If Centre Court Could Talk

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Wimbledon 

Oh, if only Centre Court’s grass could tell its tales. If only its glistening green blades could capture its stories of triumph and fear, courage and redemption they would fill a library.

Built in 1922 by Captain Stanley Peach on $9,500 of farmland, many worried the vast court would become a white elephant. But soon, icons of the sport would soar. Leaping Suzanne Lenglen snubbed the Queen, and Philly’s Big Bill Tilden unleashed his legendary forehand. Despite an encouraging call from Adolph Hitler, Baron Gottfried von Cramm fell to a lean redhead from Oakland, Don Budge, and hustler Bobby Riggs pocketed $100,000, thanks to a bold bet.

Wimbledon survived the bombs of World War II and all the “You can’t be serious!” forays of John McEnroe. Centre Court endured scandal and sorrow: lace panties, wardrobe mishaps, blown leads and shock upsets. 

Some came away in frustration. “Grass is for cows!” grumbled one critic. Goodness, complained Marat Safin, “Here, you have to be nice to people, and be polite.” Others adored the place.  Wimbledon’s class, its beauty, tradition and celebration of elegance and lawn tennis, has long been celebrated. 

Writer Paul Newman asked, “Is there any stadium in the world that can combine such majesty with such intimacy, that offers such splendid all-round views of the action and provides such contrasting acoustic sensations?” Virginia Wade gushed, “Wimbledon has all the wisdom of a grandparent and the energy of a teen.” In a flash the place goes from deep silence to thunderous roars.  

Billie Jean King said at Wimbledon, “Everything has changed and nothing has changed.” And in the 36,532 days since its opening, on Monday, June 26th, 1922, Centre Court has never had a day quite like today.

*****

Britain has a glorious cast of royals who are adored. And tennis has royalty too, – champions who’ve risen above the millions who sought glory and who’ve touched our hearts. 

The openings of Arthur Ashe Stadium and Wimbledon’s Court One were splendid. But today, on a perfect English summer day, there was the greatest celebration of tennis royalty since Wimbledon’s 100th anniversary in 1977. From the Royal Box to Row Z, deep in the shadows, the elegant and adoring crowd of 15,000 rose as one. Applause surged as the throng cheered an array of champions: Billie Jean King, Bjorn Borg, Rocket Rod Laver, Novak Djokovic, and cancer survivor Chris Evert in a stunning green dress.

Some, like Angela Mortimer and Ann Jones, were from the distant past. Others, like Marion Bartoli, were there as a result of  a shock win. There was a Pasadena-born man in an elegant blue suit, Stan Smith, and a serve and volleyer known for his mustache, John Newcombe. Speaking of Aussies, Lleyton Hewitt appeared in a spiffy suit, and Pat Cash showed up without his checkerboard headband. 

John McEnroe, whom Centre Court fans once loved to hate, co-hosted  the celebration with Sue Barker. Sir Cliff Richard sang his quaint anthem, “Everybody Has a Summer Holiday.” 

One of Wimbledon’s most proper Englishmen, Tiger Tim Henman, remembered playing on a long-ago Middle Sunday when, due to rain, Centre Court opened its gates to the raucous masses. Wimbledon’s beloved clown, Goran Ivanisevic, drew thunderous applause. But the cheers for Swede Stefan Edberg, Sir Andrew Murray, Rafa, and, eventually, the most beautiful player to ever step on this court, Roger Federer, were even louder. 

Martina Hingis appeared in a long flowing floral dress, while her former foe, Venus Williams, dazzled us in a daring outfit. Yes, we were saddened to think of great champions who had left us. In 1957 Queen Elizabeth once handed the trophy to pioneer Althea Gibson. Arthur Ashe downed Jimmy Connors here in 1975, then lifted a defiant fist. Jana Novotna faltered miserably in 1993 against Steffi Graf, but then came back five years later to win. 

We wondered if the absence of one of Wimbledon’s greatest teen champions, Russia’s Maria Sharapova, was linked to this year’s ban. Martina Navratilova and Virginia Wade both had COVID. Tragically, three-time champion Boris Becker was in an English jail. Plus there were plenty of other absences. We missed Serena, Martina, Jimbo, Pistol Pete, Andre, Steffi, Ash Barty and Lindsay Davenport.

Today McEnroe confessed he was still trying to figure out the meaning of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem that’s at the entrance of Centre Court: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same…[then] yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,  And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!” 

John introduced Billie Jean, saying, “She has done more for tennis than anyone else.” But the reappearance of the long absent Roger Federer drew gasps: God had descended on Centre Court. 

The Swiss told the crowd that it was here that he’d had his biggest wins and his biggest losses, and he hoped he could come back one more time. “It’s been rough on me. But I am happy at home…[and] I’m happy standing right here.” And so were 15,000 adoring fans. And today, if Wimbledon’s grass could talk, what a tale it would tell.

