Wimbledon's not just about tradition and the stiff upper lip, as these humorous anecdotes prove

Wimbledon's quirky moments, on court and off — from John McEnroe's temper tantrum to Martina Navratilova's missing ID

Austin Coutinho June 24, 2017 08:38:02 IST
Wimbledon's not just about tradition and the stiff upper lip, as these humorous anecdotes prove

“Wimbledon is unique; the Shakespeare of tennis tournaments, the Centre Court producing its own dramas,” wrote Bud Collins, the great tennis writer and commentator many years ago. It is about strawberries and cream, tradition and a warm English summer. It is also about ‘lawn’ tennis!

When three-time Wimbledon champion, Chris Evert was asked what Wimbledon meant to her, “Reverence!” she purred. “Royalty, ivy and the grass. It’s so dignified; I’m in awe of what it symbolises.”

There are those, however, that get put off by what Wimbledon stands for; the tradition and the ‘stiff upper lip’.

John McEnroe, who also won three singles titles at Wimbledon between 1981 and 1984, said, “The only thing ‘championship’ about Wimbledon is its prestige.” Playing against compatriot Tom Gullickson in the second round in 1981, McEnroe disputed a line call and fumed at the referee, “You can’t be serious! The ball was on the line. Chalk flew up, it was clearly in; you are the pits of the world."

Referee Ted James promptly docked him a point. In response to his outbursts, Wimbledon did not accord McEnroe the traditional honorary membership given to first time singles winners. Hitting back, ‘Mac-the-Brat’ boycotted the Championship dinner, saying, “I am spending the evening with my family and friends… not a bunch of stiffs who are 70-80 years old, telling you that you're acting like a jerk."

Interestingly, in a recent poll, McEnroe’s famous rant was voted the most celebrated moment at Wimbledon. Fifty-eight and mellowed, he is now a BBC analyst for the Wimbledon Championships. His famous outburst, ‘You are the pits of the earth’ was also included in a song, in the 1980s, by one of Britain’s top beat groups and dedicated to the ‘cranky’ Wimbledon champ!

Wimbledons not just about tradition and the stiff upper lip as these humorous anecdotes prove

Andy Murray and Serena Williams at Wimbledon. Illustration courtesy Austin Coutinho


Fred Perry, the great tennis — and table tennis — player from Britain, won three consecutive Wimbledon singles titles between 1934 and 1936. After the 1934 final, the winner’s bottle of champagne was surprisingly presented to the runner-up, Jack Crawford of Australia. Perry heard the Wimbledon official saying, “Crawford was the better man.” Fred Perry, though a crowd favourite, was always at loggerheads with the British tennis establishment and with Wimbledon.

Martina Navratilova, winner of nine Wimbledon singles titles had rented a place, a stone’s throw away from the courts, after she had won three singles crowns by 1983. She would therefore cycle to the courts for practice. One fine afternoon, when she arrived at the courts at Church Road, the gatekeeper didn’t let her in. She hadn’t carried any identification.

“Sorry, Miss. You can’t go in without a ticket,” said the silver-haired guard.

“But I am a player. My name is …”

“Sorry, Miss.”

“I won this tournament last year!”

“Sorry, Miss."

Fortunately, one of the officials recognised Navratilova and let her in. She said later that the polite “Sorry, Miss” kept her from getting furious. Tradition!

Precise and proper?

Everything about Wimbledon is ‘propah’ and well-planned. The grass is precisely 8mm high, the dress code is predominantly white and the matches start at the stroke of 1 pm (GMT) on outer courts and at 2 pm (GMT) on the final weekend. And when the Queen is in attendance at Centre Court, players curtsy to her!

In the gentlemen’s singles finals in 1979, Bjorn Borg beat big-serving American Roscoe Tanner in a five-setter. An American TV channel that year had requested the Wimbledon committee to start the match at 2.02 pm (GMT) so that the channel could run a sponsor’s ad. The proposal was, naturally, shot down.

At precisely 2 pm, after Borg and Tanner had warmed up, the latter showed his little ‘pinky’ to the referee and sprinted to the cloakroom, allowing the American channel time enough to run its two-minute ad. That year the gentlemen’s singles final commenced after 2.02 pm. Sacrilegious!

Dress Code

The ‘predominantly white’ rule, at Wimbledon, for clothing and accessories stems from the 1800s, when sweaty patches on coloured clothing were thought to be inappropriate — especially when ladies were in attendance. Even the players’ undergarments have to be white.

