Time and again tourists at the Southfields tube station ask the policeman there, “So how do you get to Wimbledon?” Time and again he responds – “Practice.”
Every universe has its inner domains, curious worlds of mystery and wonder. And, of course, fair Wimbledon is far more than Centre Court and strawberries and cream. In fact, its practice facility, the curiously named Aorangi Park, is a feel-good haven like no other.
Every year I like to drop by and try and pick up some random insight – Boris seems uptight, Federer’s cross-court backhand is on fire, Bartoli’s practice routines truly are bizarre. But my mindset has always been, “I came to Wimbledon to cover matches, not practice sessions.”
All that changed today. I heard that there would be, so to speak, quite a tennis sandwich on the top three practice courts at Aorangi. Nick Kyrios would be flanked on one side by Novak Djokovic and on the other, by his arch enemy, Rafa Nadal. So much for breakfast. I made a bee-line for the courts.
Surrounded by weeping willows and Edwardian estates, whose prices would make you weep, the practice center is a sweet enclave – a glorious microcosm of the tennis world at its best. There’s Serena chatting with Andy Murray. Fabio Fognini is happy that Janko Tipsarevic got his joke. Tennis’ newly-christened wow-child, 15-year old Cori Gauff, finishes working out with ankle bands and then says hi to this humble lad. And while senoritas from Seville relish seeing their beloved Rafa, a sweet Indian with a wispy beard and a thick autograph book proudly shows off the prized Serena signature he just got. While players’ girlfriends giggle as they share “Dahlin’ did you hear” gossip, mothers squirm as they rather desperately try to mute howling toddlers who, god forbid, could disturb the nearby superstars.
Aorangi is a complex unto itself. There’s a restaurant, a lounge, an inviting massage table and a tented fitness center with stationary exercise bikes that are for the game’s best players who hope to be on the move.
Here there are fresh faces and longtime warriors. “How’s it going Bill?” says Bob (or is it Mike) Bryan. The nearby security guard soon repeats one of tennis’ widely-held truths, “Those Americans kids, those Bryan boys, sure are nice. It’s all due to the father.”
But the small collection of media on hand – writers from Paris, paparazzi from Fleet Street tabloids, broadcasters from Montana and cameramen from BBC – aren’t worried about “nice.” Any little tidbit or, better yet, a revealing image could soon enter the fast-flowing river of news Wimbledon fans embrace.
Of course, this is Wimbledon, so there’s a place for everything. Fans in Yankee hats with their oversized yellow tennis balls strain to see their stars. Unlike Indian Wells or the US Open, there are not generous bleachers to accommodate hundreds. Instead, folks are roped off into narrow corridors. But the English gentleman in shorts and Birkenstocks wearing a snappy blue blazer and carrying a picnic basket doesn’t care. At Aorangi the 18 courts are divided into four tiers. Players have their favorites courts. High-profile players Andy Murray and Maria Sharapova prefer the solitude of distant, low-profile locations. Here there seem to be more coaches than at a USPTA convention. So we see severe Serbians and increasingly well-known American fathers, like Gauff’s and Sonya Kenin’s dads. Others are coaching pioneers, like Amelie Mauresmo, who guided Murray. Some have been the focus of provocative questions this week. Will celebrity coach Goran Ivanisevic help Djokovic, like Boris Becker did, or fall short, like Andre Agassi? Many wondered why Sascha Bajin, who was showing Kiki Mladenovic how to pivot low on her backhand, was fired by Naomi Osaka. Other coaches always seem to be around. Patrick Mouratoglou peered down at all practice court action. And Serb Tipsarevic told us that Aorangi Park is the best practice center in the world: “You have to take a car to get to the French Open’s courts. The US Open’s are close, but there’s nothing special. This is so cozy.”
I’m used to covering matches, but somehow here I felt like a behind-the-scenes intruder peering behind the curtain. There, right in front of me, was Novak blasting away, as his new guru, the graying Goran, watched in baggy black shorts and socks. Two courts to his right, there was Rafa in a sleeveless T-shirt that revealed his bulging “Eat your heart out, Hulk Hogan” biceps. Rafa knew that tomorrow he’d be playing the right-handed 6’ 4” Kyrgios. So, it made sense that the wise veteran was practicing with the 6’ 6” Nicolas Jarry. Nadal was in full warrior mode. His body glistened, his grunts could be heard in the distant housing blocks.
In contrast, in a flash, the mercurial Kyrgios was done, his practice over. Never mind that tomorrow he’d be playing a grudge match against Rafa – a 6’ 1” left-handed fellow with a two-handed backhand. Nick, who always does it his way, had just finished practicing with the 5’ 4” Spanish woman Carla Suarez Navarro who has a one-handed backhand. He sat on the grass by a back fence and posed for pictures with friends. Naturally, crazed fans soon wanted his autograph. One called out, “I love you Nick.” But, again using his cutting wit, Nick again showed how adept he is at putting off those who intrude. “You love everyone,” he told the fan. “You love Khachanov, you love Kukushkin.” And with a wry smile, he sauntered past a line of his disappointed fans.
A while later, Djokovic, in a blue shirt, hit a final serve and seemed to wrap up his session. Wrong: his ample team soon broke out into an inventive bocci ball-like game. Their raucous laughs soon mixed with tongue-in-cheek accusations of cheating. “This is just like last year – it’s always the same,” complained one insider. Then, after a final chuckle, Team Nole walked out the back way – there’d be no need to deal with Nole fanatics hoping for a glimpse.
All the while, Nadal again proved that – whether it be in a match or just practicing – he may well be the hardest working player in the game. A good half hour after Kyrgios and Djokovic had departed for the locker room, Nadal was still blasting away, until he stroked a final overhead and gathered his gear, before diving into his next duty: signing many an autograph for giddy fans who cried out “Vamos!” or “Por favor, por favor.” Then after he offered his final signature the towering star descended into a subterranean walkway that takes players away from this magical domain, tennis’s foremost practice facility, the totally enchanting haven they simply call Aorangi.
Also Reporting – Lucia Hoffman