July 5, 2007


The wake-up call came in at 8 AM. Today was the day, one of lots of "the days" on our schedule, but this was the one that, in a way, I had waited the longest for.


I started playing tennis the summer after eighth grade, in 1987, and had been watching it for much longer than before that. I'd watched the Grand Slams on NBC and CBS. Because Wimbledon and my birthday always intersected, I remember all of us sitting in the living room on the Fourth of July, watching Navratilova/Evert, or Boris Becker, or Steffi Graf, or John McEnroe. Summer had just begun, we'd just celebrated my birthday, and Dick Enberg was on television calling a tennis tournament on another side of the world. It was a time of year when the sun came up through the trees at such an angle that the light would shine through the aquarium and, using it as a prism, make a rainbow on the other end of the wall.


I've done a lot of things and been a few places since, lived in places bigger than that apartment, been very happy and very sad. But I remember being happy sitting there watching tennis, wondering why the grass wore out the same every year, and thinking about what to do when it was all over. I'd have the whole day to play or do whatever. The summer had just started, it hadn't gotten too hot yet, the air conditioner was running on Low Cool-things were great.


I'd realized I wasn't ever going to be good at baseball, because there was no need for an outfielder who couldn't hit the ball. But tennis was fun, and I'd taken lessons that summer. Julie and I were playing games that were closer to racquetball off of the side of the apartment building to 21 points. I worked at a lot of things, but more than anything I worked on my serve-the one part of the game I could practice by myself. I had a ball hopper and would hit so many balls that my shoulder would hurt, and I'd go home and take some Advil and do it again the next day.


I went on to play in high school for two years before getting a job rather than continuing to be part of exhibition matches. The high school I attended had neighborhoods with kids that went to tennis camps and had private instructors. They played at country clubs and had started playing far earlier than 13. I had my ball hopper and my mornings.


My ex-wife and I met for the first time outside of school on a tennis court. She had on a yellow sweatshirt that said West Virginia. There's a lot more I can remember of that day, down to the light from the setting sun and the shoes on my feet, but I'll keep that to myself.


My friend Ken and I played tennis when I was in college and after, matches marked by shouting, gamesmanship, verbal abuse, and the once-in-a-blue-moon occasion where I could get the best part of my game going-a serve that an instructor estimated at 115 MPH. One summer five of us got together and took private instruction at a tennis club, and the most amazing part of our game was the awful welts we gave each other as we learned how to combine accuracy with speed.


It was an injury on a tennis court that led me to find out I'd torn cartilage in my knee 13 years earlier, that the cartilage was floating around in there, and was what was causing my knee to seize up occasionally. (Another story, another time.)


And when I saw that one of the things I'd always wanted to do in France was taking place on the first week of July in London, my mind raced back to those mornings and I had to see if it was possible.


In looking for tickets, I found that it was one of the more difficult ones in sport for an American to get. Most of them were held by the members of the All England Lawn and Tennis Club. Several more were entered in a lottery starting the previous August. Fans would line up for hours to have a chance just to get a pass to the grounds, much less a ticket to a show court. None of these looked like an appealing or reasonable way to spend a vacation. I came across a web site called purewimbledon.com, run by a UK company called Sportsworld. As Wimbledon's official tour provider, they could guarantee seats.


While in the throes of the end of my marriage, I sent an E-mail to them asking about packages. I knew how ridiculous the numbers were on the web site, but I shook my head and didn't care. It was a time in my life when there was no light at the end of the tunnel, so I bought myself a flashlight and made somebody hold it.


A plummy-sounding accent was calling me at 6:15 in the morning, two days later. I told him I would call back when I had a new address.


I did. We were able to get space in the hotel for Julie, and tickets for me and Ken. And now, after eight months of phone calls and E-mails and getting everything set just so, we were going that morning.


We were up for our free hotel breakfast, and we appeared to be approaching it a little differently than the other travelers. While the others would be dressed in jackets, sometimes ties, and dresses or dressy casual clothes, we showed up in T-shirts and jeans, because we'd take our showers and brush our teeth after breakfast. If these people were eating breakfast and rushing out the door without brushing their teeth, what would that do to their teeth? The answer is, "Jim, it's London. Do you really have to ask?"


