Strawberries and the cream of the tennis world

Wimbledon boasts some impressive statistics. Most gentlemen’s singles titles won: Pete Sampras and William Renshaw (seven apiece); for the ladies, Martina Navratilova holds a seemingly unbeatable nine. Fastest serve ever at the Championships: a racquet-thumping 148 miles per hour from Taylor Dent in 2010. Number of tennis balls used per tournament: 54,200. Percentage of the UK population who watched the Championships on TV in 2010: 51. On the all-important food and drink front, tennis fans nibble their way through 28,000 kilos of strawberries and sip their way through 300,000 cups of tea at the grounds every year.The numbers are eye-watering as records are made, broken, tested to the limits. Watching on TV, the annual English tennis extravaganza can be a gripping, edge-of-the-sofa experience. I particularly enjoy it when the high-voltage McEnroe is in the commentary box. But seeing it live in SW19 is something else. This year, Wimbledon’s 125th anniversary, was the fourth time I’d made the pilgrimage to the ultimate theatre of tennis. It was the first time I’d been organised enough to enter the public ballot for advancde tickets, so as we took our second row seats on Court 2, I felt quite pleased with myself. Queuing for tickets outside the grounds can be congenial and fun, but I didn’t miss it.

While Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark despatched France’s Virginie Razzano and Spain’s David Ferrer battled young American Ryan Harrison to a five set victory, I sat comfortably in my tip-up seat and reflected that the thrill is in the glory of live performance. It’s a bit like the difference between theatre and television. Watching up close, the sheer physicality of the sport is evident, as the players run and stretch and thump the ball as hard as they can. No wonder they grunt with effort! I could see the laser concentration etched in the players’ faces, sometimes lapsing into winces of disappointment as a shot went wrong or a line call went against them, occasionally twitching into open explosions of frustration. Sipping my Pimms, I was in awe of the the players’ prowess as they covered the court and hit the ball with a dazzling mix of power and grace.

The sound effects are more tangible too, with the addictive thunk of plump yellow tennis balls on taut racquet strings and the discordant barking calls of the line judges humming in your ears. The umpire up on their metal perch above the net presides over the court like a like a medieval ruler over a personal fiefdom. In the event of any dispute, their word is final. The ball boys and girls scurry around, make hand signals, collect balls and earnestly proffer towels. The players look wholesomely healthy in their tennis whites; the Wimbledon staff are all decked out in Ralph Lauren’s stylish take on quintessentially English classics such as blazers, striped shirts and pullovers.

It’s not just the clothes: tradition is a big part of the whole Wimbledon experience. From the purple and green colour scheme, the copious tea drinking, the mint and cucumber sprigged Pimms, the strawberries and cream, the heavy green rain covers, the umbrellas, the unspoken emphasis on ‘good sportsmanship’ despite the competitiveness of the players, the clamour over the next great British hope, whether Henman or Murray, or Robson; it’s all just so reassuringly predictable. I did note one change this year: a switch of coffee sponsor from the dire Nescafe to the much more drinkable Lavazza. The whole event is so very civilised: you don’t really get tennis hooligans! Roll on the final. Will Murray raise that trophy this year?

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