Studying in Cambridge, England for the remainder of the summer as of a week ago, I am now devoid of the means to watch sports. I knew time zones would be an issue for watching baseball, and none of the legal streaming sites would work overseas, but I figured I’d be able to find Wimbledon and the World Cup on TV at pubs. Little did I know, the concept of a sports bar does not exist in Cambridge. I can follow free agency on Twitter to my heart’s content, but forget about trying to watch a baseball game.
However, this past Saturday, I made my first ever trip to Wimbledon. I got up at 6:30, put on by far the dressiest clothing I’ve worn to a sporting event, and headed for the train. Three hours later, and three highly functional and pleasant train rides away, I stepped off the train at Southfields Station to a find a sea of people eagerly heading for the grounds. I knew Wimbledon was not a large city, but the small-town feel as I walked along the sidewalk surprised me a little. I was expecting Foxborough, but it wasn’t even close.
Queuing is a concept I became quite familiar with at the London Olympics in 2012. The Brits love their queues. But “The Queue” at Wimbledon blew my mind. Imagine Krzyzewskiville times a hundred. The lines behind gates stretched what had to have been a half-mile. I was both impressed and dismayed by the magnitude of it. Americans wouldn’t dream of a set-up like this, because who has the patience to spend more than a day in lines for a ticket that doesn’t even guarantee you will get to see a match you’d like. As I walked on the other side of the gate, I felt particularly grateful to have a ticket waiting for me.
I had to pick my ticket up at The Wimbledon Experience tent, which turned out to be a tea room connected to The Gatsby Club. A particularly pompous looking group of people in their blazers and straw-hats queued outside it, waiting to be served their English breakfasts. I got inside the gates to the grounds maybe four minutes after they’d opened, but didn’t know that if I wanted to see any tennis on the side courts, I had to act fast. Within seconds, Court 2 was full. Then I went to 3 and that line was full. Even the courts without much seating were quartered in by spectators watching 10-year olds play. Resigned to defeat at my hopes for watching play for the hour before I went into Centre Court, I headed for the museum. Highlights there included a 3D video that sent chills through my body and a display that claimed lawn tennis was invented “to give young boys and girls the opportunity to meet and flirt.”
I expected Centre Court to feel a little bit like Fenway Park. An old building devoid of the modern innovations designed for comfort, but pleasantly intimate. But as I climbed the steps and went into a hallway devoid of concessions and bathrooms, I felt like I was in another age. The white walls and low ceilings led me to my section where I got my first glimpse of the grass. That feeling of first seeing the court and getting an indescribable rush is one only a most ardent sports fan could understand. A friendly Canadian couple wearing matching purple Roger Federer polo shirts and hats were in the seats next to me as I arrived, and they proceeded to talk to me nonstop up until the start of the first match. I was hoping to see some royals or celebrities in the Royal Box, but instead it was a day for famous British athletes. Justin Rose, Luke Donald and Graeme Le Saux were the ones I recognized.
Up first was Federer against the powerful Aussie Sam Groth. As the match began, I was struck immediately by the behavior of the crowd. Everybody was absolutely silent. And I mean everybody. The chair umpire did not have to say, “Thank you. The players are ready” even once. When Roger stepped up to serve, we watched. At the US Open, people shout out “Let’s Go Roger!” in the seconds leading up to the serve, but not here. It was only respect. That respect carried across all matches, male and female. I can count on my hands the number of times somebody yelled out in the middle of a game. Even change-overs were relatively quiet. One thing that surprised me was that apparently you aren’t supposed to cheer at all when somebody misses a shot. We were only supposed to cheer for winners.
One of my favorite things about the crowd was that it felt like we were in this together. All 15,000 of us. Everybody was on the edge of their seat for the points, even if the cheers weren’t especially loud. When the Australians began to sing a song for Groth during a change-over, there was a collective shushing from the crowd, not the ushers. And when there was cause to laugh, we all laughed. It was entirely unlike America. Perhaps it was because no music played or there was no big-screen to steal attention, or perhaps it was because everybody was really into the tennis, but I felt for the first time at a sporting event that the crowd was an entity rather than a group of individuals.
Despite dropping the third set to the dismay of the Canadians next to me, Federer impressed me. I’d seen him play once before, but that didn’t temper my excitement for watching the greatest Wimbledon champion ever play on his home court. He is the most graceful athlete I’ve seen. It’s all so clean and classy, yet powerful and overwhelming. As I watched him leave the court, I had the sudden realization that this was likely the last time I’d ever see him play. This was my goodbye to an athlete that might be the greatest to ever play the game I love.
Everyone cleared out for tea but I stayed in my seat for the Petra Kvitova match against Jelena Jankovic. I wasn’t too excited about this match comparatively, but it turned out to be a thriller. Down and out, Jankovic crawled back and ground her way into a third set, before breaking the spirit of Kvitova late on and taking her down. I was quite entertained by the way the man in front of me, dressed in coat and tie, kept referring to Kvitova as “our Wimbledon champion,” a title she’d earned last year.
Last but not least was British and Wimbledon hero Andy Murray taking the court against Andreas Seppi, a match I was looking forward to since I saw the draw and knew I might see. I wondered what seeing him in front of his adoring fans would be like. I expected roars for every winner, passionate standing ovations and general enthusiasm. And in the warm-up, I could feel the buzz crescendoing. Yet when the match started, the crowd went quiet. Everyone cheered for Murray, and the support was undying and boundless, but still, it never boiled over like it would have in America. Beyond hearing a “Let’s Go Andy!” from a little kid every few points, one wouldn’t have known he was the sporting hero of nearly everyone in attendance. They’d clap for a Seppi winner in fact. It was fascinating how they showed their support, even as he dominated and advanced.
As the sun set, and I left the grounds, I thought about how un-American my 4th of July had been. Nothing about Wimbledon reminded me of home. The charm was undeniable, and the experience of it all was a one-of-a-kind. I don’t think I could stand the queues, and I like moments at sports events where passion erupts in the stands. But I hope this place never changes. I want to bring my future kids there some day and hand our tickets to the active serviceman who act as ushers. I want them to see the grass and the whites for the first time. I want it all to stay the same.
Now my sports bucket list is one crucial item shorter, with another being crossed off in two weeks time when I will head to Scotland for the final Sunday at The Open at St. Andrew’s. I’ve heard I should expect a similar crowd there, so I am eager for another British sporting experience.