We were still in our continental breakfast mode, and they had croissants and fresh-squeezed orange juice (though, sadly, no Zummo) so we were set. I was not interested in sausage, beans, eggs, and blood pudding for breakfast-that's an English breakfast, and I'm not English. (I'm not continental, either; as an American my usual breakfast is "none.") Ken and I made our way to the Tube for our ride to Southfields, the underground station closer to the All England Lawn and Tennis Club.


When we made our way out, there were people giving out free samples of CAFFE LATTE espresso and milk beverage in sealed cups. I didn't know how that would mix with toothpaste, so I decided against it. When the massive crowd of us came off of the escalators, a man in a fluorescent-yellow jacket with a bullhorn was yelling, "Taxis one block to the right, straight taxi to the tennis, two pounds for a ride, a whole line of cabs, no waiting." And all of us, like sheep, start moving to the right.


Ken and I did too, but figured out that there was a bus that was supposed to pick us up, we just had to find the Sportsworld sign. We headed back and saw a woman in a red blazer with a large SPORTSWORLD logo sign. She directed us across the street to our bus.



Above: First view of Wimbledon, England. Tube stop's on the other side of the street, behind the tow truck.


We waited for about ten minutes and were on our way. We were driven to an area called Fairway Village, due to the fact that it was constructed on the Wimbledon Country Club golf course. Parking was on the fairway, as were the large hospitality tents that were to provide us lunch, tea, complimentary food and beverages, televisions updating the match status, terminals with Internet access, and anything else that we could request the Sportsworld team to provide us.



Once we got out, we were asked to show our magic neck lanyards containing our Champions Lounge passes. "You're with Sportsworld?" We showed our cards to the van attendants as well as the desk attendant. We would soon find out that we were significantly younger than the other people on this tour, by probably about forty years. In two days in the Champions Lounge, Ken and I were the only ones the same age as the people behind the counters serving us.


We were given an envelope with a welcome letter, bracelets that said we were part of the hospitality program so we wouldn't have to get re-admit bracelets when we went for lunch, a gift pack that included a very nice backpack/messenger bag, a hat, a towel like the players were using on the court, a program including the day's scheduled matches. and most importantly, two pairs of tickets to Centre Court for today and tomorrow. We were offered bottled water so we wouldn't get thirsty on the 500-yard walk from the tent to our seats, and off we went.



Above: Months of endurance training pay off as we set off to our seats.


After going through a security screening, showing our wristbands and our tickets, we were allowed through to center court. It was about a minute after 11 so the morning's first match, and on court one according to our programs, that would be Venus Williams versus Svetlana Kuznetsova.


We found our way to the correct corridor. A British Navy soldier and another Army officer wearing security credentials were standing by our entrance, which was roped off. The match was being televised in the hallway on closed circuit. This is Wimbledon, and you don't walk down to your seats until the changeovers.



We heard the ball being hit. We heard footsteps. We heard grunting. I heard my own heart pounding-it was like getting ready to be on a roller coaster. On the other side of that rope was Centre Court! Laver, Rosewall, Borg, McEnroe, Martina, Sampras-it was RIGHT THERE! That color of green on the wall-I could pick it out in my sleep! Soon enough we'd hear the last burst of applause, and then he'd move, and...





...and then it was happening, bigger than life.


A few things about the pictures above:


- This was the last year that Centre Court was without a roof. You can go to Wimbledon's web site to find out more, but they put on a translucent retractable roof that should help to cut down on some of the rain delays. It was operational in 2009.


- Many of the people had yet to arrive because they were in the same situation we were, getting situated at their various events or stuck in traffic on the way to the stadium, or they'd already sold their tickets because they'd seen the weather forecast was lousy.


- When you're watching Wimbledon on television, the primary action shot you're seeing is from above the royal box on the left side of these pictures-the royal box is the area with the padded chairs and the wood trim. In what you see above, Venus would have been in the near court and you would have been looking over the net at Kuznetsova. (This was changed in 2009 as well - the telecasts that year started pointing towards the royal box.)


