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Wimbledon is a lot of things

I had the pleasure of covering 17 Wimbledons for the San Francisco Chronicle, and it's the most satisfying collective experience of my career. Money's a bit tight these years, but you never know, I might get back someday. If you love tennis and have the means to make an adventurous summer trip, I can't recommend it highly enough.

Wimbledon is a pristine morning at the Southfields station, fresh off the train and ready for a 15-minute walk to the All England Club through quaint, leafy neighborhoods. I've made that walk hundreds of times, always on the lookout for Julie Andrews. Even the ticket scalpers, those muttering, craggy-faced men who look to have done some prison time, cannot dampen the mood.

It's the sight of Centre Court on the opening Monday, a surface more immaculate than the White House lawn. The rest of the Wimbledon courts get used during the year, but not Centre. It gets pampered and manicured by studious men on their hands and knees. When play begins each day of the tournament, right through to the final, no anthems or patriotic themes are played. These people know what country they're in, and pride is a given. No tired reminders necessary.

Wimbledon is walking through the gates around noon and realizing that a full-fledged band is playing right around the corner. It's not Black Sabbath, or a bunch of hacks playing for cheap. These guys sound like the old Count Basie band, right on time. When they come into view, you discover that they're a bunch of London teenagers in crisp white shirts, hip and talented beyond their years.

Wimbledon is a haven for commercialization and corporate interests, but it's so curious: You seldom see the evidence. And for an institution that stands for tradition above all, this club is progressive, constantly modernizing the venues and facilities. The old Court One, which looked to have dated back to medieval times, felt like church. You went there to absorb the religion of tennis. I sat there in 1989 when Chris Evert, trailing 5-2 in the third set to someone named Laura Golarsa, suddenly decided she'd never miss another shot for the rest of her life. I was crushed when they tore the old church down, and yet, the new Court One is a masterpiece.

Wimbledon represents the ultimate, a place to which so many former greats return. Strolling the grounds in a given year, you might see Virginia Wade, John Newcombe, Roy Emerson, Bjorn Borg, Tony Roche or Billie Jean King and you realize that you are directly at the heart of tennis history.

Venturing to the outer courts, you almost feel like you're in play. Fans usually stand 3-4 deep along the sidelines, and if you're right up front, you can feel that match. I saw the 14-year-old Martina Hingis -- true genius in the making -- from that point-blank range.

Wimbledon is the essential convergence of reverence and bedlam, a mighty roar giving way to absolute silence before the next serve goes up. At the U.S. Open, there's always some clown yelling out from the rafters. Not at the cathedral. I knew it would always be that way, under any circumstances, after Goran Ivanisevic played Patrick Rafter in the rain-delayed "People's Monday" final of 2001. That was a decidedly blue-collar crowd, regular folks getting a miraculous opportunity to pay their way in, and the scene edged perilously toward chaos. People were singing, shouting, chanting back and forth -- a veritable European soccer match. But when that serve when up, you could hear little birds chirping in the distance.

Wimbledon is Bud Collins, the kindest and brightest man on earth, entering the press room in slacks depicting a field of strawberries. Or perhaps Buenos Aires in autumn. He's always good for a raucous sartorial surprise. I'd heard so many of Bud's great calls over the years, I was reluctant to even speak to him at first, but other writers said he'd answer any question, no matter how dumb, even on deadline. And he did just that, for me and everyone else, every single time.

The day begins with a perusal of the daily "programme." A well-read gentleman named Ronald Atkin writes the introduction, always with a whimsical touch. Once, before a men's final involving Pete Sampras, Atkin suggested that history beckoned Sampras to "share the plinth" with Borg in the record books. (If you're like me, you can't stand it when people hog the plinth.)

Wimbledon is waking up to read this, from the wondrous Sue Mott in the Telegraph: "Mauresmo has always been mentally fragile. Here she was breaking again. When you watch Serena, you think 'Gladiator.' When you witnessed Mauresmo, you could only think Olivia de Havilland coughing in 'Gone With the Wind.' You knew how it would end."

Or Martin Johnson in the Telegraph: "Nadal recently revealed that he's a bit of a dab hand in the kitchen, knocking up various dishes for his rented house guests, and he'll make someone a lovely husband once he learns how to operate a washing machine. He keeps selecting the hot cycle for those delicate Nike slacks -- no wonder they've shrunk to halfway up his shins."

Or Stephen Bierley in the Guardian: "As much as Nadal is learning to love it, he occasionally looks down at the grass like a vegeterian finding a caterpillar in his salad."

On my first trip in 1987, Wimbledon was Pat Cash clambering into the stands to hug his family and friends after he'd outclassed Ivan Lendl for the title. We see this all the time now, but it was brash, and very cool, back then. Beyond that, it's just a flood of great memories: the latter-day Jimmy Connors, the artful Henri Leconte, the sharp-volleying Rafter and Stefan Edberg, the punishing Steffi Graf, the ever-in-motion Martina Navratilova.

If you get to Wimbledon and lament having missed a roofless Centre Court, you won't feel so tardy after the fourth straight day of rain. After 132 years, that roof's day had come. Still, I take my most cherished memories from Wimbledon's growing darkness.

First there was Sampras in 2000, breaking Roy Emerson's all-time record with his 13th major. The four-set scores weren't so remarkable, and Sampras clearly got the better of Rafter, but with such history looming and the clock about to strike 9 p.m., it was crucial that the match ended hastily. Nobody wanted to show up the next day, watch about a half-hour of tennis and then wander off -- especially Pete's parents, Sam and Georgia, who were watching him play a major final for only the second times in their lives. Suddenly, there was a clock on tennis; the occasion demanded it. Sampras broke Rafter's serve in a crisp three minutes for 5-2, then held at love for the clincher. Weeping with joy, Sampras found his parents (dozens of rows up; they asked for nothing special), then triumphantly walked the perimeter of the court with a hundred flashbulbs lighting his way. As Rafter put it so well, "a very cool scene."

The last match I ever witnessed at Wimbledon just happened to be its greatest: the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal final two years ago. It was even darker this time: a 9:16 finish. Federer hit a shot in that final game, a blistering cross-court backhand winner off Nadal's first serve, that approached the province of the supernatural. ("That I cannot believe," Nadal said later. "I can't see nothing, no?")

Once again, the match had to end that evening; history was too close at hand. Then Federer sent his fateful forehand into the net, "and that was the irony of it," Collins said later. "Here's Federer with the best forehand the sport has seen, and he puts a routine ball into the net. But then, that's the story of Nadal. He always makes you hit one more shot than you want to."

There is no such thing as a forgettable Wimbledon. For me, all 17 were magnificent, each a bit more rewarding than the last. It arrives next Monday, and I envy those who can stroll those charming neighborhoods, take full stock of grass-court tennis, get such a distinct view of greatness. It's the best time of year.

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