Summer Solstice and 125 years of Wimbledon

Gabriella White Reporting from Henman Hill at SW19

Arriving at Springfields tube stop, that notorious hot London underground air blew my hair up to the tip of carriage roof as I debarked and headed for the stairs; the breeze adding a refreshing diversion to my journey in a suburban tropical kind of way. It was a hot, wet, thundery day in Wimbledon at this point. A little late in arriving due to some tube delays, at about 7pm, my friend texted me: “Ok: I’m taking cover – call me when you get here!” It was pouring it down, but by the time I reached the grounds, the rain had eased off and so I headed to the field to set up camp for the evening.
This year’s Wimbledon is no ordinary Wimbledon. It is, in fact the 125thWimbledon and though camping out during the shortest night of the year last week, the brief, light night actually added to the enlightenment of the experience. It has to be said that the smell of the grass filled my senses and added to the realism of “I’m at the Wimbledon Championships!” the oldest tennis tournament the world over and considerably the most respected and prestigious of them all. Ask any player which tournament they strive to win and the answer will always be the same.
The popular tournament has been held at the All England Club in the London suburb of Wimbledon since 1877. It is one of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments, the other three Majors being the Australian Open, French Open, and US Open. Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam played on grass, the game’s original surface, which is where the game of lawn tennis’ name originated.
It has to be said, that Wimbledon’s hawk-eye electronic line calling technology is a God-send to the world of tennis, provided that the challenges are indeed enforced by the players: there have been a surprising amount of lost-points incorrectly called out by the umpire during this year’s SW19 Grand Slam.
And for those of you who don’t know about the latest brand-spanking technological feature at Wimbledon, it is Centre Court’s retractable roof. This is the roof’s second year of operation since 2009, preventing any rain-related delays or interruptions on Centre Court matches, with an air-conditioning facility of 25 degrees Celsius when in operation. British tennis player Andy Murray actually hoped for the roof’s closure on Monday of this week, during our mini-heat wave, still ongoing: the temperature hit 41 degrees Celsius during Monday’s scorcher, affecting the state of play somewhat.
Some more facts you may be interested in: the moving roof weighs 1,000 tonnes and covers 5,200 square metres. The height of the roof from the ground is 16 metres and has been designed to maintain pre-existing levels of light and air to the court when the roof is open, and when closed, an air flow system removes condensation from within the bowl to provide good court surface conditions conducive to the playing of tennis. The roof takes 8-10 minutes to close and in addition, a further 20-30 minutes for the air management system to create the correct conditions, totalling 30-40 minutes from activating roof closure to play availability. Because of the time taken to close the roof, the existing Centre Court cover is deployed the moment it starts to rain. Although the roof is translucent, lighting is installed within the roof, which comes on automatically upon complete roof closure. The roof can also be deployed safely in wind conditions of up to 43mph (69kph). Planning constraints require play to finish no later than 11.00pm, regardless of the score.
Luckily, it was to be a dry day for me at Wimbledon and I managed to get 8 solid hours of sunshine during the matches I was about to see.
The grand green gates into the field alone sparked off my excitement as I headed to the camping ground, where a few hundred tents were already neatly camped out, in a multitude of colours, tennis fans bustling around, some going off to get their hot pizzas, others ordering hot Indian curries via the eager restaurant merchants infiltrating the field with their menus.
Chatting away with fans in the field, I was approached by fellow journalist Spencer Vignes, excited to share with me his first book publication entitled “The Server”, which I can only describe as being a travel-tennis book; prodigally a new genre, I suppose. The book has been reviewed by BBC sports commentator John Inverdale and has since been described by The Tennis Gallery as “very funny, very English…a real road-movie of a book”. After handing me a signed copy and cracking a few seasonal jokes, reflective of his writing style, Spencer dashed off to continue his book-signing and I continued to absorb the atmosphere as the sun set. Settling down with some pimms for the evening and reading a little of “The Server” with a torch, a laugh-a-minute account, with the occasional intervention of comical banter from my old University chum who I was out there camping with, I laughed myself to sleep.
The next morning, I was awoken at 4am by the bright sunrise approaching…I was even more awake by 4.30am because of the bustling around of fans already up, having breakfast and chattering away about which players they might see. I exited the tent to join the fun. Ticket-queuing was to start as soon as 6am, but first, our backpacks needed to be stored. The luggage queue left a lot to be desired, for I was queuing there for rather a long time to say the least. Thankfully, I stumbled across a fellow linguist by sheer co-incidence in the queue who had been camping next to my tent the previous night. Red bull was being handed out by Wimbledon’s staff scurrying around to take care of the thousands of fans queuing in the bright morning sunshine, desperate to wake everyone up. The buzz itself was enough caffeine for me, but sip at the red bull I did as my new friend and I randomly shared travel experiences and exchanged a few multilingual phrases too. I was in fact in that luggage queue for over an hour, leaving me no choice but to leg it as fast as my legs could carry me past the 1000 fans behind my ticket number. My reserved ticket number was in the 600s, securing me tickets for Court 1, in time to see 3 epic matches that day:
Andy Roddick vs. Andreas Beck, Caroline Wozniacki vs. Arantxa Parra Santonja and finally Robin Soderling vs. Philipp Petzschner.