We settled into our seats and watched the match. By the time we sat down, Venus was already up 2-1. She is bigger than the other players, clearly leaner and quicker, and every ball she hits back goes back harder than it came in. After a short while, it was clear that Svetlana was overmatched in this one, as Venus jumped out to a quick 6-3 lead in the first set and never looked back. It was like watching a cat fight an earth mover. There was really never any doubt.


When it was deuce at 5-4, a voice called out from the balcony next to us, "You can do it, Miss Kuznetsova!" The crowd laughed. (She's referred to as Miss Kuznetsova on the scoreboards, as is Miss Williams.) At ad point, it was, "Go Svetlana!" and working up to, "I love you Svetlana!" Everyone cracked up. If she hadn't have lost the match on that point I really don't know where he could have gone with it from there and not get thrown out.


We decided to walk around the grounds as the Roger Federer/Juan Carlo Ferrero match wasn't set until later that afternoon. The show courts-Centre, Courts 1, 2, and Court 3-have reserved seating, but there was a lot of tennis going on because of the rain. We watched two American and Byelorussian junior players wallop the tar out of the ball for about twenty minutes. Who were they? No idea. But they were GOOD. Crowds of us were just walking along and watching tennis at random.




After a while of this, we headed back across to the hospitality tent, where they were serving lunch. Lunch consisted of fresh bread, rare roast beef, new potatoes, a couscous pastry dish, and three kinds of dessert. We were also offered beer, wine and soda. I asked for a bottle of San Pellegrino for the table with twists of limes, but they only had lemons. An assistant was promptly dispatched to hunt down some limes so my beverage could be served properly. They found some and ran over a plate of limes for my perusal.



"I just want to thank you for putting up with this," I said. "I know you guys have had a tough week with the rain and all."

"Not a bother. Enjoy!"


We were prompted to try the chocolate cake, which had dark chocolate and sort of a coffee mousse with it. I was admonished when I asked for a calorie-free slice that I was on holiday and that it would all disappear on the plane ride back. I was skeptical but thrilled.


Back on the grounds following lunch, we did some shopping, grabbed some strawberries and cream, and checked out the Wimbledon Museum. It was there that I learned something I never knew before. The big trophy and plate that the singles winners are presented with and hold up at center court? It's like the Stanley Cup-they don't keep it. They get miniature replicas of it. The rest of the time the trophies are kept in the museum. Like they were today.



We made our way back up to our seats, where the light drizzle we were under was enough to be considered a rain delay. They had pulled the tarps over. Then they pull up these enormous booms on either side of the court. The tarp is then raised up, like a giant tent, and covered blowers under the television cameras dry off any water that may have gotten on the court. It's ingenious, really.



Also, remember where I told you the royal box was? They get their own covers. Our plebeian asses are left to chill in damp seats while theirs get their own cover. I realize all will be resolved in 2009, though.


We walked around the grounds some more and ultimately decided that we were better served being across the street at the hospitality tent, where they were serving little sandwiches with the crusts cut off (yes, yes, I know afternoon tea service is a critically important British ritual-I saw plenty of them at Four Seasons-but je suis Americain, I'll have a Diet Pepsi.) We could see when the match restarted on the flatscreen. Why wait here? The rain was just light enough to be annoying, but just heavy enough to stop play. As we were walking towards the tent they announced that the rain would be continuing on and off and they were waiting to see if they had to stop play, but that the rain would be more on than off and they would keep everyone posted.



Above: As I went down the stairs, I grabbed a picture of the banners, with photos and results of every championship in singles and doubles.


We went back and eyed the croquet setup and wondered if any of the investment bankers next door at the Village Suite would risk pneumonia and play for their bonus. I figured my youth and cat-like reflexes would have an advantage. I didn't see any takers.


We hung around for about an hour, checked E-mail, chatted with the staff, and finally said that because of how far behind they were with matches, they may not make a decision to ultimately stop play until very late. By that point we would have missed a reasonable dinner and been caught in the crush of everybody leaving. But ultimately, we didn't know how they would decide it. So we figured we'd ask.


We asked the woman at the counter what were the chances they'd stop play. She said, "Let me call and find out." She proceeded to call the head referee's office across the street, say that she was from hospitality, and what were the odds. When she said that the head referee had told her the rain was not going to stop and they would not resume play under current conditions, and that a stoppage was pretty likely, we decided to head out.


