The Rally: 16 things we miss (and don't miss) about Wimbledon

The Rally: 16 things we miss (and don't miss) about Wimbledon

In a normal year, today would have been Manic Monday at The Championships, when 16 fourth-round matches are jammed into a single day of play.

Hi Joel,

Today would have been Manic Monday, when all 16 fourth-round singles matches at Wimbledon go off around the grounds. It’s a heck of a way to start the second week, even if it can be tough to keep track of everything that’s going on.

Of course, right now I’d be happy to watch just one match from Wimbledon. Instead, all we can do is talk about what we’re missing about the tournament, which is the high point of the year for many tennis fans. So in honor of Manic Monday, let’s try to come up with 16 things we’re missing (or not missing) about Wimbledon. I’ll start with two that come immediately to mind. One of them has to do with watching it on TV, the other with watching it live.


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(1) Green. I miss the deep green of the grass, and the way it fills a television screen so immaculately. In my hometown in Pennsylvania, and also when I lived in Brooklyn, NY, I could walk down streets when the tournament was happening and see that green on television screens in lots of living rooms as I passed by. It’s just as much a reminder of summer for me as the sight of a beach or the taste of an ice cream cone.

(2) Friends. On a couple of occasions when I’ve gone to Wimbledon, I’ve written pieces about what it’s like to run around the grounds and catch a glimpse of all 16 Manic Monday matches. As far as tennis-watching goes, it has its drawbacks; you don’t have time to see more than a changeover or two on any court. But the upside is that you’ll see a different friend, from a different country, in every media section. You’ll have a chance to chat a little with reporters from Italy on one court, China on another, England somewhere else and, of course, from back home in the States. One year, near the end of the day, I ran into Jon Wertheim, who was doing the same thing I was. How we hadn’t seen each other up to that point, I have no idea.

As you leave the grounds, you may not remember much about the tennis you saw, but you feel like you have friends all over the world—and you do.

Give me a couple things you’re missing (or not) about Wimbledon, Joel.


Hi Steve,

Wimbledon is by far the tournament that most captures the essence of tennis—the competition, the rituals, the impeccable venue. Whenever people ask me which Grand Slam to attend, I always say, if you have but one choice, you must go to Wimbledon.

(3) The first thing I miss is a morning ritual I’ve had for nearly 20 years. I’ve frequently had to be on the grounds of the All England Club by 8 a.m., at which time it’s scarcely crowded. And so, after leaving my bags at my work area, I often walk into Centre Court, to a spot in the northwest corner, and sit by myself for five to 10 minutes. There’s nary a soul on the court. Usually, I’m accompanied by a soundtrack, listening to music on my iPhone, hearing such reflective songs I love like Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, George Harrison’s What is Life? or Judy Collins singing Both Sides Now. I take in Centre Court and imagine all the greats that have played there, all the tennis. Often, I recall what it was like watching Wimbledon and playing tennis for 25 years before I ever arrived at SW19—and eventually had a chance to conduct a long interview with Martina Navratilova on Centre Court on the Sunday evening prior to The Championships. And I also ponder the July ten years ago, when my wife of 28 years lived the last summer of her life. Tears, tennis, stories and journeys—a kaleidoscope like none other.


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(4) And of course, I miss Manic Monday, that day when the tournament resumes after a Sunday of no tennis (that itself is amazing). When I first covered Manic Monday, I felt a massive compulsion to gulp it all, certain I was going to miss out on the key match that would define the day. Then, nearly 10 years in, something changed. I decided it would be better to let the tournament come to me, to just wander as desired and chill out on any worry. It’s a funny thing about Wimbledon: no tournament has more structure, even downright discipline. Yet there is a Zen-like tranquility to all of it too. Once, running to a field court, I was kindly admonished by a security guard to slow down. He was right. Nowhere else more than Wimbledon, bathed in early summer daylight, does time twist and sparkle.

