By Mike Dunk
My love affair with Wimbledon began in 1962 at the time when all decent music came from Liverpool headed by the Fab Four, coffee was only “frothy coffee” and best drunk in the coffee bars in Soho, and a ginger haired young man called Rod Laver won the mens singles on his way to winning the Grand Slam for the first time. A weekend in London was started with London Universities Summer Ball in Regents Park on the Friday night followed by breakfast, possibly at Lyons Corner House, and then the rest of the day spent at SW 19 with an entrance charge of a mere two pounds. This was the annual pattern until I came to Rhodesia in 1967 and subsequently South Africa. Twenty one years after my initial visit I returned with my Broadcasters Media Pass hung proudly from my neck and showing mild curiosity at the snaking queues down Church Road each morning which lengthened daily as the tournament progressed. I was there in 1985, the year that Boris Becker became the youngest winner of the title, which saw a renaissance for German tennis. And to win it he beat Kevin Curren in the final who, along the way, had accounted for the two previous winners, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. The following year he retained the title with a win over Ivan Lendl in the final. So it was fitting that another twenty one years down the road I should retrace my steps to the hallowed shrine of tennis as a 60th birthday present to my wife. It would be her first visit to The Championships – to give the tournament its correct name. This time the entrance charge was eighteen pounds but with eighteen outside courts to choose from and up to five matches a day scheduled for each court, value for money was assured. We managed to get tickets for the first Thursday and Friday. Some of the outside show courts have limited seating and/or standing and it is the veritable rugby scrum to get to those vantage points. Too much dallying on the first morning saw us lose out on court 18 and Marit Safin’s match but we were able to catch up with him later in far better circumstances. So off to court 2 and Daniella Hantuchova whose legs are even longer when seen in the flesh, so to speak, than they appear on television. Her tennis was not bad either as she easily beat Elena Likhovtseva. To the left of our vantage point at the top of the free standing on court 2 was the old players’ lounge and roof garden. Now The All England Club members have their dining facilities and lounges all glass fronted and overlooking both courts 2 and 3. Quite a change from years gone by. Behind this facility, on what was the old number one court, is the new Media Centre. Although in the ‘80s our commentary box was right on Centre Court, we effectively worked out of what we called The Dungeon in the bowels of that famous court. Oh, to have had the chance to visit the new facility and not only let the memories of bygone years flood back, but see what progress has been made electronically since then. No more pounding the typewriter but the silence of the fingers brushing over the computer key board and then pressing F8 and ‘send’ and the day’s work is done! What luxury and economy of time. Off to court 5 and the young Frenchman Jean Tsonga who, even after having the temerity to beat national hero Tim Henman at Queens, was still given a Wild Card into Wimbledon. Not only did he beat Nicolas Lappenti but then went another two rounds to more than justify his inclusion. Up to court 3 and mercifully a bench for us to sit courtside while first Juan Carlos Ferrero ousted Giles Muller and then the Cypriot Marcus Baghdatis weaved his special kind of magic to sideline yet another unpronounceable name from Russia. By now Henman Hill called and jostling our way through the endless streams of people going for ever which way, we found a spare table to enjoy our strawberries and cream. Not, I hasten to add, purchased there. A meager helping will set you back nine pounds with a thin apology for cream covering the traditional summer fruit so, having been forewarned, we had stocked up at Marks and Spencers with both strawberries and double thick Devon cream for a fraction of the price. When in Rome as the saying goes, do as the Romans. So a Pimms for my wife and a pint of nectar for me was just a mere R140. Despite the very cold conditions let me assure you, it all tasted wonderful in the right setting. Then with “a little help from our friends” (see, I still remember the lines from the old Beatles songs!), it was up into the Gods of Centre Court to see the last set of Maria Sharapova followed, to the delight of my wife, the whole of the Rafa Nadal match. While my wife sat transfixed at the wizardry of the Spaniard master of clay who shows ever increasing signs of a liking for grass, I took in the changed appearance of the most famous court in the world. Now almost naked without its roof it resembles a bowl akin to Flushing Meadow and the dominant feature now is the huge screen showing what Challenges each player has left. Next year the super structure for the retractable roof will be in place and in 2009, the roof will be resplendent. They needed the roof this year! We were lucky as