The Glory of Wimbledon’s Opening Day

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Photos by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Wimbledon

There’s nothing like the flush of recognition when you enter tennis’ most celebrated playground, a place called Wimbledon.

It’s the first day of school. The circus is back in town.

The queue out in the park twists in endless loops. Ladies from Windsor stroll down Church Road chattering: “Goodness, I haven’t seen the Championships since 2016. Then I had to sit on the Hill, it was just half of the experience.” Then she mused on Britain’s favorite son: “Gracious, I hope ‘An-dee’ doesn’t twitch off.”

Once you pass through one of Wimbledon’s many gates, it simply takes your breath away. Here, tennis is celebrated in a grand garden. The walls seem to breathe ivy, floral adventures delight. It’s only noon. So what? Champagne bottles are already popping. Fine restaurants with gleaming silverware and white tablecloths are packed. “I’ll have the salmon, thank you very much.”

Overly serious ball boys in all blue march through the throng, intent on their critical task. Italians or the French may object, but we contend that few do uniforms better than the British. And the outfits that Wimbledon’s umpires sport, with their impeccable white pants and blue jackets, are an old school triumph.

In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy quickly realizes, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” Here, any hot-dog-chomping American tennis fan worth a “Let’s go Fritz!” shout understands that Wimbledon is light years away from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

In this hallowed enclave, civility is a life force. “Pardon me sir,” “So good to see you,” and “Well done” are mantras. Power to the polite.

Under terraces and up on Henman Hill, picnic baskets are flawlessly packed: a niche for every bottle and sandwich. Ruffled pink and violet dresses abound. Gents in straw hats stroll by. Some wear saffron shirts, others sport pink ties. One recalls that this kingdom had an empire on which the sun never set.

Meanwhile, we spot familiar faces. McEnroe’s agent walks by. There’s Tim Henman, and Goran Ivanisevic. Sure, not a single Williams sister is in sight, and, of course, some still yearn for Federer.

Officials have dared to move a stairway near court Four. Traditionalists complain, “How could they? Such a travesty!”

Wimbledon is always making changes. But they do it in such a seamless way that this haven seems timeless. St. Mary’s church with its lovely steeple overlooks it all. Gossip is everywhere. A London lady nibbling on a sandwich tells her friend, “I told Timothy that the board just can’t hold on – the shareholders have the upper hand.”

From a power point high above it all, you get glimpses inside the royal enclave and Wimbledon’s Champs Éysées – St. Mary’s walk. You see the players’ restaurant, you spot the walkway that leads to the locker rooms, the members’ enclosure and Centre Court, plus eleven other courts. 

Meanwhile, on Court Three, Aussie Alex Bolt charges in to swat a half volley. Fans offer rhythmic applause. The world No. 1 doubles player, Indian Rohan Bopanna, totes his four-year-old daughter across the players’ terrace. At the player’s restaurant (which used to be called the Tea Room), Maddy Keys enjoys her lunch before her first match, and the once famous Mark Philippoussis holds court with pals.

After all, tennis is a family, and, if nothing else, opening day at Wimbledon is the game’s grandest reunion.

MOST BRUTAL HAIR COMMENTARY OF THE DAY: Radio Wimbledon said the creative hairdo by the Estonian qualifier Mark Lajal, who battled hard against Carlos Alcaraz, looked like a toilet plunger.

THE MYSTERY OF SABALENKA: There’s always a twist with Aryna Sabalenka. A few seasons ago, the game’s great star, who long has boasted Serena-like power, saw her once potent serve suddenly vanish. Go figure.

Last year, one of the most apolitical figures on the tour became entangled in disputes about war because of her distant links to Belarusia’s dictator and her country’s support of Putin’s war.

This year, after she’d won the Aussie Open, news emerged that her former boyfriend had lept from a Miami highrise to his death. Then in Paris, Aryna was hobbled in her semifinal match against the 17-year-old Russian, Mirra Andreeva, and lost. Here at Wimbledon, the bookies had her as the favorite. Time and again she was seen dancing with Ons Jabeur or a young fan, always jolly – until she wasn’t. Today the No. 3 seed pulled out. Her sore shoulder had again flared up in practice.

ABSOLUTE TURNIP: Andy Murray once called himself “an absolute turnip.” Tomorrow when he plays on Centre Court, it will be an absolute thrill for his adoring fans. Murray will play the considerable Czech, Tomas Machac. He’s already lost twice to him on hard courts this year, in Miami and Marseilles. Tomas is No. 38 in the world. Then again, Andy has twice won Wimbledon. And in 2012 he gained gold on green (i.e. he prevailed at the Olympics at Wimbledon). But that was when he had two good hips.

THE WORLD COMES TO WIMBLEDON: Wimbledon is a haven, but outside its gates, people gathered to protest the treatment of Palestinians, and local residents expressed their upset about a Wimbledon plan to expand into a sublime park across the street.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE WILLIAMSES GONE? For the first time since 2006, neither Venus nor Serena will be playing Wimbledon.

AMERICA WATCH: Today’s American victors included Brandon Nakashima, Tommy Paul, Frances Tiafoe, Coco Gauff, Madison Keys, Emma Navarro and Sloane Stephens. Those who lost included McCartney Kessler, Alex Michelsen, Peyton Stearns.

McCARTNEY’S OUT: We heard a voice in the press room: “McCartney’s out.” No, it wasn’t Paul McCartney. Instead, McCartney Kessler had suffered an early loss to American Madison Keys.

OSAKA – WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES: After Naomi Osaka won her opening match in three sets against Diane Parry she came into a press conference and said, “The match was really fun, and stressful.” She recalled that last year, when she was pregnant, she watched the tournament from afar: “It’s cool to watch Wimbledon on TV, but being here is a totally different thing. Last year my mindset was just trying to survive.”

A woman who understands her priorities, Osaka skipped playing Eastbourne in order to celebrate her daughter’s first birthday. BTW, her gift to her kid was the book, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.”

WHAT AGASSI, SHARAPOVA AND LI NA HAVE IN COMMON: When Inside Tennis asked Naomi if she could invite any three tennis people to dinner she replied, “Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova and Li Na. I love her sense of humor. I remember I used to watch so many of her interviews…I think she is one of the best.”

Also reporting: Lucia Hoffman

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