It's an absolutely gorgeous April morning in the village of Wimbledon, Borough of Merton. One can't help but hear Kipling whispering from behind every dewy leaf, "Give me back one day in England, for it's Spring in England now!" It's as gloriously green as ever Robin Hood himself knew it in Sherwood Forest. If the roses aren't yet budding, the jonquils are at their gilded last, cherry blossoms are at every eye, pansies and lilacs and tulips are blazing all about. Along Wimbledon Park Road, which becomes Church Road (although quite where is unclear), there is virtually no traffic, save for a three-wheeled milk truck making its deliveries, so it's easy to hear the birds chirp and the children shout and the blood race.
It must have been very much this way 60 years ago, when the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club settled on Church Road, moving a mile or so from its original site. Now Church Road is lined with fishhook lightposts and hard-angled apartment buildings that have grown up amid the Tudor row houses. However, on this April morn, as Church Road bends up to the gates of the All England, passing kaleidoscopic gardens in every yard, the air seems as fresh as one assumes it might have been in '22. And God's sky, which He has lent England for the day, without the clouds He usually charges, is as pristine as ever it could have been then, or even way back in 1868, when croquet enthusiasts founded the club. Not an American is in sight; neither can one smell money, nor hear so much as a mention of contracts or residuals, much less a whine or a bellicose word. Stranger still is the scene within the gates. You know what's in there in April?
You've always heard about lawn tennis. And, sure enough, take away the nets and the chalked lines and the players and the people in high chairs saying "forty-fifteen," and so on and so forth, and what you have left is lawns. They are magnificent, too, spreading out in emerald glory toward the old water tower and toward the steeple of St. Mary's, beyond, in Wimbledon town.
June 20, 1982
If you search hard, you'll also find a few members about. All told, the All England Club has 375 of them, 300 men and 75 of the other sex, but seldom, except during The Championships, are many of them on the premises. The All England is not a hangout. As Derek Hardwick, founder and first chairman of the Men's International Pro Tennis Council, says, "It's just not the sort of club you think of when you think of dubs." Hardwick has been a member of the All England for 18 years; before that he was on the waiting list for 26. Snap decisions at the All England are rare.
Twice a year the club has a party. One is on New Year's Eve. Either then or at Christmas. Members are vague on this, possibly because they haven't ever bothered attending. The other party, such as it is, is in the middle of May, when, usually, the weather finally permits the lawns to be turned into real courts. In addition to 18 grass courts, the club has nine hard courts and two indoor ones. Several of the grass courts are appropriated at that time in mid-May for a men's and women's doubles round robin, which is known, mysteriously, as an "American tournament." All we detectives know is that the American tournament involves "hidden handicaps." Let Yankee lexicographers and jingoists alike draw their own conclusions.
Whatever, the May and December gatherings pretty much comprise the formal social calendar of the All England Club. There are no Fifties parties, no Las Vegas nights. Angela Barrett, nee Mortimer, who won Wimbledon in 1961 and who has the rare distinction of being a member of the All England married to a member, offers this summary: "We do stick with tradition here; we haven't ever lowered our standards. For instance, this isn't a place you bring children. But should you, they're always quite well-behaved. The message gets through."
Alas, in this world, how long will British children continue to act as British children are expected to, and not like tennis stars, who act like everybody else, only more so? On this April day, news has arrived that the British have recaptured South Georgia Island and then, so very graciously, have entertained the vanquished Argentine commanders at dinner. But of greater future significance, London's Daily Telegraph has run a letter from FE. McDonnell of Cheltenham, headlined UNPLEASANT TENNIS:
"SIR—Your report on the British Junior Under-16 lawn tennis championships...commented that two of the boy semi-finalists 'were applauding each other's faults' and that 'eventually the referee said: "It's time I took action and intervened." '
"These young people are under 16. No penalty points? No disqualifications?...What a reflection on the tournament authorities that they were unable to squash a couple of 15-year-olds."