Anna Kournikova was forced to wear white shorts, borrowed from her coach, to hide her black knickers in 2002. In 2013, Roger Federer was ‘requested’ not to wear his orange-soled trainers. And Andre Agassi, early in his career, avoided Wimbledon because he wasn’t allowed to wear his denim shorts and his outrageously garish tops.

‘Naughty’ Gussie Moran, as Bud Collins christened her, wore lace panties — designed by Ted Tinling — at Wimbledon in 1949 and caused a nationwide scandal. Exactly three decades earlier, French winner — and prima donna -Suzanne Lenglen had raised eyebrows for competing in a short-sleeved, calf-length pleated dress: sans petticoat. She also wore makeup and a thick ‘bandana’ while playing, making her a trendsetter in fashions.

In 1979, an 18-year-old Californian named Linda Siegel wore a backless, bra-less dress for her second round match against Billie Jean King. While serving, on a couple of occasions, she revealed more cleavage than she had planned to, embarrassing herself and the organisers. On all three occasions, British photographers had a field day.

Anne White played Pam Shriver in the ladies singles first round of 1985 in a white, body-hugging lycra suit. Shriver, disturbed by the attention that White received from photographers and spectators alike, lost a set before there was a rain-break. Asked to change to a ‘more appropriate’ dress by the referee, White lost the match in three sets.

Shutterbugs eyeing a front-page picture at Wimbledon were, however, extremely disappointed during a ladies singles match in the 1970s. The cute-looking player, mid-set, realised to her horror that the cord of her knickers had snapped. She therefore asked the chair-ump if she could have a quick change. ‘No’ said the haughty ref, but as the player walked back to the baseline, rather gingerly, he noticed all the photographers — smiling from ear to ear — lining up at her end. Relenting, he allowed the player a short visit to the cloakroom!


Talking about referees and officials, there was this instance when a gentlemen’s singles match, on Centre Court, went on for too long. An elderly lineswoman, who couldn’t take it any longer, fell asleep, on court. One of the players, who noticed it, gently woke her up saying, “Madam, I know my game is unexciting. But I didn’t realise it was so boring!”

Bettina Bunge, the beautiful German tennis star lost to Navratilova in the semi-finals at Wimbledon, in 1982. This was her fifth straight loss to the legend. When reporters asked her what she had learned from Navratilova, Bunge, tongue-firmly-in-cheek replied, “How to shake hands at the net!”

The pressure of ‘The Championships’ perhaps gets players to think creatively and humorously. Ivan Lendl, who never won a Wimbledon title said, “Grass is for cows!”, when he gave the tournament a miss in the early '80s. After losing to ‘Pistol Pete’ Sampras in the semi-finals of Wimbledon 1994, Michael Chang was asked if Sampras had any weaknesses. “Yes,” he replied, “he doesn’t cook well.”

Nosey press

The tabloid press in England can be very nosy. Their photographers and reporters pursued Borg everywhere, when he was very young, looking for teeny-boppers chasing him. Borg’s coach, Lennart Bergelin therefore released a photograph of his young charge with a beautiful Swedish player to the British press. That picture, in fact, increased Borg’s female fans and he had a hard time denying the romance rumours to his parents and the Swedish media.

During one Wimbledon, Navratilova lived in a flat at Sloane Square with her girl-friend, Rita Mae Brown. She says that one reporter even bribed a maid to get into the house to find out what the two were up to. “That year,” says Navratilova, “Ilie Nastase was having problems with his wife Dominique, a much juicier story for the British press. I thanked Nasty for helping me out and he said, ‘Any time, any time!’”

In the buff?

The Mecca of tennis has seen streakers too. In the 1996 gentlemen’s singles final between MaliVai Washington and Richard Krajicek a female streaker, with an apron on, ran on to the court.

In a 2006 quarter-final match between Maria Sharapova and Elena Dementieva, a male streaker ran on to the court, danced and did somersaults before he was led away by the police. The incident had Dementieva in splits but Sharapova looked away, not losing her composure. Guess who won?

Over 30,000 kg of strawberries will be sold during the Wimbledon fortnight in July this year. There will also be glasses of Pimm’s, sandwiches, scones, ice creams, beer, champagne and the quintessential, fish and chips. More importantly, the prim-and-proper event will have its moments of humour and its gaffes and boo-boos too!

Stay tuned in!

The author is a sportswriter and caricaturist. He is also an ex-fast bowler, a sports administrator and a mental toughness coach. 

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