I want this level of pull at every sporting event I attend for the rest of my life. "Hey ref, I got Jim up in the mezzanine here. He wants to know if you're going to call a tight game against Ben Wallace, because he'll leave early to beat the postgame traffic." "Umpire, are you planning on calling the game or continuing play in twenty minutes?"


So, on the referee's advice, we headed out. We faced smaller crowds at the Tube, and as I came down the stairs, four seconds after I walked by, a London policeman on the platform shouted, "Nobody's smiling! Come on, you're at Wimbledon! This is the best tennis in the world and a wonderful city! I want to see some smiles!" right after I walked by. I was laughing so hard when I turned around that I think my jollity made up for everyone else's.


On the other hand, people were dour for a few good reasons: One, if you had paid for one day worth of tennis, this was it, and it was washed out, you didn't have tomorrow, and since the morning's matches had gone two hours, you were not entitled to a refund. But we were coming back tomorrow, and he was right-if this is what an awful day consists of, you're not doing too badly.


Getting off the tube in South Kensington, we noticed a souvenir gift shop that was selling postcards that were cutouts of the Queen, Prince Charles, and-deceased for ten years this summer-Princess Diana. Ken and I spent a block trying to think up a tasteless joke to send to some friends. Mine was FOR MOST ACCURATE RESULTS, PASTE FACE-FIRST ONTO DASHBOARD. I didn't have the heart to buy it, mail it, take a picture of it, anything. I told you about it and now you should put it out of your mind, and you can do so without wondering if you'd get beaten up or deported if you tried to mail that thing from a London post office.


When we got back to our hotel, I was pleading with the group to head for Vinopolis, the City of Wine. Now you've been reading and you're thinking, "Wouldn't Paris be a more likely spot?" Ahh, but they wouldn't be the home of the Bombay Sapphire Experience.



In establishments where the drinks have been waiting for me before I even sat down, either through memory or by the benevolent hand of others, the drink will be a Bombay Sapphire and Tonic with a twist of lime. I have received bottles for Christmas, for birthdays, for congratulations. Ken joked that when I finished my first triathlon the first thing he'd hand me would be the light-blue bottle filled with water.


My Las Vegas compadres are saying, "Oh, just like the mayor." This is where I bury my head in my hands and quietly thank important deities that I don't have any tattoos. Oscar Goodman was a Beefeater drinker before the Bombay Sapphire team co-branded the mayor with contributions to his wife's school and the homeless in 2002. My involvement with the product dates back to...um, the very second I turned 21, mister, and not a moment sooner. If this was its spiritual home, I was in town to pay homage.


We got to the London Bridge tube stop and followed some vaguely posted signs around to this building in the middle of a warehouse district, which was, of course, closed for a private event. We spoke with two separate security guards, each with necks the size of my thigh, who indicated that:


1. There was absolutely no possible way we were going to see the Bombay Sapphire Experience tonight unless we worked for a specific London public-relations firm;


2. We would have to spend 22 pounds on a wine tour to see it at all;


3. The last tour available would be at 3 PM daily. Tours started at 10 AM.


Three! THREE! Do you imagine what kind of life I'd lead if between 10 and 3 were the only acceptable hours for drinking gin? I mean, this is Travis Bickle, scotch-on-the-cornflakes territory here! At ten AM they're still serving Egg McMuffins, and you want me to learn about gin? They could have told me 10 PM to 3 AM and I would have plunked down the cash and said, "Boy howdy, what a great idea!" But no. I was being offered the "experience" of hanging out in a dark bar with blue lights in it when it wasn't actually dark out. How choice.


I made a decision on the spot that, if I couldn't visit the distillery and this is what was being offered in its place, then the "spiritual home of Bombay Sapphire" would be any location where I'd enjoyed it previously. Sort of an extension of "wherever you go, there you are." We rounded the corner to a pub and grabbed sandwiches and Guinness for dinner.



We made our way back and were soon fast asleep. Tomorrow would hopefully bring more, and less, of the same.


Previous - Next



Get free Dreamweaver templates and extensions at JustDreamweaver.com