And so the churls are everywhere, more precocious all the time, and a gentle, genteel refuge is harder and harder to find. However, on this particular morning, typical enough of any fair day in the 50 weeks when the All England isn't the cynosure of the sporting world, only a couple of ladies are playing on one of the hard courts and a foursome of elderly gentlemen on another. One of the men is Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burnett, GCB, DFC, AFC, RAF (Ret'd), who has been chairman of the All England since 1974, serving the club patron, Her Majesty the Queen, and the club president, H.R.H. The Duke of Kent, GCMG, GCVO, ADC. Sixty-nine now, living down in Farnham, Surrey, Sir Brian is a polite, withdrawn man, trim, wearing glasses and, of course, all white. Whether it's a member playing on an April Tuesday or a competitor in The Championships, the required attire on the All England courts is white. "It looks bloody awful to see someone in a dark blue shirt sweat, don't you think?" asks a member.
Even the balls are still white at the All England. Why? Same authority on color says, "If you take a yellow ball and play on grass, you pick up green grass stains, and do you have any idea what yellow and green together make?"
"Well, I shall tell you: blue. In the name of being modern, should we play with bloody blue balls?"
Luncheon is served. Lottie Turner is in charge in the dining room—very definitely. Lottie is married to Leo Turner, who has been the main custodian of the men's "A" locker room for 11 years, dispensing the Robinson's Barley Water and the Truefitt and Hill hair accessories and other amenities as sure as the missus supplies members with the creature comforts upstairs.
Outsiders who are either jealous or scornful of the All England invariably make a to-do about what a steal it is to belong to the club. Annual dues are ¬£9.40, which is on the order of 17 bucks. Not only that, but the food and drink, even the white tennis balls, come in at ridiculous prices, e.g., about $2 for a full meal. No wonder the traditional two o'clock starting time for Wimbledon appears to be inviolate—heaven forbid that the members be torn from their bargain bar and grill.
What makes the members hoot is the notion that anyone could possibly envy their All England meals, whatever the price. Generally, the fare is compared with "public-school food," and the suggestion that any member would go out of his way to eat at the club is just one big scream. This particular day, lunch consists of lamb, peas, potatoes, ice cream, cheese and coffee. Not bad, and certainly filling. But then, not all of us spent our formative years taking our meals at Eton or Rugby.
"Thank you," says a member across the table upon hearing this modest praise for the day's fare. "I had a foreigner in here the other day who wasn't nearly so kind."
Fewer than a dozen members are present, the largest share of them coming from Sir Brian's weekly doubles match. Everybody is seated at one long, cafeteria-type table, with a plain white tablecloth and everyday china, and after a time the talk gets away from the hostilities in the South Atlantic and comes around to tennis. One member recalls the first time professionals played at Wimbledon. It was a tournament late in the summer of 1967, a precursor of the open game, which the All England would foist upon all tennis a few months later.
"I was here that August," the old fellow says. "Marvelous. Laver and Hoad and Rosewall, all the boys. Wonderful to have them back. It hadn't been right without them."
"Terrible hypocrisy that was then," puts in another member.
"It was a grand idea to let them all back," says the first. But, a pause, a sorrowful head shake. "Then the entrepreneurs came in."
"The big money," says the second man.
"The bad manners," adds a third, and with such emphasis that no one else ventures anything further. Sir Brian merely nods. Lottie brings around the ice cream.
A few moments later another member rises and goes to the window, staring out over the lawns to where St. Mary's steeple looms. "It's a bloody funny country, isn't it?" he says, if mostly to himself. "You fight a battle, and then have the other chaps over for dinner."
The Times of London noted in a preview to last year's Wimbledon, "The English are splendid at everything to do with games except winning them." Certainly, they have always run the best tennis tournament in the world, but they must be careful or they'll lose that distinction to the Philistines, too. The All England Club illustrates it all right well. The trouble with the British today is that while they can still be quite heavy-handed, they seem to have lost the ability—as the gentleman from Cheltenham knows—to squash anybody anymore in any sport, except perhaps track.
Effectively, for good or for bad, the All England Club is Wimbledon, is British tennis. To be sure, England has its national Lawn Tennis Association, and The Championships are technically a joint venture of the club and the association. The All England Ground Company, formed in 1934, actually owns the land on which the club is located and the tournament is played, and the company draws three directors each from the All England and the LTA. Much more important is the 19-man board that makes the decisions governing the tournament fortnight. Significantly, this Committee of Management is weighted 12 to seven to the club side. The same 12 men form the executive committee (the board of directors, in effect) of the All England Club, so obviously all power is concentrated in this dozen. It was they, for example, who decided that five-time champion Bjorn Borg would have to qualify if he wished to play The Championships this year, and that John McEnroe would not be given the honorary membership that is traditionally awarded the Gentlemen's and Ladies' Champions. And it was they who decided that the honorary members admitted in 1982 would be Betty Stove, the Dutch woman who reached the finals of Wimbledon six times in doubles and once in singles, and Fred Hoyles, the tournament referee since 1976.
