A big sporting tournament is also a festival. As much an English festival as Glastonbury, Wimbledon is also a pilgrimage site. Radiohead or Rafa play the main stage, but some duo youve never heard of called Isner-Mahut will do something so incredible on Court 18 that everyone will be trying to get in to see them. Their heroic exertions have since been memorialized with a plaque, and Court 18 is now a historic site for the tennis faithful even when nothing much is happening there.
As with pilgrimages and festivals, people are on their best behavior. Arriving at Southfields Tube station confusingly, a more convenient station than the various Wimbledons the mood is more buoyant, the level of civility higher than it was wherever your journey started. The spirit of the festival emanates from the grounds and into the surrounding neighborhood. Inside, its a temporary utopia. It might be difficult to get in, but once you are in, the atmosphere is inclusive. (Even the presence of that advertisement for the Jacobean tendencies of the French Open, the hated royal box, these days offers only symbolic resistance to the feeling of togetherness.)
Dressing up in costumes tends to be limited to campy re-creations of the Borg-McEnroe era (hair, headbands and skimpy shorts), but as with any self-respecting festival, there is a considerable degree of intoxication. Flushing Meadows has the reputation of being more raucous than SW19, but Wimbledon is in England, and we English pride ourselves on being able to chuck it down our necks with the best of them. Beer, Champagne, Pimms you sell it, well swill it. Its really striking how much boozing goes on. And yet the standard of behavior remains consistently high. Lest this sound sentimental, I should also point out that Wimbledon is the most heavily militarized of all the Slams. In the wake of terror attacks in the capital, visitors this year were treated to the not-necessarily-reassuring sight of officers patrolling with body armor and assault riffles, but a large number of stewards have always been soldiers and sailors. Unfailingly polite, courteous and helpful they may be but theyre still the military. So although there is no trouble and everyone happily buys into the social codes and etiquette of Wimbledon, its a useful reminder that Gramscis notion of hegemony assumes that consent is underwritten by the possibility of coercion and force. Mainly the soldiers and stewards help people find their seats and make sure no one is moving around or standing except during the end-changes. At an Andy Murray match, a woman seated near me unfurled a Scottish flag and was told that was not permitted. This came as a surprise but is, on reflection, an excellent prohibition. A shared love of national flag waving might form the basis for some kind of accord between North Korea and the United States; Centre Court is better off without it. Any deviations or transgressions are dealt with courteously and quickly. The nearest we came to a ruckus was when a highly regarded journalist stood up and tried to leave at the end of a game, but not during an end-change. A soldier told him to sit down. The journalist started running his mouth, swearing, whereupon the soldier shifted into a different register, making it clear that the request to sit down had become an order and that this order would be vigorously enforced. Having thoroughly enjoyed this altercation, I later asked the soldier how close the journalist had been to getting his ass kicked. Well, he said in a heavy, friendly Jamaican accent, if wed met outside, in civvy street. …
Although Wimbledon is a festival, there is no music; players enter the court unannounced, without fanfare. Its the opposite of the year-ending A.T.P. Finals at the O2 arena in London, where the unfortunate paradigm is that of a nightclub flashing lights, blaring music. Players come from all over the world, obviously, but Wimbledon retains the feel of a local tournament where the standard of play happens to be exceptionally high and this is especially evident on the smaller courts.
Id had a great desire to experience the Wimbledon fortnight, in the flesh and in its entirety, ever since I was turned away at the gates in 1980. I had actually caught some of the same acts excuse me, the same players earlier in the year when the caravan passed through Indian Wells, Calif. So I knew whom to look out for, who was up and coming, even though I knew, also from Indian Wells, that its difficult to recall exactly whom you saw play the day after watching them. A tennis tournament is a narrative that is all the time consuming itself. Defined by elimination as well as survival by the end of the first round half the players are toast its as much a demonstration of instant amnesia as it is of memory.
The most-sought-after tickets are always for the semifinals or finals of a tournament, but the first rule of tennis narrative is that a great match can break out at any time, between any players, on any court. And thats not all. A match that looks certain to be over in the next 15 minutes can turn, in that quarter of an hour, into an epic whose end is nowhere in sight. Nothing is better, for a spectator, than to sense this happening, to feel a match gradually which in tennis can be an exact synonym of suddenly tightening its grip, becoming, for the uncertain extent of its duration, the center of the tournament. The question then becomes how to maximize the chances of your being there, of happening upon this happening.
