Wimbledon: England's slice of heaven

By David Leggat

Wimbledon attracts the crowds. Photo / David Leggat
Wimbledon attracts the crowds. Photo / David Leggat

England in summer. If you're a sports fan then it might be a Lord's cricket test; racing's Derby at Ascot; or the boaters and blazers of the Henley rowing regatta.

Then there's Wimbledon. It is often abbreviated to its postcode, as in "we're off to SW19 today", when tennis' most celebrated fortnight is on. It should be on the must-do list of every tourist with a sporting bone in their body.

As soon as you walk through the gates you immediately appreciate why one of the Wimbledon traditions is for the English to have a good old wail about their tennis misfortune.

Facing you is a statue of Fred Perry, the last Englishman to win Wimbledon. That was in 1934-35-36. Some wait.

And speaking of ancient history, a wander through Wimbledon's museum is akin to strolling down the decades since a "Victorian dandy", Major Walter Wingfield, invented a game first called sphairistike in 1874.

The first Wimbledon tournament was staged three years later - its first male winner, Spencer Gore, preferred cricket and insisted tennis would never catch on - but only moved to its current location in 1922.

The place is actually a private club, with 375 full members and 120 temporary, who renew their membership each year. You can also become an honorary member upon accomplishing one small task: winning the singles title there.

The museum - which quaintly describes Perry as "the British thruster" - pays homage to New Zealand's Anthony Wilding in this the centenary of the first of his four successive Wimbledon singles titles.

The highlight of the museum, however, is a hologram of the feisty American champion John McEnroe talking from within a refitted men's dressing room. He gently mocks himself, complete with his famous, "You cannot be serious! The ball was good" rant at an umpire on centre court.

Tour guides can make or break a visit. Our man Mark knew his stuff, and the 90-minute stroll threw up a host of interesting titbits.

The courts are used only for the two weeks of the tournament each year (the exception will be in 2012, when Wimbledon is the venue for the Olympic Games tennis programme. This will mean a tight squeeze on preparation time for court staff, as the Games start three weeks after the tournament ends). Last year's tournament drew 511,000 fans.

A vast range of items can be bought during the tournament. Beach towel anyone? £18 ($38) thank you. Bottled water? A snip at £9. And what of the famous strawberries? In the course of the fortnight, 28,000kg are consumed.

As well, the Wimbledon shop has all the souvenirs you might imagine, in the club's purple and green colours: headbands, pens, sharpeners, towels, shirts, racquets, bags in garish gold, postcards, mugs, caps, chocolates, sunglasses, umbrellas, wallets, balls and DVDs.

And, Mark pointed out, the last thing the players see as they leave the changing rooms to emerge on Centre Court is Rudyard Kipling's poem If. Very British. And very appropriate given the number of "if onlys" spouted about English players every tournament.

Oh, and by the way, Wilding is not New Zealand's only link with the event.

At the back of court 1 - the venue has 18 courts - there is a large grassy bank with a big screen. It can hold 3000 spectators and is colloquially dubbed Henman Hill, after the crowds who gathered year after year to watch the recent English hope Tim Henman try and fail to emulate Perry year after year.

In fact its official name is the Aorangi Park Water Terrace. It was once land leased to the London New Zealand Club in the early part of last century, and has a water feature trickling down the side of the hill. Remember that when you go.

The whole place reeks of history and is treated like a protected species. Touch the grass? Forget it.

It may all sound very anachronistic but the players cherish it.

Tennis has four Grand Slam events - the Australian, French and US Opens - and Wimbledon is the only one still played on grass, yet it is the most famous.

The stars may often comment disdainfully on the pitfalls of playing here but they all turn up, and of all the major crowns this is the one they most desire.

"I was born here in 1985," the then 17-year-old German Boris Becker said of the place when he won the first of his three Wimbledon titles.

And the last words on this most English of sporting theatres should go to the only player who has won Wimbledon after receiving a wild card into the field, flamboyant Croat Goran Ivanisevic, in 2001.

Writ large at the entrance to the Wingfield Cafe is this: "If I never win another match, I don't care. Whatever I do in my life, wherever I go, I'm always going to be a Wimbledon champion."


Getting there: Air New Zealand has daily flights to London via both Los Angeles and Hong Kong.

Getting around: For information about travelling the UK by train see britrail.com.

Wimbledon and Lords: For the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and Tour see wimbledon.org. To book tickets for Wimbledon go to visitbritain.co.nz/shop.

To find out about visiting Lords see lords.org.

Further information: See visitlondon.com.

David Leggat explored sporting history in Britain with help from Air New Zealand and Visit Britain.

- NZ Herald

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