Quiet Mecca

by: Steve Tignor | June 25, 2014

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Photos by Anita Aguilar

To wind up 2014, I’m reposting 14 articles I liked from this past season. I’ll put up one each day until January 5, when the new season begins. Today, a trip around the hallowed outer courts at Wimbledon.

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—“He was in the Davis Cup final,” says a blazer-wearing tennis fan to his friend, as they stand a few feet from Court 6 at the All England Club. The “he” in his sentence is Dusan Lajovic, who is walking on the grass a few feet away, playing his first-round match. Lajovic looks up quickly when he hears the man, and looks away just as fast. It’s not the best memory of his career; the Serb lost the clinching rubber for his country in last year’s Cup final to the Czech Republic.

But this is what it’s like on the six field courts at Wimbledon: For a few afternoons, players and fans exist in each other’s space, on the same plane—almost, it can feel, as equals. Just a few feet separate each rectangle of grass; there’s no room for bleachers, just a line of benches along each court, and a thin walking path between them. By 11:00 A.M., even that path has vanished. You can’t find it under the gently milling mass of humanity that has gathered for an afternoon in the sun at Wimbledon.

Fans here know they only get so many chances at these sunny afternoons. These side courts are, sadly, perhaps the most underused of any at the Grand Slams. Singles matches are played on them for just two days; by this morning it was virtually all doubles out there. Yet when you’re wandering inside those courts, up their narrow lanes and down their back alleys, you can feel as if you’re at tennis’s origin point, it’s quiet Mecca.

You can also feel as if you’ve stumbled into a tennis tournament from a century ago. Before the All England Club embarked on its steady project of reconstruction in the 1990s, this is what more of the club looked like. Today, surrounded on three sides by the raised walls of Centre Court, Court 2, and Court 3, this older, simpler area of the grounds can feel like it's holding a county tennis round-robin rather than a $40 million Grand Slam. 

The players all wear white, of course. Out here, this has the effect of setting them off from the rest of us, while at the same time making them less noticeable as individuals—they’re tennis players, that’s it. The setting is also strictly amateur era: There’s no video screen here, no music, no food vendors, no Hawk-Eye, no upper (or lower) deck, little signage, and no retractable roof. 

If anything, this area is the most climate-saturated acre in tennis. Standing under the wide sky and thick clouds here, you can feel the famous changeability of the British weather. From minute to minute, light turns to gray, breezes kick up and die down, clouds form and disperse, and rain always feels like it’s just over the horizon. For someone used to tropical, overgrown summers in New York, there’s an appealing lightness and mutability to the weather in this spot. Nothing stays the same for long, and tennis feels like a pastime here, rather than a sweaty grind. 

In the mornings, though, there’s a bursting density to these lanes and alleys. Before play begins on the show courts, hundreds of fans wedge themselves together here. In the wide pathway next to Courts 4 and 8, people stand three and four deep under hanging flower pots; walking a few feet forward requires patience. Behind them, players appear in the distance, like a race of giants scrambling in different directions on the grass, each a blur in white. They smack a ball and it disappears behind a row of heads, before returning in the blink of an eye—this is county-championship tennis played at video-game velocity. Watching from close range, it’s a little hard to believe the players have time to decide where they're going to hit the ball before they have to take another cut. 

Within the field courts, it's quieter than it ever is in New York or Paris or Melbourne. There are no loudspeakers; instead, messages are flashed subliminally along the wall of Centre Court.




These phrases of benign control are more polite than they would be elsewhere, though after seeing the words out of the corner of your eye for an hour or so, there’s also something Orwellian about them.

The fans are so close that any noise can be a distraction, and typically the most you’ll hear will be the crackle of a sandwich bag being opened. Though on Wednesday, when Marcel Granollers was hit between the legs with a volley, a teenage girl began to giggle uncontrollably. Granollers finally turned to see who was laughing at his misfortune. Hecklers can’t hide here. 

You won't hear a giggle, or a see the hint of a smile, from the ball kids. Dressed in sober dark blue, they stand at soldier-like attention along the sidelines during changeovers, and hold their arms ramrod straight above their heads before tossing a ball to the players. No ball kids get their hands as high, or their backs as straight, as the ones here.

What’s ultimately best and most memorable about these few field-court days is the immersion you get in tennis, as a sport and a social gathering.

Traveling down the walkway between Courts 3 and 4, you can hear the sounds of a match inside 3—the thump of the ball on the strings, the controlled burst of applause, the murmured “Ooooooooh” when a good shot is made in the middle of a rally, the score being read, like a punctuation mark at the end of a point, by the umpire. A little farther in the distance, you can hear the same sounds, of effort and applause, coming from inside Court 2.

Halfway down the path, there’s an opening where you can look inside Court 3. In the middle is the chair umpire, in the blue-and-white striped shirts they wear here. If you stand and look for a second, you’ll see the umpire moving his or her head from side to side to follow the ball. You’ll see the full stands behind the chair. You’ll see the ball, for a millisecond, as it flies from one side of the net to the other. 

In the many, often-hurried walks I’ve made past this window into Wimbledon, I’ve never failed to sneak a peek as I go by. 

For complete Wimbledon coverage, including updated draws and reports from Steve Tignor, head to our tournament page.

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