By turning up, in my case, at Court 3 to watch Nick Kyrgios, whom I saw play at Indian Wells, whom I also missed at Indian Wells when he withdrew from his match against Roger Federer because of food poisoning. Their encounter a few weeks later in Miami was reportedly the best mens match of the year. So Kyrgios was one of the batch of young male players along with Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem with the potential to make it to the end of the tournament. As it turned out, Kyrgios didnt even make it to the end of the match. When they are not chasing something a ball, other runners all athletes move in such a way as to preserve as much energy as possible. Many of them move as though they are underwater; Kyrgios was moving as though on the ocean floor and not only between but during points. A big man in even bigger shorts, he looked severely hobbled, but because this hobbling seemed an extension of his normal lugubriousness, it seemed that he was hobbled not just by his wounded hip but by the hunched ontology of himself.
The trainer was called, and Kyrgios quit, establishing the keynote for this years tournament: players taking to the stage injured, unable to compete properly but fit enough to pick up their fee. There was talk of Murrays dodgy hip, of Novak Djokovics gammy elbow, his wonky shoulder, his interesting personal life, which, as John McEnroe later put it, was maybe going the way of Tiger Woodss. In addition to the tennis narrative, there are always these personal or extrasporting stories whose kinks and twists become entwined in the sporting narrative because of the effect they have on that mysterious spot, the athletes head.
But it wasnt Djokovic who retired the next day, it was his opponent, Martin Klizan, followed immediately by Federers ailing adversary, Alexandr Dolgopolov. Obliged to wear all white, a surprising number of male players were waving the white flag before they had even broken sweat. Routinely frustrated by our national railways and airline, the packed and good-natured Centre Court crowd let up a groan of epic disappointment as two players in a day called it a day in rapid succession. The umpire was quick to announce that there would be further play in the shape of Caroline Wozniacki against Timea Babos, and calm was restored before the attendant troops were called into action.
This flurry of towel-throwing-in introduces the corollary to a point made earlier: Just as you never know when a great match will break out, so too you never know when youre going to be sold a pup. Unless youre watching Bernard Tomic, in which case, he made clear after his first-round defeat by Mischa Zverev on Court 14, theres a good chance hell be going through the motions. Post-match news conferences are generally a bore. Tomics was sensational because he revealed what must be the unpalatable truth: that the tour can become a bit of a grind. I couldnt care less if I make a fourth-round U.S. Open or I lose first round, he yawned. To me, everything is the same. His existential indifference was as my pal, the veteran tennis writer Michael Mewshaw, said later like Meursaults at the opening of Camuss The Stranger: Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I dont know. … That doesnt mean anything.
Here we were at a temple of tennis, and one of the gods we came to worship a minor and thoroughly unattractive deity, admittedly, but still a very tall one told us that he didnt believe. Or more accurately, that he didnt care about our faith, that he was getting paid whether we believed or not. I say we came to worship, and as with Christianity, that worship is predicated on suffering. Stan Wawrinka who also went out early, to Daniil Medvedev in the first round had previously talked about making his opponents suffer, and we need to believe that the riches and glory that go to the players are built on a willingness to be nailed to the cross of their highly remunerative vocation. Thats the contract or covenant.
Even Federer, who floats around the court as if he could run on water without making a splash, put in hard work during those long months in the Swiss wilderness of physical rehabilitation last year. Most of us are not particularly dedicated to living our lives. We dont even pursue affairs with any special single-mindedness; were just happy to have one if it comes along. So we like to see the single-minded dedication of elite athletes, the willingness to engage, if necessary, in a match lasting 11 hours (Isner-Mahut), even if the result of that victory is defeat by exhaustion in the next round. Never give up. Chase down every ball.
The scoring system of tennis actively promotes this dogged determination, and Rafael Nadal exemplified it as he tried to come back from two sets down against Gilles Mller on No.1 Court on the second Monday. Thats a busy day in any tournament, so if you have a ticket, youre confident of value for money, wherever youre seated. The situation is more complicated if, like me, you have a rover press pass, which enables you to get in everywhere but doesnt guarantee that you can get in anywhere. There is always the chance that in trying to maximize your experience of all potential matches, you can end up stranded between them. I saw Venus Williams beat Ana Konjuh and most of Murray against Benot Paire on Centre Court, watched Mller take the first two sets against Nadal on No.1 Court and then went back to Centre to make sure I got a seat for Grigor Dimitrov and Federer. I had already seen a lot of tennis both that day and the previous week but aesthetically this was likely to be the highlight of the entire tournament.