So tell me more about things you miss, Steve—and perhaps, things you don’t miss?


Joel,

I like your story of sitting in Centre Court for a few minutes before the day starts. I’ve done the same thing myself, though I’m partial to The Clash and The Kinks when it comes to London-oriented soundtracks. And like you, I always marvel at how much tennis history—Budge-Von Cramm, Gonzalez-Pasarell, Evert-Navratilova, Borg-McEnroe, Venus-Davenport, Nadal-Federer, and a hundred other epics—happened on that same empty, silent patch of grass. But while other fans talk about sensing the ghosts of players past inside Centre Court, I don’t feel their presence. If anything, it’s the opposite sensation for me. Sitting there makes me realize how much of history exists in the mind, and how even the most celebrated and best-remembered events leave no physical trace once they’re over.

(5) This talk of preliminary moments makes me think of another Wimbledon ritual I miss: The first-weekend practice sessions on the Aorangi Terrace courts at the northwest edge of the grounds. The tournament hasn’t started, but everyone is there, hustling and scrambling to get a final hour or two of practice on grass, often with dark clouds approaching. Players, coaches, agents, wives, girlfriends, reporters, and stray VIPs hang around watching from above, and trading the latest tennis gossip. As far as I know, no fans are allowed in, and unlike the other Slams, the players can’t practice on the courts that will be used during the tournament. All of which heightens the insider feel at Aorangi. Of course, most reporters can only get so far inside, and the gossip doesn’t flow quite as freely when we’re around. But there’s still a palpable sense of anticipation and community that I’m not sure I’ve felt on any other day of the tour calendar.

(6) What don’t I miss? Once upon a time, I relished the chance to read the London tabloids during Wimbledon. I thought they had a freedom and vitality that couldn’t be found in even the most-scandal obsessed U.S. papers. They still do, and they’re still a font of occasionally-useful information. But the last time I went to Wimbledon, in 2018, the Me Too movement and the onset of the Trump era had made the tabs’ sexism more glaring and less tolerable, and their sensationalism seem less benign. Like any other writer, I still enjoy a clever tabloid headline. But these days there’s only so much sound and fury signifying nothing that I can take over a fortnight.

How about you, Joel? Anything you don’t miss?


Match point—Novak Djokovic defeats Roger Federer in the 2019 Wimbledon final:


Steve,

(7) I don’t miss rain. The first day I ever attended Wimbledon, it had rained so much that week that the tournament made a rare decision to play on the middle Sunday. In the years before there was a roof on Centre Court (starting in 2009), rain would bring the tournament to a complete standstill. For a journalist, roving for information, this could sometimes be valuable, as far more sources (coaches, agents and legends most of all) were accessible—but only to a point, as the cumulative weight of the rain hardly made people quite restless and not particularly talkative.

(8) When it comes to other aspects of Wimbledon I miss, that middle weekend (technically the first weekend, but always called the middle weekend) is gloriously valued and civilized. Begin with the frisson of activity buzzing around the grounds that Saturday, particularly late in the day, when the starts to set and the players are urgently seeking to reach the round of 16. And then, once Saturday is over, Sunday is devoted to a global tennis pause. The venue that had held thousands is now quiet and, save for several employees, a few journalists and players practicing, barely occupied. Everything suddenly becomes so much slower, subdued, not just on the grounds of the All England Club, but seemingly in the entire world. Over the course of many middle Sundays, I have walked through London with friends, played tennis on grass, caught up on sleep, attended a garden party, stumbled into former players in the Wimbledon Village, explored a favored London bookstore, toured the National Churchill Museum—all delicious ways to meander before that incredible Monday and the final push to the finish.  

Continuing our rally, what other aspects of Wimbledon do you miss or not miss, Steve?


Joel,

Once upon a time, I agreed with you that Middle Sunday was a beautiful, sane, civilized idea, and a brave last stand against 24/7 commercialism. Like you, I spent the day in London, usually at one of the used-book shops in the West End or at the one of the big museums. I miss the peacefulness of that day, and a respite that feels well-earned.

