32-year-old Hewitt, his competitive fire still boiling, kicked up the only real spark of energy on this gray day. His hat was still turned backward after all these years, which may have made him the least posh-looking person at the club. Yet he managed to win the crowd over.

Member and worker: In Hewitt, and all the players who will take to Queen's Club's stadium court for the quarterfinals on Friday, the twain must meet.

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