The latter decision may be especially consequential, inasmuch as membership carries with it an implicit authority. It will make it easier for Hoyles to deal quickly and conclusively with any misbehaving player. Two years ago, when John McEnroe Sr. was trying unsuccessfully to obtain locker-room credentials for himself from Chris Gorringe, the club secretary, he cited the well-known fact that Borg's companion and coach, Lennart Bergelin, had locker-room access.
"But Borg's a member," said Gorringe, who himself happens to be a member.
"Well, but what difference does that make?" McEnroe asked.
"A lot of people around here think that makes a great deal of difference," Gorringe replied. Then, immediately regretting his candor, he added, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that."
No club in the world wields as much power in its sport as the All England does, and at home, in Great Britain, virtually no one contests its authority. Members of the LTA, described by one of its former employees as "a nice bunch of men who spend hours at a time arguing about who should be allowed to wear the association tie," almost never dare dissent when they sit on the Committee of Management, lest they damage their chances of someday becoming All England members. Similarly, the British tennis press, with the major exception of Rex Bellamy, the marvelous Times of London writer, treats the club gingerly. Journalists, too, can harbor the dream of wearing the mauve and green.
The All England controls the tennis purse strings of the country, too. Absolutely. But say this: The club is a munificent patron, turning over its profits from The Championships to support the whimsy that is British tennis. That sum was nearly $2 million last year. Indeed, the LTA has for so long suckled at the All England teat that it no longer can provide sustenance for itself. LTA dues are only ¬£1 a year. This laughably low fee led a government report to note cryptically that it "ensures that the participant gets what he pays for." Indeed, it's unfair to lay the parlous state of John Bull's tennis at the feet of the All England when you consider that British feebleness on the courts is a tradition almost as old as tennis itself. Except for Fred Perry, Wimbledon champion during 1934-36, no home boy has won since 1909.
While its dominion over tennis at home was complete, the club's eminence everywhere else in the world grew so that, when the executive committee (hereinafter the committee) decided to open Wimbledon to professionals, the entire sport changed overnight. The present nouveaux riches competitors who complain about certain of the club's shortcomings should hear that history lesson every so often. If it weren't for the All England Club, the Lendls and the Borgs might yet be scratching for per diems and whatever else they might pinch under the table.
Indeed, the greatest irony is that the All England's troubles today stem largely from its progressive pioneering. But if the All England isn't blameworthy for opening this Pandora's Box, it may be criticized for having dealt most artlessly with the demons loosed. Says Mike Davies, a Welshman who belonged to the club until he turned pro in 1960, and is now an executive with the Association of Tennis Professionals, "It's very hard for the British, especially the kind you find at the All England—it's not exactly the Beatles out there, you know—to change their way of thinking. But to be fair, wherever they happen to come from in the world, people who are very successful don't have to change much, do they?"
Just as the British know full well that the average American is a polyester cowboy with a Saturday night special slung low on each hip, we Americans possess an incorrect image of the British clubman. See him now in his stuffed leather chair, taking cigar and brandy from a liveried servant, all the time bemoaning the loss of India. In fact, one of the ironies of the All England is that its membership isn't nearly as hidebound as one would expect. Although the roster is extremely exclusive in terms of numbers, in composition it's a downright Levittown compared with, say, such London men's clubs as White's or Boodle's.
At the All England, family lineage is not nearly as important as it is in much of British society. For example, Roger Taylor, a semifinalist at The Championships in 1967 and '70 and the son of a Sheffield steelworker, is a member. And—God as my witness—a handful of sportswriters are on the rolls. There goes the neighborhood. The late Herman David, a diamond merchant, was Jewish on one side, Roman Catholic on the other, but he was elected president of the club by its predominantly Anglican membership and was the prime mover in turning Wimbledon into an open tournament. A number of members are reliably reported not to have been educated at boarding schools, and although the gender ratio is strictly maintained (of the 14 new members in '82, 13 are men), the All England can boast that it has accepted females for half a century. A club like Marylebone, which is to cricket what All England is to tennis, does not yet permit women to sit in the pavilion and watch test matches, let alone actually sully the ranks.