I have a simple rule of support in tennis: Always root for the player with a single-handed backhand. Thats why I somewhat lost interest in the womens game after the abdication of the great Justine Henin. Dimitrov and Federer are two of the most elegant single-handers. Except, of course, tennis is not a beauty contest. In this case, it wasnt even a contest, as Dimitrov, celebrated since winning Junior Wimbledon in 2008 as a king in waiting, was obliged to wait some more as he was swept aside. Nadal, meanwhile, had leveled things up, but Mller, instead of collapsing in the fifth set under the mental burden of a squandered two-set lead, was hanging on. They were both hanging on, on the brink of collapse and refusing to collapse and there were, as I discovered after scrambling back to No.1 Court, no empty seats. I couldnt get back in.
Missing one of the pivotal matches of the tournament, I was reduced to watching the drama unfold silently on a muted TV in the press office. The one advantage of this was the way close-ups revealed the expression of almost catatonic concentration on Mllers face, but I was otherwise in an awful predicament. I wanted the match to be over so that I wouldnt miss any more of it; I wanted it to continue so that I might have a chance of getting in and seeing it. The compromise was to dash over to Henman Hill and watch it on the big screen. On the way, I looked in at the journalists entrance at No.1 Court. Plenty of times in the course of the tournament I had hurried to a given court and arrived just after an end-change and waited as two of the longest games of the match got underway. On this occasion, though, they were midchange and, incredibly, one seat had suddenly become available. I was in, not just watching this epic struggle but part of it. Or was I? Having missed so much, was I still, in a sense, missing it even while I was seeing it? By missing the previous three hours, had I effectively missed almost the whole thing, like skipping 200 pages of a book even if this was a book of indeterminate length? I was still pondering this five chapters later when Nadal finally succumbed.
Which is not to say that he was quite finished. For we require still more of players, even after theyve given their all: They must lose graciously. Perhaps this isnt such an issue for audiences in America, but I have an English fondness for the stress placed upon being a good loser, the way that this assumes that defeat will be the ultimate outcome of all worldly endeavor. After shaking hands with Mller and the umpire, Nadal proceeded to do two things that went beyond gracious. In the other Slams, players walk off separately. At Wimbledon, it is not a rule it would count for nothing if it were but it is a convention, not always observed, that the players walk off together. And Nadal literally abided by this. He waited for Mller.
Its stirring to see the virile Italian Fabio Fognini, fist raised and clenched, after winning a decisive point. Only a minimal amount of photoshopping would be necessary to transform pictures of him so that hes standing triumphantly over a stricken foe at the Colosseum rather than Centre Court. The handshake at the end of the match breaks the spell induced by gladiatorial competition. Part of us wants athletes to be carried out on their shields, rather than with aching hips, but their leaving the court together expresses the return to communality, courtesy and civility rather than competition. Even more amazingly, Rafa stopped to sign autographs on the way out. And then he was gone.
We love the prospect of an upset. We love it in the making, as its happening and for a brief moment afterward. But then the hangover sets in. The people you wanted to see are nowhere to be seen. For the sake of a mad fling, youve thrown away the relationship that made life meaningful. You feel bereft. After Stan Wawrinka went out to Medvedev, you said to yourself, O.K., now Ill follow Medvedev instead of Stan. But then Medvedev went out in the next round and, far from being a gracious loser, turned out to be a complete jerk, throwing coins at the umpires chair. That only made him a bit of a jerk. What made him a complete jerk was claiming afterward that he just happened to deposit the coins there, as though guilty not of impugning the umpires integrity but of the lesser offense of fiduciary littering. So, as our favorites are vanquished, followed by their vanquishers, we hiccup our way through the tournament.
This years Wimbledon was like that in terms of the consequences, but without the passion that should accompany such mad and fatal crushes. Players werent knocked out; they just disappeared, fell by the wayside. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga lost cruelly to Sam Querrey after their long match was suspended because of bad light at 5-6 in the fifth. Play resumed the next day and lasted for precisely one game. I barely saw Tsonga, caught only a glimpse of Tsvetana Pironkova, did not see Jack Sock sock it to anyone before Sebastian Ofner offed him. The other side of the coin was that I completely avoided the robotic lumberers like John Isner, Milos Raonic and Marin Cilic. The test of a good tennis tournament, to render it in Hemingway-ese, is whom you can leave out.
