The Thrill of Wimbledon’s Opening Day

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Photo by Getty

Bill Simons

Wimbledon

It’s not the day the circus comes to town. It’s not Christmas in June. It’s the first day of Wimbledon.

For three COVID-plagued years I’ve waited to feel the delight of the best opening day in the sport.

As I wake, I turn on the radio, and Sir Andy Murray is recalling that as a kid he first came to Wimbledon in a minivan with his mum. We’re informed (with some exaggeration) that Tunisia grinds to a halt when Ons Jabeur plays, and how Britain’s latest fragile phenom, Emma Raducanu, has to play with freedom.

As I head out to the All-England Club, London’s downtown towers rest on the distant horizon. At the corner of Burghley and Marryat, four Accredited Traffic Marshalls in their neon yellow vests stand guard – only a few select vehicles may pass. Just down the gentle hill – one of several that surround Wimbledon – 64a Marryat Road displays rows of purple and green pennants.

And then, there it is: tennis’ mecca, perhaps the greatest of all  sports cathedrals. Before me Centre Court, with its curved roof, appears. Long strings of world-famous queues snake around the famous venue. “Oh, my God!” squeals a 10-year-old girl. “Are we going to have to stand in that?”

As I pass through security, a towering bobby with a well-clipped beard offers a side eye. A gentlewoman with a gentle voice tells the crowd on the Wimbledon public address system: “I wish you an excellent two weeks and all the best fortune for the fortnight.”

All the while, soldiers in red hats and sailors with their white caps guard Wimbledon’s walkways. Green ivy with hints of yellow hug its walls. Lavender and white petunias dot every corner. Everything is well scrubbed.

By the main entrance, Gate 5, a store prepares to sell Wimbledon’s signature food. A proud sign says, “We can tell you where every berry was grown and who picked it,” but the salesgirl has no idea. “My manager is out,” she politely informs me. “But you can come back in a while.”

Oh, well. I rejoin the throng. A sock–less Frenchman in a stunning brown suit strolls by and a proper gentleman from Mayfair greets his friend: “Hi Cecil, what a splendid morning!”

Nearby, the subterranean souvenir shop is brimming with umbrellas, towels, brown teddy bears and even garish orange T-shirts. Wimbledon sells.  

Up on Henman Hill, blankets are flung open, picnic baskets offer shrimp and mayonnaise sandwiches, and champagne bottles pop open.

Below, an elegant lady in beige with a Primark bag chats with breezy ease while detailed signs tell of three centuries of winners, back to the Renshaw brothers, who took the doubles title in 1884. Finally, it’s time to do a little pilgrimage to my Centre Court press seat, G166. The new security man in charge greets me with a jolly smile. “How long are you staying?” he asks. “For the two full weeks,” I reply with a smile. “So it’s a holiday?” he asks. “Not really,” I respond.

Now ballpersons stand stiff in a nervous huddle to get last minute instructions. Linespersons in their blue blazers and white pants march by with more than a hint of authority. 

At last, TV lights flash bright on the broadcast roof. It’s time for me to go to work. After all, this is opening day at Wimbledon.

NOVAK SURVIVES SCARE AND OTHER UPDATES: Novak Djokovic has dropped to No. 3. After Wimbledon, he’ll fall at least to No. 8 this year, and he may not compete in another Slam for 11 months. He didn’t play any warm-up tourneys, and today he faced a hard-hitting Korean with flat shots and little fear.

Soonwoo Kwon stepped in and hit out. His forehand was on fire, his movement was fine, his drop shot scored winners. In contrast, Novak seemed flat, almost tentative. Kwon went up 3-1 in the first set. But Djokovic fought back, won five straight games and took the first set 6-3. Now the six-time Wimbledon champ would show the No. 81 in the world who’s boss.

But the man from a small Korean city seemed to want to make big headlines. Aggressive and with impeccable timing, he fought back and won the second set 6-3. Andrew Castle of the BBC said, “It’s almost that Novak needs a crisis to motivate him.” The man who’d won 21 Wimbledon matches in a row improved his serve and surged to win in four sets to become the first man or woman to win 80 matches at all four Slams.  

