As Roger Federer attempts to win a seventh title in London and draw level alongside Pete Sampras and resident ghost William Renshaw, I stopped this morning to reflect upon everything that the All-England Club has come to represent to me.
Now in its 134th incarnation, Wimbledon – the oldest tennis tournament in the world – is also arguably the most overhyped. It is a spectacle steeped in sanctimony and a ponderous sense of its own historical importance. It is by the same token the greatest of them all, rich in symbolism and mythos, possessing cultural value like no other.
I see no contradiction in those assertions. My love-hate relationship with the event goes back to the early-1980s, when I was a child. Some of my earliest memories involve watching tennis; I loved it enough to conscientiously sit through every Doordarshan broadcast of matches that usually aired live from the quarterfinals onwards. My family watched them on our old black-and-white television set. The arrival of cable TV in India almost immediately transformed the viewing experience. My appreciation for the sport and its history grew more sophisticated. Until I was 18 or so, I could even cite the names of quarterfinalists who had featured each year in the Majors, going back a couple of decades.
Sometime in the early 2000s, while working as a cub reporter in Chennai, I interviewed Ramanathan Krishnan, twice-semifinalist at Wimbledon in the 1960s and one of the finest sportsmen India has produced, about his memories of playing in London. It was for one of those mood pieces sports writers are supposed to do every once in a while – for instance, your editor asks you to talk to former greats of the game whenever the Indian cricket team tours abroad. These feature pieces may not be terribly newsworthy and in the hands of a hack can feel a bit perfunctory, but it’s always a pleasure to hear stories former athletes have to share especially if the journalist can persist enough to uncover fresh anecdotes.
Krishnan had some great bits to narrate. “In those days they used to have a particular change room reserved for the better players; two years down the line, I was so proud to find I was allowed inside that one,” he said to me with a laugh. “It was a matter of prestige.” And then another on the subject of etiquette: "We couldn't argue decisions for fear of being booed by the crowd. And, I noticed, it was considered rude if we didn't wear a tie off the court."
Turns out he’s a sentimentalist, this great man; although he later told me that he much preferred visiting the United States to England, he did say he loved the tradition one associates with Wimbledon.
In 2006, when I was on a sabbatical in England, my then-editor Nirmal Shekar asked me to cover Wimbledon alongside him. I stepped out of Southfield tube station in South London, full of excitement, crossed a long line of people who had slept in tents to buy tickets in the morning – an image I was already familiar with through televised broadcasts – and was then promptly subjected to a blast of vulgar commercialisation that Krishnan and Shekar (an old Wimbledon hand with some 25 years' experience of covering it) had not prepared me for.
Wimbledon is all about branding and conscious self-promotion. You cannot escape it. They like to use the terms ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Ladies’ here for a reason – and it is not to point you to the nearest toilet.
I like to think marketing doesn’t affect my life, but that belief stood exposed everywhere I went. Stalls sell all kinds of merchandise as they probably do at most tournaments, only this is Wimbledon and everyone is hell-bent on making sure you get the message. Even the old man ushering in media personnel was dressed like a member of British royalty. I had to look twice to make sure it wasn’t really the Duke of Edinburgh.
All the preceding talk of strawberries and cream had left me hungry for some, and then I found I couldn’t afford it. That first afternoon, I dropped five quid – five quid! there’s apparently no such thing as a free lunch, even for journalists – and grabbed a “cheap” sandwich at the media center, which looked more like a sanitised hospital ward, then wandered around the precincts looking for potential interview subjects.
There are barely any quiet spots, as such, in the complex although TV cameras don’t bother to invade every inch of the grounds. Over the next several days I nabbed a quote or two from players casually passing by – my favorite, Marat Safin, looked much bigger than he did on TV, by the way – and bumped shoulders with some heavyweight journalists.
Peter Bodo of Tennis magazine interrogating me about Sania Mirza’s practice regimen in the claustrophobic confines of an elevator counts among the more surreal experiences in my life as a reporter; it is only outdone by the memory of Bud Collins (the Boston Globe and NBC commentator) sitting a couple of rows ahead of me in the press conference room in a fluffy bow-tie and pink checked pants.
We were listening to Federer (who sat smugly alone, up on the dais) at one of his post-match pressers after one of the early rounds, talking about another potential match-up with Nadal in the final. That was incidentally the first year Federer wore one of his ludicrous faux-smoking jackets emblazoned with the ‘F’, a tuft of grass and three racquets to symbolise the three titles he’d won till then.
No doubt I was feeling disoriented by Nike’s sartorial imposition upon Federer and the image of Bud Collins in his bow-tie, for the next thing I knew I’d raised my hand to ask a question: “So do you think Nadal puts up a tougher fight against you at Wimbledon than you do against him at the French Open?”
The room went silent at the cheek of it; the reporter from The Guardian laughed out loud. I don’t recall the exact answer but Federer – who many were already calling the greatest tennis player in history, and who would go on to win his fourth title later that week after beating Nadal the night Zidane got ejected from the soccer World Cup final – was diplomatic; he remained on his best gentleman-like behaviour.
Shekar, who has always been more of a friend to me than a formal mentor, was staying in a hotel in Earls Court, across town from where I was put up. We went out for a drink and some dinner a couple of times that fortnight after finishing our pieces. England is a great place to report from because it’s several hours behind India, and writing with that kind of deadline handicap gives you an adrenaline rush that is quite addictive (especially for someone like Shekar who hammers out his pieces quick as a devil); yet once you’re done you have more than enough time to hit a couple of pubs.
One of those evenings, Shekar ordered a scotch while I stuck to a light summer beer with a lime twist. I said to him that Wimbledon was giving me mixed feelings; that I had absolutely loved watching the tennis from the media box, but the commercialisation of it was getting to me. Shekar said something I still remember: “You’ve got to keep it real, you’ve got to make it about the people. Forget the overpricing and the rest of the junk. It’s about the players, the game, and the experience of watching it as a spectator.
“It’s about feeling alive, and absorbing the moment.”