No one would ever want to leave out Gal Monfils! A peculiarity of the draw meant that Murray met a succession of players who delight the crowd with an exhilarating, often suicidal addiction to trick shots. Murray was having to chase after so many drop shots always emitting that groan of surprised despair before he set off yet again to retrieve the unretrievable that it seemed there might be something self-sacrificing about his opponents way of proceeding. Each was destined to lose, but the cumulative strain put on Murrays iffy hip would soften him up for someone later in the tournament in this case Querrey, another big-serving bore. The dreadlocked Dustin Brown is the most extreme of the tricksters, the most fun and the most infuriating to watch, making opponents feel, as was said of the footballer George Best, as if they have twisted blood.
A few years ago Brown bamboozled Nadal right back to Mallorca, but in the long run turning tricks is a losing strategy because its no strategy at all. A Brown will eventually be beaten by a Raonic, whose ambition is to become a tennis algorithm in human form (with the attendant risk of making the sport unwatchably tedious). Monfils represents the middle ground: extravagant and efficient, with the ratio of showmanship to pragmatism in a state of constant and unstable flux. As the No.15 seed, he was expected to go into the second week, even if only briefly.
Ah, the second week. During the opening week of a tournament, the schedule is as crowded as a rush-hour subway. After the action-packed second Monday and Tuesday, things thin out drastically. The atmosphere, as a result, becomes slightly less festive, as attention gradually and inexorably shrinks to whats happening on the big stages. Theres a lot of doubles and mixed doubles, but the numerical shakedown in the singles is shocking.
The quality of matches is assumed to go up, while the quantity goes down precipitously. This year the quality went down in tandem. Both the mens and womens tournaments stumbled into a dying fall. Johanna Konta won an epic quarterfinal against Simona Halep, then wilted against Venus Williams, who in turn wilted against Garbie Muguruza. Djokovic retired hurt, nursing a bad elbow and feeling badly served by the way his quarterfinal match against Tomas Berdych had been held over after the Mller-Nadal marathon. Murrays hip looked to be on its last legs as he was ground into submission by Querrey. Federer, of course, was beautiful. It was wonderful to be there, to see him, but among the seasoned journalists, it was deemed to have been one of the worst Wimbledons in recent years, redeemed by gorgeous Roger winning more gorgeously than ever.
His opponent in the final, the ferociously lycanthropic Cilic, seemed troubled from head (sobbing like a baby midmatch) to toe (blister), and I suppose we must not hold it against him that in his post-match speech, he failed even to mention Federer, whom I have barely mentioned here on the grounds of all-consuming Shall I compare thee to a summers day? adoration. As matches, the mens and womens finals were almost nonevents, so this little narrative will conclude instead with Monfils and a match from the middle Saturday.
Court 12: Monfils versus Adrian Mannarino. I had taken against Mannarino even more vehemently than the coin-chucking Medvedev for the way he shoulder-barged a ball boy during a changeover in an earlier match. He complained that the authorities prioritized ball boys over players thereby negating the alternative defense that it had been an accident, not an incident. I had a really good seat that turned out to be a really bad seat: courtside, sun-side, getting a face full of Indian Wells-style heat, like Meursault on the beach in Algiers. After the second set I had to leave, fearing I was on the way to sunstroke. Or maybe it was just stroke-stroke: overexposure to tennis strokes, the cumulative effect of watching more live tennis in the course of six days than I had in the rest of my life.
Todays tennis players dont just crush the ball; they pulverize it, and I was feeling pulverized by watching them do it. But unlike Tomic the tank engine, I dug deep and came back, to a seat on the other side of the court, where the sun fried the back of my head. I was two rows from the front, right behind the court attendants. There were about eight of them, young men and women, students I guessed, whose job was to hold umbrellas over the players during changeovers and not a lot else. Other than that and apart from watching the match, it was hard to tell whether some of them were working or taking a break from working another court as they helped themselves to nice-looking sandwiches, strawberries and mints from the well-stocked coolers behind the players chairs.
I envied them so much. It reminded me of the summer of 1980, when, after leaving Oxford, I first lived in London. A friend from college had the same kind of job as these kids, went to Wimbledon every day and then came back to my flat just one stop away on the Tube and told me about the games she saw. Her job had been secured in advance, but like a day laborer in the Great Depression, I turned up at the Wimbledon gates on the first day, hoping that I might be hired on the optimistic basis that I was an Oxford graduate. I was turned away and, until this year, had been back to Wimbledon only once, for one day.