Plus, there was more good news for Novak. Pole Hubie Hurkacz, perhaps the toughest foe on Novak’s side of the draw, fell in five sets to No. 27 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. No. 5 seed Carlos Alcaraz, another tough future foe, managed to survive in five sets against Jan-Lennard Struff. Similarly, John Isner, out on Court 18, that’s so familiar to him, managed to survive a five-set battle 6-7, 7-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 against Frenchman Enzo Couacaud, No. 206, who’d only won two previous main tour matches. 

British darling Emma Raducanu, 19, thrilled Centre Court with a straight-set victory over Belgian Alison Van Uytanck. On-court announcer Lynne McKenzie told her, “Even the sun has come out to watch you play.” 

By the way, in a wonderful gesture, Djokovic invited Boris Becker’s girlfriend and his son to sit in his friend’s box. The German, who coached Novak to six Slams, is now in a British jail on a fraud charge. 

REMEMBERING RUSSIA: Russian players have been banned from this year’s Wimbledon. But, before it’s too late, let’s lift a glass of vodka and hope the Russians pull out of Ukraine and play next year. In the meantime, let’s recall some of the more zany sides of Wimbledon and Russian tennis.

• Russian Daria Kasatkina suggested the success of her nation’s tennis players comes from “the fighting spirit [which is due to] cold Russia. We are always unhappy.”

• Svetlana Kuznetsova once said about Russians’ tough mentality, “Our grandparents fought World War II with knives.”

• When newly-installed Soviet boss Nikita Khrushchev came to London, and Wimbledon came up in a conversation, he asked, “What’s Wimbledon?” But soon after, in 1987, the Wimbledon final was televised in the USSR for the first time.

• After losing in the 1998 Wimbledon semis, Natasha Zvereva confided, “I’m tired. I need a mental institution break.”

• Russian star Marat Safin, who upon occasion was introduced as Marat Stalin, was quite the Wimbledon critic. The former No. 1 complained, “You have to wear white, be nice and polite to people.”

As for the food there, he said, “We get 20 pounds for lunch. I have a coach and a masseuse, and one portion of the most uneatable spaghetti costs 12 pounds. A portion of tasteless strawberries with cream costs 5 pounds…The rest of the food is horrible – fish and chips everywhere!”

•  According to Brit Nick Price, Russian women’s tennis “has a pipeline. British tennis has a drain.” 

• Anna Kournikova suggested, “Without tennis I would be cleaning toilets in Russia.” Instead she gave a press conference near Wimbledon promoting her sports bra that, according to a London Times poll, was the most famous bra in the world. After watching her play, Frank DeFord wrote, “Her long signature pigtail flies about like a torn spinnaker in the wind. Her lines are perfect – especially now that she doesn’t jam the second-service ball up her knickers.”

• Soon after Maria Sharapova emerged, one headline read, “Sharapova is no Kournikova – she wins.” Sharapova herself said, “People forget that Anna isn’t in the picture anymore. It’s Maria time now.” 

• When asked whether she voted in a Russian election, Kournikova replied, “Definitely, yes, no.” Anna did have a thoughtful side. She once said, “The only thing I’m concerned about is war. There is enough space for everyone in the world. Why can’t they talk – not with tanks and guns? Why did they send those Russian kids to die in Afghanistan? They didn’t even live yet. How many mothers are crying out there? There’s not even a cemetery to know where their bones are.” 

•  Before Maria Sharapova shocked Serena to win the 2004 title, Matthew Cronin wrote, “If Maria goes deep in 2004, she’ll nudge the likes of Olga Morozova, Natasha Zvereva and Kournikova into a certain gulag of oblivion.” Right after Maria’s Wimbledon win, her dad Yuri told IT that her victory “means she’s a champion. My baby’s a champion. She was born a champion.”

• As his career tailed off, former top-20 player Alexander Volkov confessed, “My only desire now is to get drunk. I’ve lost all my skills as a player.”

• Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Amanda Anisimova, Denis Shapovalov, Stefan Kozlov and Sofia Kenin are all children of Russian emigrants.

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