Sneaking a peak of the practice courts

Tickets all purchased and ready to go I was amused by the staff now carrying gigantic barrels of Robinson’s fruit-juice on their backs, resembling camels in a dessert heat. I entered the main grounds, popping on my summer shades to stop myself squinting in the sun. Wimbledon has a total of 19 tennis courts and what immediately struck me about both the practise courts and the remainder was their close proximity of one another. I was both overjoyed and star-struck to see most of the key players including Roddick, Djokovic as well as Serena Williams and her disciplining father parading the court as she practised, watching each shot his daughter played right down to the angle it hit the grass. I saw most players in fact. On my way to Court1, I stopped by at Henman Hill for a picnic, the name of which is transitioning to ‘Murray Mound’ these days, as Britain crosses its fingers for Murray’s victory this year. British player Tim Henman has had his moments but Andy Murray is unquestionably the superior player of the two, having a career best ranking of No. 2 compared to No. 4 for Henman, having won six Masters Series titles to one for Henman as well as having reached three Grand Slam finals to none for Henman. Conveniently for British media, the two players had careers that dovetailed – Henman retired in 2007, the same year that Murray made his first incursion into the top 10.
Wimbledon is not just about the tennis; it is a fashion parade, sprinkled with the traditional decadence of pimms and champagne, strawberries, cream, ice cream, not to mention the celebrity-spotting and the indescribable sensation of being there.

I entered the grand and famous Court 1, enjoying every step of the way down to my seat in row 2, right at the front behind the press photographers, broadcasting and video-footage area with their giant lenses, often 1 to 2 metres in length. I was just metres away from the biggest tennis champions on this Earth. The smell of the perfectly kept grass lawn was predictably summery and pleasant: this royal-looking green carpet was still pretty much intact with it only being day 2 of the tournament. More importantly, the weather was perfect: blue skies with just a few wispy clouds, the icing on the cake on this hot Summer Solstice day. The venue is actually reminiscent of a Roman-style arena, and as the crowd cheered the first two players onto the court, appearing with their rackets like gladiators fighting for their lives, there was almost a “let the battle commence” ambiance to the place. First up on the court were of course Andy Roddick (world number 8 from the USA) and Andreas Beck (ranked 33 from Germany).
Okay, girls – I have to admit that watching the tanned and athletic physique of Andy Roddick out on the court just metres away from me left little to be desired; but in all seriousness, seeing the players in the flesh and watching their impressionable flexing muscles as they leap around to return the ball at all costs, one quickly commends the world class stamina of all these deserved grand-slam champions, each in their own right.
I was lucky enough to witness a superb performance: I soaked up every minute of it (and the sunshine). The Roddick-Beck result was 64 76(6) 63.
Second up was Caroline Wozniacki (world’s no.1 of the ladies from Denmark). vs. Arantxa Parra Santonja (Spanish, Ranked no. 105, her 5th appearance at Wimbledon). Contrary to what the detractors of the friendly Dane might say, nobody attains world No. 1 status without a large helping of natural talent and abundant determination. And with her 21st birthday coming up eight days after the end of The Championships, time is distinctly on Caroline Wozniacki’s side in her bid to start amassing Grand Slam titles to stand alongside the many notable achievements she has already racked up in her career to date. In 2010 she won six WTA titles, more than any other player and won 62 matches. Since making her main tour debut in 2005, her end-of-year ranking showed a marked improvement annually to the point last December that she couldn’t go any higher. Like so many of her peers, she is the beneficiary of athletic genes; her father is a former professional footballer while her mother played on Poland’s national volleyball team.