The court attendants were dressed in green polo shirts and shorts and made sure to apply sunscreen to their arms and legs, sharing everything and generally hanging out in the sun watching tennis. I wished I were one of them. It was a funny day. In the third set, I received a text saying that a bunch of friends, all in their 50s, were heading to a party a ravey-type thing in Braziers Park in Oxfordshire, where they would all be spending the weekend. Did I want to come? I couldnt because I was at Wimbledon, where Id wanted to be for nearly 40 years, and that night, if the tennis finished in time, I was going to a friends 50th-birthday party in East London. It turned out to be a terrific party, mainly because I was able to spend the night boasting about how Id been at Wimbledon all day, all week but all day and all evening, part of me was half-full of regret that I was missing the other party at Braziers Park. I was also missing my wife, who was on an Air New Zealand plane to Los Angeles (she booked that rather than British Airways because of the threat of strike action), and its possible that she was on one of the planes I could see lumbering through the crowded skies over SW19. This was all going through my head while Monfils and the ball-boy barger ran and belted the ball, but I felt a great sense of well-being. I had reached a point of equilibrium or weightlessness whereby all the contradictory impulses that make up my life were in a strange sort of harmony, so although I was wishing that I was going to Braziers Park and although I was missing my wife, I was entirely content, completely present in the moment, as present in the moment as the players have to be, always playing the ball not the point, concentrating on the point not the game, the game not the set, and the set not the match and so on. The balls were sun-yellow, and the grass was a jaded green where it had not been baked and rubbed to rutted dust. One moment Monfils and Mannarino were teasing the ball, the next they were belting it. Unsure whether it was coming or going, the ball settled for both. Outside the grounds were leafy trees and a lovely church steeple, or spire, if they are not one and the same. A Union Jack hung limply in a sky of melted blue. Brexit was a horrible reality. Every now and again came the roar from No.2 Court, where I had missed Tsonga. A court attendant took a nice-looking green apple, green as the remaining grass, from the cooler. I was tempted to ask if I could have one but thought better of it. Another member of the team leapt up to shut the drink-fridge door after Monfils failed to close it properly. I love being in a group, would love to have been part of this group, sitting in the sun, applying sun cream and having the time of my life, even though I was almost certainly at least as old as probably older than their parents.
Two sets all. The court attendants were a separate crew from the ball boys, but I wanted to suggest, partly as a joke, that out of solidarity they get Mannarino on his own and rough him up for deliberately shoulder-barging the ball boy, even if this might have seemed a bit Brexity, him being French. Certain rallies were punctuated by the automatic fire of cameras with heavy telephoto lenses. I was at Wimbledon. It was the summer of Brexit means Brexit and the Grenfell Tower fire. I was looking forward to seeing Christopher Nolans Dunkirk the moment it came out, on the biggest screen possible, but I was also fully engaged in the match without really following it, conscious of everything: the green trees, the courts, class, politeness, the way that Monfils, with his furrowed brow, looked older between points than he did while playing. I was 59 and felt almost delirious for a multitude of conflicting reasons, some heat-related, some derived from the fact that we are merely the stars tennis-balls, struck and banded whichever way please them, a line that sounds like Shakespeares but isnt, though it does make you wonder how long ago tennis was invented and whether branded might now be better than banded. There were amazing points and rallies. The ball was being hit with such power that it seemed impossible that it would land in the court or that anyone could get it back when it did, but both kept happening both both and neither. Wimbledon, clearly, was the single best thing about England apart from the beer I was looking forward to swilling, in quantity, at my friends 50th, unless there was Champagne, in which case Id be swilling a load of that. Sitting here on Court 12 was like watching a match at the vicarage, in the middle of a Texas heat wave. I felt like T.S. Eliot at Little Gidding or something. My seat was so good its possible I was too close to the court, to the action, to follow it properly. I was completely absorbed in the match but I kept thinking ahead to Dunkirk and back to that summer of 1980, when I came here and didnt get a job as steward or court attendant or whatever it was I was hoping for. Monfils was running and playing, hitting such magical shots that when he reached into his pocket for a ball you half expected him to pull out a white rabbit. He was also losing. He leaned on his racket, hand on one knee, looking sort of vanquished, as he had at Indian Wells, when he won against whoever it was in spite of having a terrible cold. This time around he was circling the drain, being forced toward it by his fellow Frenchman, the ball-boy barger, and eventually the inevitable occurred, and he lost. The Frenchmen shook hands and it was over, but the Union Jack still hung limply against the jet-blue sky and I slowly emerged from my trance, a tennis trance that was also some kind of England-my-England trance. Roger would be back on Centre Court again soon.
si – New York Times