Late in the second week, on a rare afternoon of sunshine at the All England Club, I went in search of the people's Wimbledon. Only the privileged get tickets to Centre Court or the show courts; most fans have a Grounds Pass, allowing them to roam about and enjoy point-blank access to excellent tennis players on immaculately groomed lawns.
The side courts are flanked by narrow walkways and benches, where spectators get so close to the action, they could strike up a conversation (although few would dare) with the players in question. Over the course of two hours, I perused talent young and old: hard-hitting juniors, Martina Hingis playing age-group doubles with Lindsay Davenport, Darren Cahill and Brad Gilbert on a break from their ESPN assignments, the Bryan brothers, and the alluring Italian doubles pair of Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta. Two of the all-time showmen, Mansour Bahrami and Henri Leconte, were dazzling the crowd in a match against former Australian greats Pat Cash and Mark Woodforde.
It was on the charming and intimate Court 12, however, where I settled in for a while. I was drawn to the spectacle of Fabrice Santoro, the Frenchman with the magic hands, one of the most creative and fascinating players ever to grace the men's tour. He's retired now, but he hooked up with Greg Rusedski in the Gentleman's Invitation Doubles against Goran Ivanisevic and a man I couldn't quite identify at first. He looked like a banker or a car salesman, someone who'd won a "play with the stars" contest.
In fact, it was Cedric Pioline, once a force on tour (finalist at both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon) but a man who never quite captured the public's imagination. Unlike so many French players, he lacked the elements of whimsy and panache. He was just an exceptionally clean striker of the ball, and here he was, looking a bit out of shape but revealing more personality than we ever saw during his prime.
Court 12, which made its debut last year, has expanded bleacher seating to house some 200 people, and I've seldom witnessed such delight. These fans knew exactly what was coming -- tennis' version of vaudeville -- and they couldn't have been happier.
At times, the four men broke into mournful howls on every shot, mimicking the horrid excess of grunting and shrieking in today's game. Rusedski lined up to serve with an exaggerated windup, like a pitcher from the 1920s, and then delivered it underhanded. Pioline brought a chair out to the court, planted it in the line of fire, and hit several volleys from a sitting position.
Ivanisevic, born comedian, was in rare form. He climbed up the ladder for a stare-down with the chair umpire, trying to get him to smile. He plopped himself down in a linesman's lap. He raced around to the other side of the court for some 3-on-1 action. The Centre Court loomed behind him, with its ivy-colored walls, and it was difficult to believe that this man won the 2001 Wimbledon singles in an unforgettable match against Patrick Rafter.
For Santoro, each shot was an exercise in virtuosity. He'll go with two hands or one, topspin or slice, from either wing (how often do you see a topspin forehand struck two-handed?). His lobs and drop shots are the stuff of fantasy. He's literally capable of anything out there, every nuance a comfort zone.
As I walked away from Court 12, obliged to address the day's most important matches, I heard roars of approval and great peals of laughter. What a show. Should you ever have the privilege of visiting Wimbledon, don't feel slighted if you're stuck with a Grounds Pass. You'll still feel that exquisite sense of privilege.
Some final thoughts
? Try not to take notice if a player makes a habit of toweling himself off between points. You might become obsessed with the absurdity of it all. Watching Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray or Ryan Harrison, just to name a few, I find myself wanting to sneak onto the court and confiscate every towel in sight.
Quick message to all offenders: Just play the damn game. What kind of honest competitor asks for the towel after EVERY point? There isn't a single good reason unless it's a 105-degree day in the heat of summer, and I don't want to hear that it's some kind of superstition, or a way to assemble one's thoughts. Wrong answers.
"I blame Greg Rusedski," Ivanisevic told one of the local newspapers during a serious moment. "He was the first to do this on tour. Now guys take towels after every point. They hit a forehand: towel. They hit a backhand: towel. They hit a smash: towel. It's disgusting"
? Kim Clijsters told a touching story about her late father, Leo, who accompanied her to Wimbledon in the early years. She once had a match postponed by rain for three straight days, but that didn't deter Leo from staking out a favored spot on the wooden benches. "He sat in the rain and waited for the ballkids or the groundsmen to take the covers off because he wanted that seat," she said. "He thought that would bring me luck. So he just sat there. Each day he rushed right back to it."
And how did that turnout? "He had to go home after three days and never saw the match."
? Two dashes of British humor:
Giles Smith in the Times, on David Nalbandian's temper tantrum in the Queen's Club warmup tournament:
"Nalbandian explained that 'it can happen to anybody.' True, I suppose. We've all been there. You go to kick a piece of hardboard in fury, and the next thing you know a line judge is hopping around in agony and a televised final is called off. Isn't that just typical?"
Simon Barnes in the Times, on the conqueror of Nadal, Lukas Rosol: "My personal theory is that Rosol has sold his soul to the devil. Lukas, my dear, I can make you the best player in the world. For 24 hours, you can play like god. But after that, you're mine. And Rosol said, you'll give me all that? And all you want is my soul?"
? And finally, a toast to the late Fred Perry, that dashing Englishman who remains the last British player to win Wimbledon, in 1936. The London papers were filled with Perry retrospectives, all about his natural fit in Hollywood, his trysts with the likes of Jean Harlow and Loretta Young, and the days when he played tennis with Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx in Beverly Hills. To hear people talk about Perry, it's clear he thought quite highly of himself. Players said it wasn't unusual for him to stroll into the locker room and announce, to anyone who happened to be around, "I'd hate to be playing me today."