THE WIMBLEDON 100 – NICE AND NAUGHTY AT THE ALL ENGLAND CLUB: As part of Inside Tennis’ appreciation of the 100th anniversary of the opening of Centre Court, here is Part Two of Inside Tennis’s favorite nice-and-naughty hot takes. 

21. NOT SO GOOD PREDICTIONS: After Goran Ivanisevic lost in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, disappointed Croatians left a note on his car that read, “You are never going to win Wimbledon…The Miami Herald’s Edwin Pope wrote, “If Agassi ever wins Wimbledon, I’ll eat my t-shirt. Not only has he no chance to win, but if he doesn’t pull himself together soon he could be all the way out of tennis in two or three years.” A week later, when Agassi won Wimbledon, Pope asked, “Will somebody please tell me how to eat a t-shirt? Broil it? Bake it?”

22. A GOOD PREDICTION: In 1982 Billie Jean King told us, “You may not believe it, but there’s a scrawny little kid in West Germany who I think will be our next number one. Her name is Steffi Graf.” 

23. A SAFE PREDICTION: Martina Navratilova played it safe when she said Lori McNeil “could lose in the first round, or she could win the whole thing.”

24. CURIOUS QUESTIONS: A tabloid writer asked Boris Becker, “Are you going to return those videotapes that are overdue from the shop in Southfields?”…The day after Mark Philippous won a marathon match, a reporter asked, “Did you wake up the next morning?”

25. A GOOD DAY TO INVADE? Stan Hey observed that while Justin Henin was playing the Wimbledon final, Belgium’s prime minister, prince, princess, deputy prime minister and ambassador to Britain were all watching from the Royal Box. He concluded, “It would be a good day for invading this small country, if you have that in mind.”

26. VIOLENCE IN THE PRESS ROOM: As the turbulent John McEnroe emerged on the Wimbledon scene a fight between British and American reporters broke out in the press room. As part of his five-minute tirade on an outer court, Jeff Tarango told the crowd to shut up and told ump Bruno Rebeuh, “You are the most corrupt official in the game.” Later in the press room, Jeff’s wife Benedicte hit Rebeuh.

27. MEANINGFUL UNBREAKABLE RECORDS: Many of the assorted records set by the marathon John Isner-Nicolas Mahut three-day match, 11:05, 70–68 in the fifth, will never be broken.

28. MOST MEANINGLESS UNBREAKABLE RECORD: Kevin Curren lost in consecutive rounds with two different colored balls. He lost in 1985 with white balls and in the first round the next year with yellow balls. 

29. GRATEFUL HEADLINE WRITERS: Linda Seigel, a soon-to-be USC freshman, was dismayed when her tennis dress rebelled in 1979. But Fleet Street headline writers were grateful, writing, “Thanks for the mammaries.” BTW: headline writers should give a lifetime achievement award to Mardy Fish. 

30. THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD: No other match so marked a change of eras as Federer’s 2001 win over Sampras, who’d won Wimbledon four times in a row.

WHITHER AMERICA? A Liverpool lad named Paul McCartney once sang, “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.” That kind of applies to the fate of American men at Wimbledon. Today Tommy Paul fell in four sets to his good friend, No. 9 seed Cam Norrie. The South African-born product by way of New Zealand, England and TCU is the last Brit left in the draw.  Frances Tiafoe was up two sets to one against David Goffin, but the Belgian rallied and broke deep into the fifth set to score a 4:36 7-6, 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 7-5 win over the American. Californians Taylor Fritz and Brandon Nakashima, who next plays Nick Kyrgios, are, along with Amanda Anisimova, the only Americans left in the draw. Amanda next plays Serena’s conqueror Harmony Tan.

GO FIGURE: In the wake of the Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. Nick Kyrgios Saturday night brawl, the Greek was fined $10,000 for unsportsmanlike conduct and the Aussie was fine $4,000 for verbal abuse. 

CURIOUS QUESTION: A reporter for the Sun asked Cam Norrie, “No pressure, but you are carrying the hopes of 65 million on your shoulders. How does that feel?” 

QUOTEBOOK:

“I am the last Brit standing, so get behind me now.” – Cam Norrie

“I saw the draw and I was really scared.” – Harmony Tan after she realized she’d have to play Serena in the first round

“I think they are trying to kill me.” – Brit Heather Watson on her tough Wimbledon schedule

“I’ve grown up in Australia, so I definitely know what racism is. I feel like it’s a battle, a constant battle, coming from that place.” – Nick Kyrgios

MAKES SENSE: After Nick Kyrgios tumultuous win over Stefanos Tsitsipas last night, Radio Wimbledon said, “This is the morning after the night before.”

MIXED MATTERS: Three years ago the youngest members of the Williams and Murray clans – Serena and Andy Murray – reached the third round of the mixed doubles. Today their older siblings – Venus and Jamie – lost 18-16 in their second-round match to a British duo, Jonny O’Mara and Alicia Barnett. BTW: Coco Gauff and Jack Sock are still in the draw. 

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