Neither is the All England in an especially expensive area. Wimbledon was chosen for the club's location by the croquet buffs in 1868 simply because at that time London had spread just that far out, advancing along the new railway lines. Only much later did Wimbledon begin to take on suburban airs, and today the All England sits in the middle of a modest commuter community, although a couple of miles away, around the great Wimbledon Common, large Edwardian estates are the rule. Curiously, except during the fortnight itself, tennis is not nearly as much in evidence in Wimbledon as golf. The little town has three courses.
The date of The Championships is determined as if it were on the liturgical calendar—starting "six weeks before the first Monday in August"—but once the tournament concludes, the club opens its courts to all sorts, letting the hoi polloi hold a number of their championships there. Everything and everybody from the Army to the Bank of England's lady employees competes on the lawns. Even the riffraff from a combined Harvard-Yale touring team will play there later this summer.
Also, because just about every regular member has aged considerably by the time he's admitted, the All England winks and permits "temporary members." In America we would call these "student athletes," and in both cases the payoff comes in the form of tickets. Conveniently, the temporary members tend to be healthy young tennis yeomen, who take up almost all the spots on the club team. For their efforts these quasi-mercenaries are each granted the right to buy one Centre Court ticket every day of the fortnight. If the aging regular members represent their club at all, the game is likely to be bridge or croquet.
But if the All England requires certain measures of merit of its members—e.g., excellence in tennis, service to the game—it is not above displaying some snobbery and capriciousness. McEnroe is hardly alone in being snubbed. And one does not have to be American (or of Irish descent?) to earn that distinction. Bobby Wilson, a British No. 1 two decades ago, was taken in, but he proved to be too cheeky for some tastes. So when Wilson didn't mail in his nominal dues for two years, that was taken as excuse enough to foreclose his membership.
An even more controversial aura swirls about Bunny Austin, Perry's Davis Cup partner and the first man to wear shorts at Wimbledon, in 1933. Austin let his membership lapse during World War II, when The Championships were suspended and the club was bombed by the Germans. Austin was a conscientious objector, and, worse, he had irritated some members by proselytizing his political and religious beliefs on the premises. This was considered bad form, so Austin's application for readmission was rejected. Thirty-seven years later, he's still on the outside looking in.
Rumors are bruited about that Austin has paid sufficient penance and will be readmitted. He himself is most circumspect. "I spoke out against the club in Leeds in 1963, and I've regretted that," says Austin. "I accused the club of discrimination then, when, in fact, it is only a few who are guilty. But with that I succeeded in getting my friends in the club mad at me, as well as my enemies. So I'm afraid I've learned my lesson, and I'd rather not say anything now."
The committee itself is peopled with some young members now. "In Herman's day it was mostly just old Davis Cup players," says Hardwick. The job of club secretary, a salaried position analogous in America to manager, is also held by a youngish man, Gorringe being 36. And, unlike his predecessors, who tended to be retired soldiers, Gorringe comes from a presumably less stringent background, real estate. Unfortunately, while he has been valued as a club administrator, Gorringe is no tennis insider. Neither is Sir Brian nor, for that matter, are most of the committee. Furthermore, both Sir Brian and Gorringe grow uncomfortable, even defensive, when thrust into any public role, so the club often suffers less for what it does (or doesn't) do than for its failures to communicate.
For this year's tournament a London public-relations firm named Opus was hired to help remedy that failing, but even though The Championships grossed more than $5 million in 1981, the club still runs the tournament pretty much like a mom-and-pop operation. Not until this year, for example, was a comptroller hired, and, says one member of the committee, "I hate to admit this, but most members didn't even know what the word meant when the subject of a comptroller was first brought up." Demands of the international press are such that one British newpaper, with a circulation of nearly a million, is not allotted any of the 167 Centre Court press seats for the semis or the finals. Still, on the whole, the press arrangements are handled quite efficiently, and fairly, too, by an engaging septuagenarian curmudgeon, Roy McKelvie, moonlighting from his regular job as tennis writer for the Sunday Express.
