On foot and with a ticket is the best way to go to Wimbledon. We, the lucky ones, meet just as many coming back disappointed as heading their way there along Wimbledon Park Road.
A park becomes a giant field in which to stash and re-finance your car, followed by queues past pounding music and sponsored inflatable product-placements with grinning meet-and-greeters. Punters are then corralled over a bridge into the tennis club. Meanwhile, we show our lottery-won tickets at a gate and breeze in.
After Rafael Nadal crashed out to Steve Darcis in the first round, the punditry later on TV kept mentioning Lukas Rosol, the guy who did the same to Rafa in the second round last year. By accident, we see a few games of Rosol against Julian Reister. CLANG! an ace strikes the display showing the score. WHOMP! a ballboy narrowly escapes concussion after another. Rosol goes out, apparently.
The press centre’s two-thirds-empty balcony overlooking courts and courts of tennis, the television presenters in their rooftop studio with their backs to the action. We walk by a game, a queue forms on some steps just for glimpse, a doleful voice asks: ‘I’m the coach, can I get a seat?’
We take our seats in Centre Court. The unassuming Roger Federer strolls in and gives a masterclass in outplaying anything his opponent Victor Hanescu attempts. Any traditional British support for the underdog evaporates as Federer’s quality blazes and charms, a replacement sun.
From a distance, what looks like Condoleezza Rice talking to someone resembling Pippa Middleton turns out to be Condoleezza Rice talking to Pippa Middleton, I learn later from here.
Ah, is that £7.50 for a Pimm’s?
Maria Sharapova doesn’t so much grunt each time she swings the racket as perform a series of gasps, shrieks, cheers, trills, whoops, ringtones and death rattles. Even while her opponent is striking the ball. An elderly gentleman a few seats down audibly winces with discomfort at an elongated squeal lasting the duration of a few tight volleys at the net before a thankful point for France’s Kristina Mladenovic.
A voice: Come on Maria!
I notice a group in a box who wait until applause dies away before beginning theirs. Why?
Mladenovic puts up a fight, makes Sharapova work hard, but is undone ultimately by a highly inconsistent serve.
A pair of fortysomethings quaff, munch and bray their way through a bulging rucksack of crisps, baps, wine, apples, more wine and still more crisps, providing their own match commentary that swiftly degenerates into discussing women in the VIP boxes they assure one another they’ve met. It sounds fun, but – stretched over six hours – isn’t.
The big guy who walks on to play Benjamin Becker grows taller with every set played, until by the end of the match Andy Murray is crouching, trying not to give it away that he’s really a giant from Greek mythology. At some points the ball moves through the net, such is the power and the spin: the crowd takes a sharp breath at an expected Murray point lost, only to see Becker lurch forward, fumble and go a game down.
Both stand entire courts away away from the baseline in anticipation of Man of Steel-strength serves, and then it was a matter of who blinked first in extended duels of back-and-forth: no time for clever shots, the pace was much too fast, with the net and overshooting the only ways out. Murray wins in straight sets. Next up: the Minotaur vs Iron Man.
Exhausted, we tramp out on our way back to London village.
Wimbledon 2014 begins on 23 June.