Up Close and Personal on Court 19

Wimbledon has all the ingredients that we English traditionally love: cut grass, strawberries, Pimm’s, a bit of tennis (though not much of it by English players), the opportunity to talk endlessly about the weather with total strangers, queues … . I wasn’t too keen on the queues. On my two previous visits to the All England Club, both during the second week, I’d been lucky enough to buy show court tickets early on in the queuing process, which means you get to strut smugly past the waiting masses in your plastic wrist band and have an allotted seat, yours for the day, whether you’re in it or not, on either Centre Court or Courts 1 and 2.

Yesterday, my friend and I showed up at Car Park 10 at around 8am, confident of being inside the grounds by 9.30, as usual, and with tickets to see the wonderful Rafa Nadal finish off his first sacrificial lamb, the unseeded Kei Nishikori from Japan. It was not to be: we were brought down to earth with a bump by having to wait three hours on the grass alongside a tower of soggy pizza boxes left by the die-hard campers who’d queued overnight. Still, the weather was glorious, the atmosphere was chirpy and anyway, I was full of a cold so took the opportunity to grab a restorative forty winks while we waited to embark on what we dubbed ‘Wimbledon on a budget’ (it was, after all, Budget Day, and grounds-only tickets go for a very reasonable 20 pounds).

Once inside, we settled down to the serious business of drinking Pimm’s and perusing the gift shop (two China mugs dotted with strawberries for me, a cute tennis ball charm for my friend). Having fortified ourselves with lunch and confirmed that the Pergola restaurant, a peaceful oasis with a shady garden bower would be open for afternoon tea, we headed off to see some tennis. We struck it lucky at Court 19, where we managed to bag two seats at the end of the back row to watch a confident Flavia Pennetta (Italy) polish off a more hesitant Annabel Medina Garrigues (Spain). I say back row, but there were in fact only three, so you are but metres away from the players, which could feel intimidating or off-putting for them.

After Garrigues’ 6-4, 6-0 defeat, we settled in for an exciting match between another pair of Spanish/Italian adversaries: number 19 seed Nicolas Almagro versus the unseeded Andreas Seppi. The two could not have been more different, either in looks or in temperament. Seppi, tall, lean and laid back, appeared more Scandinavian than Italian, whereas the shorter Almagro was classically Spanish. While Almagro shouted and gesticulated flamboyantly, irrespective of whether he or his opponent scored the point, Seppi was silent and unflappable. The Italian fans were more typically expressive, and at one point an enthusiastic cry of ‘vay, Andrea’, was met with an intense, withering look from Almagro, serving just metres away from the keen Seppi supporter. This was during a tie break for the first set, and Almagro proceeded to serve an emphatic ace, before turning back to the unfortunate fan and scorching him with a withering glance of disdain. Despite his talent for ‘if looks could kill’ stares, Almagro lost the tie break, the set and then the match, with the final score being 7-6, 7-6, 6-2. The first two sets were closely fought, but Almagro seemed to lose patience in the third, and the older player won decisively.

After another dollop of quintessential Englishness in the form of pots of tea, scones, jam and clotted cream to make your arteries cringe, we drifted up to Henman Hill/Murray Mound to catch the last of Britain’s last hope, Andy Murray, as he cruised to victory in the first round (7-5, 6-1, 6-2). Die-hard enthusiasts, we’d hoped to squeeze into Court 12 to see another Spanish talent, Fernando Verdasco play the Italian Fabio Fognini. But the surly guard told us it would be a 2-3 hour wait, so we decided we’d had enough of queuing and adjourned to the bar to cool down with some white wine. If we’d been prophetic enough to know in advance about the record-breaking, stamina-sapping, body-punishing, tennis bonanza that was to take place between France’s Nicolas Mahut and the US’s John Isner, we would’ve tried to get in to Court 18 to witness the start of this epic match. Instead, we headed back to North London to crown off an excellent day with a glass of fizz at 25 Canonbury Lane, one of my favourite bars. And next year, I’m putting my name down for the ballot, to avoid those queues!

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