For years the catering operation at Wimbledon has been the largest in the country, but it never occurred to anyone at the club that you could make something off the food until Mark McCormack, the American promoter, took the matter in hand. Now, under McCormack's direction, dozens of Wimbledon products are licensed in Japan alone, and in England, Nabisco Brands recently began selling a strawberries-and-cream-flavored Wimbledon liqueur.
Nonetheless, despite the hefty sum McCormack makes the club and British tennis each year, the English remain terribly ambivalent about this Yankee-style hustle. The Times has accused McCormack of "merchandising every last hiccup and toe clipping of the stars," and when you pass by a door in the players' section of the club, marked COMPETITORS' QUIET ROOM, a member explains, "That's to keep the sorts like McCormack and [McCormack's countryman and fellow agent Donald] Dell out." But McCormack represents you, he is reminded. The member shrugs, grinning devilishly, as if his house master had just caught him using a dirty word.
People in tennis protest that Sir Brian avoids even talking to officials who hold opinions different from his, and rarely does he venture to those déclassé tournaments that lack mystique. This insularity seems to filter down. It's not merely the players who feel ignored by the All England. When a local neighborhood group attempted to meet with the club to discuss the burgeoning traffic problems, the neighbors didn't even obtain a response until they had a registered letter delivered. Says Olive Collins of the Southfields Residents Association, "Their attitude is patronizing, high-handed and dismissive."
Typically, Sir Brian refused to be interviewed for this article. Unlike David, his more gregarious predecessor, Sir Brian is not the sort of man to acknowledge that his office might be better served if he'd make some personal accommodations. When officials of NBC, which is reportedly dishing out a total of $13 million for the U.S. television rights to Wimbledon in 1982 and '83, tried to arrange a meeting with Sir Brian last year, the network brass, as a last resort, suggested a breakfast conversation. Sir Brian replied, "Breakfast is something I have in bed with Lady Burnett, and this is an experience that I do not choose to share with NBC." Two years ago, when McEnroe Sr. told Gorringe that he would like to meet with Sir Brian "at any time, any place, at his convenience," the answer came back at last that "Sir Brian is unable to meet with you because he is entertaining royalty." For two weeks?
Still, McEnroe Sr. passionately denies that he ever called Sir Brian's committee "arrogant pigs," as he was recently quoted as having done. It's also unlikely that the membership would ever turn Sir Brian out, because by now he has become, fairly or not, a symbol for the criticism that the whole club and the tournament have suffered. As Mark Cox, a member and the best British player of recent times, says, "We are not an aggressive people in any way, but we can be stubborn when we think we're being railroaded." The committee does choose its chairman annually, and the club elects one-third of the committee every year. However, for practical purposes it's wise to keep in mind that the most common expression used to describe the committee is "a self-perpetuating oligarchy."
Besides, nobody seems to be groomed to succeed Sir Brian. For a long time the heir apparent was Richard (Bimby) Holt, a lawyer who is always very visible during the fortnight because he regularly escorts the biggest stars in to see the press. But Holt's chances were severely damaged after he became embroiled in a controversial estate case. The younger, more progressive members—one could almost say "the underground" and not be that far off—quietly support John Curry, a committee member of the tender age of 42, a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the joint chief executive officer of Unitech, a prosperous British engineering company.
Many All England critics and members believe that a new committee president is not what's needed for The Championships, but a completely new organization presided over by a full-time, salaried tournament director. Unfortunately, Wimbledon succeeded while run like a neighborhood bake sale, so revolution is not in the air. "It's always easy to pick at a benevolent despot," says McCormack, "but the All England just couldn't have done things any other way and gotten Wimbledon where it is." Especially remember that for a long time before the war, Wimbledon was no more than first among equals with Forest Hills, so it is even more to the credit of the club that its showpiece rose to undisputed preeminence at precisely that time in history when other British institutions were declining in status.
