Wimbledon fortnight memories

I get to relive one of the great personal joys of my life every year at about this time. The Wimbledon tennis championships concluded over the weekend, Petra Kvitova winning the women’s singles title on Saturday and Novak Djokovic winning the men’s singles title on Sunday. I don’t watch much television during the summer but annually I make a little time to tune in the action from centre court.

I haven’t played tennis in 20 years, but I still love Wimbledon, mostly because it reminds me of my fortnight in 1982 when I got to go to Wimbledon. I took in 10 of  the 14 days of play that year. That was the year I studied in Europe and after classes concluded middle of June, I crossed the channel to visit the mecca of the game I had played since fifth grade.

I remember the lines snaking outside the grounds were seemingly endless. I would arrive early every day by train from the youth hostile where I made camp in London. Even when the trains went on strike, I figured out a way to get to the posh suburb… that is, I took the bus.

Once inside the grounds, I was fascinated with the field courts where fans could easily get a court-side seat at a match. It was just like watching two friends play at a local park, or at least kind of like that. They do, after all, play on grass, something I had never experienced in person before. The proximity of the fans to the players is remarkable. You can hear every grunt, see every grimace, watch every drop of sweat fall from your favorite player’s brow. And if you grow bored with one match you can walk to another court and watch two other players.

But the field courts are only a prelude to the sanctuary – centre court. I was able to enjoy centre court matches from the standing room area, which is remarkably close to the court. It is much better viewing than most of the much more expensive seats in the stadium. I was young, so standing for hours on end to watch three consecutive tennis matches seemed perfectly enjoyable. I was studying journalism in college, so the previous Christmas my parents had given me a Cannon AE-1 35mm camera. I brought it along. Only months earlier I had purchased a 200 mm lens to accompany the standard issue 50 mm. That extra magnification brought all the players into incredible view.

I snapped hundreds of pictures of many players: John McEnroe (who lost that year to Jimmy Connors in the men’s finals), Mats Wilander, Billie Jean King, Pam Shriver, Martina Navratilova (who beat Chris Evert that year for the women’s championship), Stan Smith, Virginia Wade, Roscoe Tanner, Frew McMillian and John Newcome – superstars all, but just regular people playing tennis a few feet in front of me. Most still played with the old, small racquets, the larger model made popular by the Prince brand having yet to win favor with the established pros.

It rains a lot at Wimbledon, although now there is a retractable roof over centre court, so rain delays are not so common anymore. Back in 1982, rain was an inescapable part of Wimbledon. As a fan, there was nothing you could do about it, except wait and hope, sometimes for hours. I remember during one rain delay, I took pictures of the centre court scoreboard, where the operator sent us messages: “The scoreboard operators are with you all the way,” we were told. “We are now going to sing a song. Please clap if you would like to join in… Excellent. How about Ten Green Bottles?” It was a song I had never heard, but apparently most of the locals knew it because before long thousands of waiting, damp tennis fans were singing together like sailors in a British pub.

A new generation of tennis players, most of whom were not even born when I went to Wimbledon almost three decades ago, now dominate the game. But when I turn on the TV to catch a glimpse of the action these days, I cannot help but remember my very happy visit to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

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