in two days we lost a mere one hour and 20 minutes play. Others were not so lucky and on the Saturday such was the speed of Amelie Mauresmo’s victory that she “cost” The All England Club some eight hundred and twenty thousand Pounds in refunds as her match did not last an hour and that was the sum total of play on Centre Court that day. Sharapovo was a little more of a benefactor to The Club as her match went over the hour mark on Court 1 therefore limiting the refunds to a mere 50 per cent. Friday was a day my legs will remember for a long time. Leaving the house in Wimbledon to walk to the courts before 10 am and standing on court 2 all day, we finally sat down on Henman Hill at 18.30. But the tennis was worth it. Firstly, Justine Henman has to be seen in the flesh to appreciate that back hand. Sublime comes to mind very quickly, followed by exquisite and finally, all powerful. But re reading that, even then those words hardly do justice to what must be the most perfect shot of any player playing today. Back in 1966, Alf Ramsey, the England football manager, described England’s win over Argentina at Wembley in the World Cup that they went on to win, as “poetry in motion.” He had not seen Justine’s backhand. Then the best match we saw. Tommy Haas overcame the loss of the first set to a tenacious Dmitry Tursunov and two rain delays to win in four sets but the price of victory was heavy. During the match he tore a stomach muscle which later forced his withdrawal from his next match which was against Roger Federer. A disappointing Martina Hingis succumbed easily but we did not see the last rites as Henman Hill and strawberries beckoned whilst we watched the demise of James Blake on the Big Screen at the hands of Juan Carlos Ferrero. More of that later. Then using our newly found influence, back to Centre Court and to see Federer demolish a motivated Marit Safin. So often you never know which Marit Safin will show up, but this one was determined and more than “in the mood.” Federer showed why his confidence is so high on grass that at times he seemed to toy with his opponent and almost win points at will. Like the third and final set tie break. Safin had pushed him to a high plane during the set but when Federer went up to the next level, Safin was unable to respond and it was all over for another year for the likeable and bear-like Russian. So we feasted on the unique atmosphere that is Wimbledon, devoured good tennis and enjoyed the traditional fare but what of Wimbledon itself? Sad to say, I feel that The All England Club has done a disservice to the game. Grass court tennis is fast and furious. Or rather it was. The ball would skid through, serve and volley exponents dominated the play and yes, with the ball in play for a relatively short time (I believe the old statistics showed the ball in play for less than 3 minutes in an hour), it was not the spectacle of Roland Garros. But in its own way, it was. And remember that when Rod Laver won the Grand Slam in 1962, three of the events were held on grass and one on clay. Now at Wimbledon with the changes to the court with a heavier loam under what I hear is different grass (although I was unable to clarify this point) and a slower ball, the game has changed. It has taken on the guise of a clay court event played on grass as the ball now sits up, allowing the clay court player to feel more at home and run the ball down. Look and see where all the wear on the court is. Two metres and more behind the baseline with the area around the service line and inside the service boxes, pristine green grass untouched by human foot. Yes, Wimbledon wanted to do something to brighten their event up, but perhaps only one of the changes they made, be it the ball or the court, would have produced the ideal result. To my mind, by doing both they have gone too far. If Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former French Open Champion, can beat James Blake with ease, I must ask some questions. And when the same player breaks Federer’s service to love when the number one expert on grass is serving for the set at 5-2, I must ask more questions. Add to that, when Nadal can get to the final in his first year there (2006) and push Federer to the limits of his ability this year, I see a big question mark appearing. . Yes, the serve and volley player is no longer around. Yes, the number of grass court tournament weeks a year are down to about three, so no way for any potential player of that ilk to get serious match practice. Add to that the dominant players of men’s tennis today come from Eastern European countries, Russia, Spain, Argentina and maybe add France, all exponents in clay court play, it is not surprising that clay rules. Gone are the days when the true clay court player was either “injured” or avoided Wimbledon like the plague. Those who did play considered it a success to get past the second round. Being a traditionalist, I feel saddened at the change but perhaps it was inevitable. When Wimbledon make a profit of almost thirty million pounds a year and the “House Full” signs go up each day, they must be doing something right. They are and I will be back in future years.