(9) More recently, though, I’ve had to admit that Middle Sunday is only appealing if you’re working at Wimbledon in some capacity. For the rest of the world—fans, sponsors, TV networks, advertisers—the break in play is mostly a bummer. Hundreds of millions of people have the day off, the sport’s biggest tournament is in full swing, and then—we get an afternoon of re-runs from the first week. Talk about a way not to grow the game. Tournament officials maintain that the grass needs a day of rest, but I don’t think Middle Sunday helps the overall schedule of the event, either, because it requires a “manic,” overcrowded Monday to make up for the lost time. Wimbledon is perhaps the best chance for tennis to showcase itself around the world. With Middle Sunday, it misses an opportunity to do that.


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(10) Since that last paragraph may sound too crassly capitalistic and anti-traditionalist to many—including you, I’m guessing, Joel—let me follow it with some praise for the way Wimbledon has successfully modernized itself in another area. That would be the grass itself, and how it has improved the quality of play. In 2001, the tournament installed a new, hardier, all-rye turf. Gone were the bumpy patches that created bad bounces and made baseline play so difficult. Gone, eventually, were the monotonous serve contests—“rock fights,” as our friend Pete Bodo calls them—that defined Wimbledon for so long, especially on the men’s side. Now we have rallies, but the style of play is still distinct from what you see on clay and hard courts. Aggressive shots are rewarded and points are quick, but defense is still possible. I’m clipped, crisp pace of 21st-century grass-court tennis right now.

How about you, Joel? Do you like today’s grass game, or do you pine for the lost age of the rock fight at Wimbledon?


Steve,

More than 20 years ago, I wrote an article for TENNIS Magazine urging Wimbledon to get rid of the grass. I was tired of watching our sport’s Super Bowl be played on a sandlot. My personal tipping point had come in 1998, when I’d watched Goran Ivanisevic and Richard Krajicek throw rocks at each other for more than three hours, Ivanisevic at last winning this dreary semi, 15-13 in the fifth. There was nary a rally, more akin to sitting on a busy highway waiting for a traffic light to turn green for five seconds. To think that a sport that demanded so much skill would result in such a limited showcase left me very disturbed.

(11) Being ignorant of how grass courts can be altered, I had zero awareness that the All England Club would soon indeed replace that grass with a new, slower-bouncing variation. Remarkable. And it’s no coincidence that since then we have seen some glorious finals—three gems played by Federer and Nadal from ’06-’08, wonderful efforts by Venus Williams in ’05 and ’08, Federer-Roddick ’09, and, of course last year’s Djokovic-Federer epic. So yes, while I enjoy occasionally watching YouTube highlights of past Wimbledon matches—Borg-Connors, Borg-McEnroe, King-Court, Evert-Navratilova—in no way do I pine for the days of bad bounces and staccato-like rallies.


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(12) But while that’s something I don’t miss, what I very much miss from Wimbledon this year is its unsurpassed intimacy. That’s even true on the grand Centre Court, but even more so on the field courts. One of my favorites is the 782-seat Court 18. This was where many of us gathered to watch various portions of the three-day long 2010 John Isner-Nicolas Mahut epic. But it’s the more random, personal moments on Court 18 that have left their mark on me. One morning, I watched Victoria Azarenka engrossed in practice with her coach, Michael Joyce. Another time, I received a text message from a playing partner of mine telling me that she and her son were watching a match there. Making a lucky guess, I entered just the right aisle, found them immediately and spent a while watching the tennis together. Two years ago, I covered an epic between Stefanos Tsitsipas and Jared Donaldson that lasted two days. As is the case at many events, the press seats are located close to the player box. In this case, in the southwest corner of Court 18, I was tucked into an area inches from Tsitsipas’ massive support team of parents, siblings and others. Amid so much emotion, it was quite a way to take in a match that I’d like to think will constitute an early rite of passage in the Tsitsipas saga.  

