It is a short instruction, an order really, tucked away under the official announcements in the daily program. Yet in its simplicity and elegance the essence of the place rings as loud as the bells of St. Mary's, the nearby church whose steeple towers over all. Spectators are requested NOT to take crockery or cutlery on to the Stands. Get that now. Crockery. Not beer bottles or paper plates or Styrofoam coolers. Cutlery. Not plastic knives and forks. Where else could the general public be so admonished?
There are any number of other things, scenes, faces and marvelous souvenirs that are unique to the—take a deep breath—Lawn Tennis Championships, better known as Wimbledon. The smell of roses and hydrangeas and mowed grass. The taste of dripping ice lollies and soothing Pimm's Cups. The sound of rackets meeting balls—pock...pock...pock...pock—or is it corks leaving champagne bottles? The feel of a crowd surging for position on the walkways at 5 all in the fifth set.
Wimbledon can be many different things, each of them very special. Garden Party. Class Struggle. Elizabethan Drama. Mass Lineup (say Queue). Carnival. Crucible. Arthur Ashe says he was always "afraid" of Wimbledon. Jimmy Connors says he trains for it 50 weeks of the year; he calls Wimbledon "the Olympics." John Newcombe says, "It has a lot to do with your breaking point. You can find out anything you want to know about a person by putting him on Centre Court at Wimbledon." Well, you can and you can't. Newcombe won Wimbledon three times, Connors once, Ashe once. They're all experts. But none of them more so than Bjorn Borg, the immortal—at 24—Swede who has won four in a row. He was asked before his fourth if he had set a date to be married. He said yes: "After I win Wimbledon a fifth time in a row." Afraid? Olympics?
As Wimbledon belongs to England, heart and soul, down to the last withered strawberry, so the players seem to belong to the English press; woe to those whose performances do not measure up. McEnroe: "Superbrat." Wade: "Ginny Fizz." Reading about Wimbledon in London is nearly as much fun as being there. Even Borg and his coach, Lennart Bergelin—"the imperturbable ferret...programmed by some Merlin twiddling knobs in some Grimm castle," wrote a Guardian columnist—must take it on the chin occasionally. As a service to its outland readers, the London papers also offer such things as what to take along on the pilgrimage: "comfortable shoes...a small thermos flask...a sun hat...and to be really clever, wrap a few lettuce or cabbage leaves in a damp cloth and put one inside the hat.... It sounds messy, but that leaf is wonderfully cooling."
June 22, 1980
Such bizarre attire is hardly recommended for the players. At Wimbledon, white is still the rule and the tournament, not its entrants, is still the thing. When most of the male pros boycotted Wimbledon in 1973, it was said two simians could play on Centre Court and the stands would be filled. Then Jan Kodes of Czechoslovakia and Alex Metreveli of the Soviet Union—the next best thing—met in the final and packed the house. During the rain-plagued 1978 Wimbledon, 29,000 people showed up on Splash Thursday, and though not a ball was struck, the crowd sat there with umbrellas up until it was time to go home. Then they left—peaceably, content. Wimbledon bestows no rain checks.
Wimbledon is referred to as "the Championships" by the 375 full-time All England Club members. It is merely the world championship to the rest of us. Given the tournament's epic stature, there is little wonder that journeyman (and woman) players, who suddenly—if ever so briefly—emerge at Wimbledon are written into history for all time.
A young Briton named John Lloyd upset Roscoe Tanner on opening day in 1977 to become an overnight hero in a country absolutely starved for one; Lloyd wasn't heard from again until he married that cute Evert girl from Florida. Last summer one Linda Siegel came bursting into the limelight simply by bursting out of her dress. Siegel won four games against Billie Jean King and then folded her tents, but the London tabloids screamed on about her for days.
To win Wimbledon, to win the world championship. For every player in the game, this is the ultimate goal. Ilie Nastase, who got to the final twice but will reach it no more, has been asked if he still cares about winning Wimbledon. "I care?" Nastase fairly snorted. "I tell you how I care. I have a dream that comes all the time during Wimbledon. Finally, I win this son of a bitch tournament, and I take my trophy and go all around the stadium, bowing to the people and giving the finger to everybody. Then I take my rackets and break them up in my hands. I throw them in the river, and I stop to play tennis."
Now that is caring. But, then, this is Wimbledon.