It frustrates, even baffles, the members all the more, then, that the All England is subjected to so much criticism—and often from the very people who should be most grateful for past favors. Though a member, Cox is an especially fair observer; as a player, he defied the club by joining the players' boycott of Wimbledon in 73, after which "it took several years before some members could even come around to talk with me." Cox adds, "Our values are different from yours—not better, simply different—and I don't think it's too much to ask that Americans slow down a little and try to show more understanding of how other people do things. People at this club have a wealth of experience, and it simply isn't fair to have them described as so many village idiots. Essentially, all that has really happened is that the exceptional, which was Wimbledon, has now become the norm."
Wimbledon, for example, was for years the only tournament that pampered the players with chauffeur-driven cars. Today that's a common enough perk, so the players take the free transportation for granted and spend all their time bitching that for most of the fortnight Wimbledon allows them to bring only one friend along for the ride. This year the All England nearly doubled the tournament prize money, to slightly more than $1 million, but the total still falls about $450,000 short of the U.S. Open purse. Wimbledon gets good rates for the players at a London hotel. Not good enough: This year the French Open spent $175,000 to provide competitors with free rooms in Paris. It's damned if you do, damned if you don't. The U.S. Open is like a flea market, but Wimbledon changed its clock—its clock, for God's sake—and was accused of blasphemy. The players even complain because the All England locker rooms have bathtubs taking space they think would be better occupied by more showers.
Still, it's the imperious manner in which the All England treats the help—the boys and girls with the rackets—that causes most of the emotional hemorrhaging. Says Gorringe, "It's such a big tournament that once you start making exceptions, it's the players who will suffer in the end." However, the extremes to which the club and its functionaries go to uphold the letter of their rules is strictly an All England trait—not an English one—and can only be described as masochistic. Do they really want the players to hate them?
A sampling of the competitors' Gothic tales: Harold Solomon and an opponent start on court on a gray, drizzly night at 8:20. No way that they can get in more than a few games on dangerous, slippery turf. Politely, Solomon suggests they start afresh the following morning. Umpire: "Mr. Solomon, this is The Championships. You will play when you are instructed to."
The day after he won his first Wimbledon, in 1967, John Newcombe was barred from the grounds because he'd forgotten his pass. When Martina Navratilova, who had won the tournament the year before, showed up a few minutes early for a practice session one day, she was made to wait outside the gates until opening time. There are no exceptions.
No recent champion has been more popular with the British than Stan Smith, but when his wife, Margie, seven months pregnant and unable to see him play on a side court because of the crush of the crowd on an especially hot day, attempted to get a look at his match from a balcony, she was turned away, though only a handful of spectators were up there. "This is a members' balcony," Margie was informed.
"I know, but I just want to see my husband play, and he's a member," she said.
"Exactly, Mrs. Smith, and you're not," she was told and was sent packing.
Curry of the committee says, "I promise you, we do realize how important the players are, and albeit very slowly, the process of change is occurring." In the past couple of years, millions of dollars have been spent on renovating the club, the bulk of that sum for improved player facilities. The club has acceded to some formal player requests as well. For example, it at last permits the regular tour trainers to enter the locker rooms. But all the p.r., all the stroking, all the construction in the world probably won't make much of a dent unless two sticking points are dealt with properly. One is tickets. The other is grass.
Surely, in all sports—in all the world?—there's no tougher ticket than Centre Court. One reason is that since antiquity the All England members have proved adept at icing a good few for themselves. Because even an expanded (in 1979) Centre Court seats no more than 11,579 spectators (there's also standing room for 2,750), often as not the only conceivable way to get in is to deal with scalpers. Most tickets that legally turn over are sold by brokerage houses, which in England deal in Centre Court seats as readily as they do in stocks and bonds. The tickets are offered in five-year lots known as debentures. That's approximately the equivalent of buying baseball season tickets on the soybean futures market.
The debenture tactic has been used by the All England since 1919—then to purchase the new club, subsequently to finance improvements. The most recent sale, in 1981, offered 2,100 Centre Court seats for ¬£2,050 apiece. That is, if you bought a debenture seat, you got a ticket for every day's play from 1981 through '85. The cost figures out to about $58 a seat per day, far above face value ($25 in the case of tickets for the finals), but Centre Court tickets have proved to be a good investment and at times during recent years have been traded by the brokerages at triple the original price. Debenture holders also have their own lounge and parking privileges, as well as the option to buy again at the declared price when the next debenture offering is made; in the current case, that will be sometime after the 1985 tournament.