Steve, what field court experience do you miss?


AELTC board member Tim Henman on Wimbledon's cancellation:


Joel,

(13) The first time I came to Wimbledon was in 2002. I wandered out to the old Court 12 at the far edge of the grounds. The sun was blazing and it was hot for England, but fortunately there was a canopy over the bleachers. The court had no press seats, so I sat with fans, many of whom, I soon realized, were sound asleep. Those who weren’t zonked out were quietly sipping coffee in little white cups and eating small homemade sandwiches. It was the kind of quiet, modest scene that was basically impossible to imagine at the US Open back in New York.

Instead of generating drama or excitement, the sound of the ball being hit back and forth had a hypnotic, soporific effect—the perfect soundtrack to an afternoon nap. I was surprised that Wimbledon, this global event, could also feel like an amateur tournament at the club down the street. The side courts have been modernized since then, but you can still find those sleepy patches deep on hot afternoons at Wimbledon.

(14) Reminiscing about fans eating sandwiches has put me in the mind of food, so I’ll finish with a meal I’ve been missing since my last trip to Wimbledon in 2018. Other than strawberries and cream, the tournament is hardly famous for its cuisine, but the media dining was revamped a few years ago, and, while it was unfortunate that we were moved from our top-floor viewing area to a basement, the food itself has improved. Especially the steak.

As you know, Joel, when you’re working at a tournament, it can be hard to find time to eat. My nutrition for the day at Wimbledon might consist of coffee, a pre-packaged sandwich that I gulp down as quickly as I can at my desk, and then some more coffee. On most afternoons, I have to stop and ask myself: Did I eat lunch? So being able to put that day-long hunger behind me with an actual meal makes the steak taste that much better. If I had traveled to Wimbledon this year, I probably would have looked forward to tasting it again as much as I looked forward to anything else I was going to do there.

It’s the simple things, right Joel?


Steve,

You’re so right about those simple things that make Wimbledon so enjoyable. You had your steak. Everyone’s had the strawberries, which struck me as ritualistic and familiar as eating a pretzel on the streets of Manhattan: a reasonable taste, but not something I personally pine for.  

(15) My fondly missed Wimbledon food item is a bag of chewy candies, carried in hand as I trek across the field courts, watching juniors, legends, doubles, taking in a point here, another there. It really doesn’t matter who’s playing, or if it’s Court 14, 18, or 19. It’s Wimbledon.

The All England Club uses the term “garden party” to describe the atmosphere it seeks to create—and the club executes this concept exquisitely, from benches and seats, to walkways and flowers, the immaculate grass courts, and, my beloved candy vendors. If money helps bring all the elegance to life, what matters even more is vision and care.


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(16) And so, we face this Monday without tennis, without those 16 men’s and women’s matches that advance the singles event to the quarterfinal stage. I miss arriving at the grounds, refreshed after a Sunday off. I miss the mystery of those 12 remarkable hours that are to come. I miss starting the day having to examine so many intriguing matchups. I miss my short trek to the practice courts to check out the form and urgency of various contenders. I miss that early match on the field court I likely didn’t see a point of live. I miss attending the press conference of a first-time quarterfinalist, as was the case in 2001 when I was in the room to watch a jubilant Roger Federer, all of 19 years old, describe how it felt to have beaten seven-time Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras. I miss sitting inside Centre Court past 7:00 p.m. as a tight fourth set of a men’s match either closes or continues. As matches end—and even on today’s slower grass, they can fly by—I miss being able to look at the draw sheet and for the first time, have a clear picture of how it could well turn out.

Yet in the grand scheme of things, amid the pandemic and much else that’s affected our world, I’d be a complete idiot if I got too concerned about Wimbledon not happening this year. Here’s hoping for a grand return to the garden party in 2021.