I returned to Cambridge the day before yesterday. The steady succession of airplane journeys during the last three months have taken their toll and it is a tired blogger that writes this post. Still, if I could have asked for a nice trip to round up a tough year and turn it around just a little bit, the five days I spent in London were just what the doctor ordered. In the days leading up to the trip, I entertained the faint possibility of going up to see Cambridge University and considered asking litlove if she would be available for a chat, but I refrained, thinking that this was too impertinent on my part. Then, as the date of my departure approached, I convinced myself that three days’ notice is not a good way to set up a meeting. I wish now that I had taken the effort to plan the itinerary better.
So it was that I landed in London on Sunday without a fixed agenda, except to see as much of it as possible while attending as much of my conference as possible. The visa had taken a lot of trouble to obtain, and I was too worn out to romanticize over this trip. Over lunch, friends at work who’ve been across the pond would exclaim “Wow, you’re going to London!” but it wasn’t enough to revive my flagging spirits. I hadn’t even bothered to Google-map my routes as I usually do, thinking that I would just take whatever mode of transport was the most convenient and least tiring. I found myself on the Piccadilly line from Heathrow going towards St. Paul’s. Over the next few days, I grew fond of the London Underground and used it frequently. Somewhere along the way, I glanced at the subway map for places that I could get to on Sunday – that being the only day I would have in London before the conference began. In the complicated maze, a green line going south caught the eye and I followed it down with my finger to the very end: Wimbledon!
Some split-second decisions were made on the short route from Holborn to St. Paul’s. That particular cost-benefit analysis, which involved summarily bypassing all of central London in favor of an empty stadium in SW19 is not something any self-respecting engineer would be proud of, but sport fanatics do mad things and there is no point in analyzing them too much. Suffice it to say that, having discovered to my great delight that my hotel overlooked St Paul’s Cathedral and having dumped my bags on the bed, I was out again on a bus to Waterloo station. From there, a train to Wimbledon and one last bus to the most exotic grass court in the world. It was cold and rainy and breezy (isn’t that just like Wimbledon?), I had no layers or thermals and there was a gaping, growling hole in my stomach, but my excitement knew no bounds.
I paid to take a tour of the grounds, to be able to see first-hand the manicured Center Court, to mourn devilishly at the graveyard of champions (Court II), to step on the grass if I was allowed. This last was not possible, unfortunately – a guard accompanied us all the time to ensure that we didn’t step on the grass. In all my years of teaching myself to play tennis properly, I have never hit a single ball on a grass court, and that wish remained a wish. It is all very quaint, the fastidiousness with which the courts are maintained, the way in the which the rye is cut to 14 mm and then in small steps until it is a uniform 8 mm on the eve of the tournament. The maintenance schedule quite blew my mind, and I realized instantly why the rest of the world has moved on to hard courts. The new roof at Center Court is quite an imposing contraption, and in a place steeped in tradition, it must have been a memorable occasion when it was unfurled for the first time this July.
Other than the disappointment of not being able to step on the courts, the tour was a revelation. Susan, our guide, was extremely well-versed in the history of Wimbledon. I recalled how, a month ago in Alexandria, I was overcome with curiosity about the whereabouts of Euclid’s original documents and put the question to the tall, impeccable, English-speaking lady officially appointed as the guide by the New Library of Alexandria. Cleopatra’s face had gone blank for a moment; she hadn’t the faintest idea about who or what this Euclid was supposed to be. I remember that sinking feeling distinctly – rarely is one so disheartened. Now, it does not make sense to compare a 142-year old tennis tournament with an invaluable repository of lost knowledge two millenia old – but dear reader, pray allow a fan his fancy exaggerations. Have no fear, the guide at Wimbledon was marvelous – She knew where Cliff Richard sang on that day in 1996 when rain held up play on Center Court, she knew about the graveyard of champions and gave us a detailed and rueful account of the history of Henman Hill. She knew what every window on Center Court was – however distinctive or plain-looking. (the BBC sits here, this is where the players come in, this is where Sue Barker reports from. This was very satisfying you see, Sue Barker being as much a part of Wimbledon lore as strawberries and cream). She even told a funny story about how strict Wimbledon officials refused a player entry to the grounds because he could not locate his ID card. Roger who?
She told us about the ticket lines outside during tournament week, and why it was a great idea to get a grounds pass instead of a Center Court ticket in the early days of the tournament. And, she told us about Wimbledon’s connection with Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated poem “If”: Before the players step out on Center Court, they walk through a hallway, and over their heads are painted the lines:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
“Imagine reading that,” she said “when you are about to step on Center Court for the first time!” As we exited Center Court, we passed huge painted boards on the left, containing pictures of the champions over the years. They were all there – Sampras all intent and serious, Borg with his famous blond locks, Lenglen the ballerina, Navratilova with her dozens of trophies. We got out just as the line ended with six Federers and one Nadal. It was only then that I realized how famished I was. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast on the plane. The muffin tucked away in my pocket had long been crushed to a powder and half of it dropped onto the pavement next to the bus stop.
If I ever have the chance to visit Wimbledon again, I hope it is during the tournament when they are playing in their freshly laundered whites and I can join the spectators in hitting a backhand or two on the side courts. It is hard to explain why I enjoy this game and its exponents so much – so, as talkative as I tend to be among friends, tennis is held jealously close in public life. It is associated with some pure, joyful place and I’ve never been reasonable about it since the day I burned my feet as a fifteen-year-old playing barefoot on a hot cement terrace with a plastic ball and a badminton racquet. Over time, but mostly after learning to hit a one-handed topspin backhand, a dying stroke which the tennis coach boorishly refused to teach, I began to think of tennis as less about hitting shots and more about moving well, about an artistic and geometric awareness of ball, court and net; it would be the closest I could ever get to dancing without being a self-conscious wreck. Anyway, the point of the rhapsody is to explain that all of London’s marvels, the Eye and Big Ben and the British Museum and Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace had to wait; Without a moment’s proper consideration, all of them had been subordinated to Wimbledon.