The public often confuses debenture holders' tickets with those of members. There's a world of difference. Far from paying exorbitant prices for their ducats, the 375 regular members get one Centre Court freebie every day of the tournament. They also are allowed to purchase two other seats at ¬£30 apiece for the entire fortnight. In other words, whereas a debenture holder buys one ticket for one day for ¬£32, a member pays a total of ¬£60 to get three tickets for all 13 days. This sticks in many people's craws.
Nevertheless, for all the antipathy engendered, the charge that members "flog" tickets to scalpers appears incorrect. A harsh article in the Sunday Observer last June declared that membership in the All England is "the equivalent of inheriting a fortune of ¬£100,000," and a BBC report accused the members of hustling their own tickets. But, whereas members certainly profit in many indirect ways by being able to entertain at Centre Court for a song, there's no evidence that any of them consorts with ticket touts. Assuredly, too, any All Englander caught peddling his tickets would be summarily dismissed from the club.
This fact doesn't appease the players, who get a shabby allotment. Each competitor receives only one guest pass. The Association of Tennis Professionals has been given the right to buy 60 additional tickets every day and the Women's Tennis Association 20. Both the men and women players participate in a lottery for these seats, but it's still slim pickings for everybody except members. And there's not much hope that the present policy will be modified. As one American who has worked with the club's ticket committee says, "Those guys have got to be left over from Oliver Twist."
If the tickets at Wimbledon have always been scarce, the problem with grass is that it is becoming scarce almost everywhere else on the tennis circuit. For the past several years, preparing for Wimbledon has been an imposition, and thus some players, grouchy clay-court specialists in particular, are increasingly using the surface as an excuse to skip The Championships. It has been the club's bad luck, too, that when the captious players have been the most critical, the courts have in fact been in decline. In an effort to restore the greensward, a new head groundsman, Jim Thorn, has been hired this year.
Perhaps he'll succeed. But it's becoming more and more difficult to keep 14 acres of grass in shape, especially now that larger, faster people tread them in more damaging shoes. Next Saturday, June 26, will mark the 60th anniversary of tennis on these courts of the All England, and after a fortnight's play you only have to dig down in the earth a couple of inches to discover that the dirt has become packed as hard as cement. Just as farmers must rotate their crops to rest the land periodically, the club will hold one court (No. 9) out of play this year and possibly will do the same with other courts in summers to come. Agronomists are struggling today to produce hardier strains of grass. But there may be no real hope for tennis on lawns, not over the long haul.
Increasingly, the members come in from suburb and exurb to reach the club; they don't go out from London, as once they did. What drifts out is the urban pollution, settling upon the courts and damaging them more than all the sneakers in the world could ever do. The more things change, the more things change more—and don't believe anything else. It just tends to take a bit longer at the All England.
And now it is The Championships again, and is there no justice? Not only is J.P. McEnroe Jr. the Gentlemen's Champion, but, ironically, with Borg, Lendl and other top players missing, he's desperately needed. The All England and the all-American are bound in a death embrace, and only they can redeem themselves.
In the waiting room, a drab little place for a club so hallowed, where the players are sequestered before going onto Centre Court, there are only four photographs: the immortal Perry, Christine Truman, Virginia Wade and the American heroine, Maureen Connolly. Of the thousands who have played on the All England courts, only those four. But this year the room has something new: Upon the far wall hangs a large sketch of Borg and McEnroe as once they sat getting ready to go out and play what became their classic final of two summers ago. It's a bloody funny club, isn't it? You fight a battle and tell a chap he's not worthy of being a member, and then give him an elite place in the sacristy.
Now we're back to Kipling, because just outside the waiting room is that famous quotation of his, hanging over the door that leads to Centre Court. Americans especially find it precious—Kipling, the poor man's Grantland Rice—and by now the words have been reported by every rookie observer of The Championships, as surely as snapshots of Big Ben and home movies of the changing of the guard have been carried back to the impressionable provincials left behind. To wit: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same."
Certainly, it's a noble enough sentiment for the All England Club to ask its competitors to scrutinize. Yet this, too: Given that members are on board for only nine and 40 a year, it might not be too much to ask them to read Kipling along for another stanza or two and then to take these lines and place them over the door to the members' bar: "If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,/Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch."