The Day the Queen Played Wimbledon

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

New York

Here at the US Open, in the small world of tennis, a revolution is happening.

A new generation of young men are taking over. But, out there in the world, there’s mourning. A beloved 96-year-old symbol of old school solidity has passed.

Elizabeth loved her sports and diversions. Horse racing, hunting and dogs were her things. Royalty has given us many memorable figures. Few loved tennis more than Princess Diana. Coincidentally, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Diana’s death, Serena stepped aside from the game. Throughout the week Williams had been proclaimed to be the queen. Poems were written. Headlines read, “The Queen of Queens Departs.” 

But of course, to most, there was only one queen. Tennis historians recalled how in 1952 Elizabeth had been named the patron of Wimbledon and how she would go on to hand trophies to Althea Gibson and Virginia Wade. In 2000, Buckingham Palace and Prince Andrew hosted a tennis fundraiser that featured Bjorn Borg and bad boy John McEnroe. All this prompted Pat Cash to note, “The terrorists always end up at the palace.”

In 2010 Elizabeth made a breathtaking visit to Wimbledon that will never be forgotten. Here is our account.

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After a 33-year absence, the stately Queen Elizabeth returned to Wimbledon and turned the usually sedate sanctuary into an unbridled hive of frenzy.

But why?

Maybe it’s the power of memory. Or perhaps it’s the sheer weight of time – 1,100 years of unbroken royal rule. Maybe it’s social psychology.  Scholars remind us we’re all tribal beings. Studies inform us that, simply for survival, we are hard wired for leaders who’ll resist whatever onslaught appears. Or maybe it’s just a matter of us loving celebrities and Her Highness delivering a gravitas and notoriety like no other.

So on an unusually warm Thursday morning, Wimbledon’s world of ivy walls and purple petunias is gripped by a royal fever. Gambling parlors announce their odds on everything royal from the color of the Queen’s dress to the 20-1 likelihood of a streaker while every detail at the AELTC had been planned with precision. This is England and no one does pomp ‘n’ ceremony like the British.

Everywhere a buzz excites. An aging solicitor from Cornwall asks his daughter, “Can we go for tea up there?” “No Dad,” his daughter scolds. “That’s off limits — just for Roger and the queen.”

Today the Queen made a sweeping circular entrance. “There’s a vast sense of anticipation,” noted BBC. Giddy kitchen helpers stared out from the media restaurant. Photographers on a bridge over St. Mary’s walkway joked that the Queen was “looking for her proper spot in the car park.”

While President Clinton came to the U.S. Open with an 11-vehicle convey of security vehicles, the Queen’s appearance was grand, but restrained. Arriving by herself in a small black limo with just modest visible security, she strolled by her adoring, deferential subjects. From Henman Hill,to Court 18 where, 13 hours earlier Isner and Mahut had battled so bravely, to the fabled St. Mary’s walk, the still-spritely-after-all-these-years 84-year-old (in a bright blue outfit with white accents and a matching old-school blue and white bonnet to kill for) offered her greeting to the masses, who sometimes crowded 14 deep. She chatted with eight-year-old Kung Phimlee and ten-year-old Alphie Fox of the Royal Tennis Initiative. She spoke with officials and ambled down St. Mary’s walk.  The elated crowds were beside themselves.

The queen then went up to the Members Lawn just below the tea room where she greeted four young Brits and a selection of tennis icons. You may know the names: Billie Jean, Martina, Rafa, Venus, Roddick, as well as the Serbs Djokovic and Jankovic. And there, at the very end of the dignified reception line was Serena offering an incredibly deep, well-practiced bow and Federer in a flawless suit, clasping his hands behind his back.

Then it was time for lunch in the clubhouse. Venus Williams, Virginia Wade and Tim Henman were on hand. None other than the reigning king of tennis, Roger Federer, sat by the Queen and had a proper chit-chat. The luncheon feast featured Salmon Millefeuille with Wye Valley Asparagus, a main course of Orange and Honey Marinated Chicken with Fruity Couscous and some Kentish Strawberries and Blackberries with Cornish Clotted Cream and Mint Syrup. British haute cuisine at its refined, but cautious best.

For the featured match on Centre Court, Wimbledon passed on the reigning champions of our game, and gave the honor to the still emerging, placid local hero Andy Murray, who faced Finn Jarkko Nieminen. When the perfectly punctual Queen made her way to her seat in the Royal Box she got a pleasant reception.There was a proper chatter and a pleasant straight set win delivered by her loyal subject Mr. Murray. No one imagined that six years later he would become a knight. With Tim Henman, Virginia Wade and many a starchy official by her side, Her Highness sat rather stiffly and didn’t applaud until the end when, in one zealous outburst ,she broke out with 50 claps in a row. How emotional can you get?

On this glorious summer day, the Queen readily displayed why she’s the stately woman everyone loves to love. As BBC analyzed Andy Murray’s bows to her in slow motion, Serena admitted she had violated protocol and when meeting her just said, “Hey, nice to meet you.” Williams added that, “you meet presidents, you meet people, but never the Queen. She’s the Queen.”

Federer who sat next to the Queen at lunch, reported “was very friendly, very relaxed. You could tell she’s done this a million times. She made everybody feel very special at the table, one of those things you’ll never forget…She knew about my tough first round…She knew about the Isner-Mahut match.” Roger than delivered one of his best lines, claiming the Queen “said I should hit more backhands down the line.” Certainly, that made sense. After all, just about every royal not named Harry or Meghan, likes to play things down the line.

Eventually, the famously insulated Queen pulled away from the Royal Entrance, in her limo by herself. To me, there was a hint of loneliness.

‘Long live the Queen,’ whispered a grandmother from Islington.”

And she has, with great glory, until today.

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