England and Cut Grass

Thursday, July 11, 2013 /by
Photo by Anita Aguilar
Photo by Anita Aguilar

“They were so simple, those little English tournaments, so utterly artless. Home made, if you like. Courts damp and heavy, clubhouses of old brick. Floors, tables, bashed-up little bars. They were funny things, those tournaments, but they were open-hearted.”

I’ve quoted these lines from Gordon Forbes’s amateur-era memoir, A Handful of Summers, a few times here in the past, usually at the start of the grass-court season. They always come back to me in early June, when the tours make their leap across the Channel, from Continental clay to English turf. Compared to Rome and Paris, Queens and Eastbourne, and the former men’s tournament at Nottingham, always looked simple and artless and homemade when I saw them on my TV in New York.

The combination of Forbes’ words and the sight of grass courts, with big white clouds whipping past them above, had made me want to visit those humble Wimbledon warm-up events for years. This summer, I finally got my chance to go to Queen’s and then travel down to Eastbourne before returning for the Big W itself. It turned out that, like a lot of places you read about and imagine, the tournaments were much like I expected, and at the same time utterly different. Maybe the best way to say it is that they were updated, professionalized versions of the same home-made, money-free events that Forbes memorialized. This is the pro and con of traveling: You find out what a place looks like, feels like, sounds like, smells like; you extend your knowledge of the world, and you take that knowledge with you. You know exactly how it feels to be in the locations you visit. But the price of that knowledge is that you can never imagine those places again.

Queen’s won’t bring to mind “bashed up little bars” for me now; the dining room there may be a little worn around the edges, but it isn’t bashed by any means. Instead, the place will bring to mind a richer interior reality. Rather than the outside of the brick clubhouse, I’ll see the maze of halls and doors and staircases and wrong turns that keep club members and club workers carefully apart. I’ll see well-heeled members carrying pitchers of Pimm’s to their seats in the sun. The players walking out of the club's front door and down a set up of steps to the court, smiling slightly at the crowd’s anticipatory applause. The unbroken row of apartment buildings that ring the courts, and the narrow street, with its tiny chimneys and shops on the corner, that leads to the Baron’s Court tube station. The press seats, where you can watch three three matches at once; my strongest memory of the smallest side court is the sight of Bob and Mike Bryan in the distance, winning on a gloomy evening and kicking their hats into the crowd—how many matches, in how many places, had they won over the years? I’ll feel the stuffy air in the crowded and chaotic Buttery at lunch; I can’t taste the food, but I know it was good. I’ll hear, most of all, the snapping patter of rain on raincoat as we waited, patiently and then less patiently, for play to restart.

Eastbourne was uncharted territory; everything was new. The train taking groups of teenagers to a week’s vacation at the sea. The name of each stop read by an automated voice—it sounded, somehow, as soothing as a human’s. The empty suburban London streets extending all the way to the horizon, and the dizzying thought of how many worlds there are in a city. Later, horses and cows and a brimming field of yellow flowers. A town named Wivelsfield, which inspired this exchange between two young women behind me:

“I was in Wivelsfield once.”

Really? What for?”

How quickly novelty fades, and the new turns familiar. On the trip down, my eyes never left the scene outside the window. On the trip back five days later, I glanced out, but was content to read a novel as well, and let the landscape pass unseen.

Eastbourne itself starts with the sea. I picture the water the way it was when I arrived, a hard, translucent, spooky silver. The first glimpses of the town are also a little creepy, and sleepy. The jutting wooden pier, built in 1870 and mostly boarded up. The ancient bandshell, where a Queen tribute band drew a crowd. The old hotels that line the street by the water, their lobbies filled with retirees raising and lowering cigarettes—time and the water stretch out in front of them. The lightbulbs that line the other side of the street and follow its curves from one side of town to the other. The big band music that drifts from the hotels, out to sea.

Walk inland a block and the scene changes. There’s a nightclub, there are young people, and there are good Indian, Italian, and French restaurants—the latter was so authentic it even came with a rude waitress. Thinking of the courts at Devonshire Park, I think of Flavia Pennetta practicing on a late misty afternoon. She was trying, and failing, to hit a can of balls with her forehand. She missed so many times that she smacked the wooden scoreboard behind her. Some steam must have been let off, because she hit the can with her next shot, and then hit it again. 

*****

At Wimbledon, I thought of Forbes’ words one more time. In his introduction to Summers, he talks about returning to Centre Court in 1976, years after his retirement. It’s much as he remembers it.

“It is venerable, that court, and it lives. Heaven knows why, but it does. Perhaps the shades of green do it; or the canvas awnings; or the smell of the place. England and cut grass.”

There is something unchanging about Centre Court, the players still in white, the male spectators still in blazers, the women in summer dresses. Scoreboards are computerized, a roof is added, but the essential green and gold and white, the royal box, the player’s box, the press tribune, stay the same. So do the sounds. The echo from the court's overhang gives the players'  shots a distinctively full thwock sound. The collected whispers of the fans between games builds into a many-sided roar of excitement or concern, depending on the circumstances. The chatter comes at you from everywhere and fills your ears.

Something different happened this year at Wimbledon, of course, something special—Andy Murray, a British man, won. It was the tennis version of England’s 1966 World Cup win, and fans of the sport in the U.K. may look back on it in similar way—as a rare time when everything went right, when the sun was always shining. Perhaps Murray’s win will be linked with the London Olympics, Wills and Kate, and other recent sporting triumphs as a high moment of nostalgia, like the nostalgia for Bobby Moore and the sunshine at Wembley in ’66. 

Nostalgia is always false at some level, of course; the past was usually just as bad, or at least just as muddled, and certainly just as cloudy, as the present. But I can tell you that walking out of Centre Court into the bright light beyond it, with streams of fans in their summer finest all around, their steps quick and their eyes wide, with the crowd's sudden blast of noise at match point still echoing around somewhere in the rafters, it felt just as good as we’ll remember it.

*****

I'll be out next week, and will return Monday the 22nd. After a summer of gray skies thus far, I'm looking forward to some time on an American beach.

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