Wozniacki © Gabriella White Studio

And though 2011 has not been her year at the current stage of the tournament, she put on an incredible show that day. Wearing Stella McCartney, Wozniacki also showcased herself as the fashion icon of tennis, wearing a very feminine white outfit with a distinct flowery collar, surrounding her neckline like delicate pansies. Santonja was equally stylish in her streamline Latina-shades which she wore throughout the match. Watching them compete was impressive, a top-notch performance and the ladies finalised at 6-2 6-1 with Wozniacki winning. She had an impressive first serve winning success of 68%. Serve accuracy itself stood at 83% for Wozniacki and a significantly less 52% for Santonja. Serving speeds were surprisingly similar at 178 KMH (Wozniacki) vs. 175 KMH (Santonja); average first serving speed was also strikingly comparable at 164 KMH (Wozniacki) vs. 162 KMH (Santonja).
The final match of the day was Robin Soderling (world No. 5 of Sweden) vs. Philipp Petzschner (of Germany, ranking 66). The 3-hour match became an exhausting four-setter and rounded off a very varied series of matches I had witnessed over the course of the day. The final scores for that one with Soderling defeating Petzschner were: 64 64 26 76. It was about 8pm by this point and I was ready for some replenishing, so we headed into Central London.
Though difficult to put into words, being at Wimbledon, breathing in the fresh suburban country air, living and breathing that electric atmosphere, surrounded by people from all around the world, hearing the crisp echoes of the tennis balls circling the court first hand and being near enough to the sports celebrities to see every expression on their faces, hearing the umpire’s announcements echo loudly in the court and being part of the spirit of the crowd that cheers is collectively a remarkable experience.
Other matches on Summer Solstice Day included Anna Chakvetadze vs. Maria Sharpova, Li Na vs. Alla Kudryavtseva, Aravane Rezai vs. Serena Williams, Marcos Baghdatis vs. James Blake, Jeremy Chardy vs. Novak Djokovic and Mikhail Kukushkin vs. Roger Federer. The most memorable match running parallel on this day was probably John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, re-uniting after last year’s world record breaker of the longest tennis match in history (they went at it for an incredible 183 games in a match that lasted 11 hours and five minutes, which was played across three days). On 21st June 2011, however, the pair managed to keep it to a much shorter match, much to the relief of the crowd. Isner-Mahut result: 76(4) 62 76(6). A statue of the two players in tribute to having created the longest ever tennis match in history last year stands at Court 18.
I shall soon share with you all some of my prize tennis-celebrity shots I was privileged enough to take of the players, but for now: keep rooting for Andy Murray: this could be his year!

On BBC's Wimbledon Highlights! Take 1. Can you spot me?

On BBC's Wimbledon Highlights! Take 1. Can you spot me?


On BBC’s Wimbledon Highlights! Take 2. Can you spot me?

Practice court serve © Gabriella White Studio

The Press © Gabriella White Studio

 © The Culture Cave 2011. All rights reserved

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