By DAVID MILLER News Sports Writer During the past couple of weeks much of the attention of sports enthusiasts has been focused on Wimbledon and rightfully so, because this tennis tournament is one of the greatest sports spectacles to be staged each year.
I have followed Wimbledon somewhat obliquely over the years, mainly because tennis is not in the same category as baseball, basketball and football in my list of sports preferences.
However, I learned to play tennis at a relatively young age and in my younger years thoroughly enjoyed getting out and hitting a few balls. When I lived in Illinois I had a friend who thought he was really gifted with athleticism and he challenged me to a match. It didn’t take long to determine that his assessment of his own skills far exceeded his actual ability. There were very few volleys in our match with most of the time spent chasing balls he had blasted over the tennis court fence. I don’t think I’ve played since.
My childhood subscription to Sport Magazine introduced me to a whole new world beyond Major League Baseball and college football and basketball. It was in its pages that I first learned of Wimbledon.
Back in those years, the top men tennis players were Lou Hoad, Tony Trabert, Vic Seixas and Ken Rosewall. For a reason I’ve forgotten, Hoad was always my favorite, even though he was Australian and not from the United States.
Among the top women players were Maureen Connolly and Louise Brough. What I remember most about Connolly was her age. She was usually referred to as the teen-age tennis prodigy, forcing me to look up the word prodigy. Connolly had won the U. S. Open tennis tournament in New York in 1951 at the age of 16.
At least on the men’s side, the tennis world back in the 1950s was dominated by the United States and Australia. Almost always the top stars from those two countries would vie for the Davis Cup, the ultimate team trophy in tennis. In fact, I had lived under the mistaken impression that the teams from our two countries were the only ones participating in the Davis Cup competition.
But getting back to Wimbledon, since I know so little about the venerable sporting event, I took it upon myself to becomea little more familiar with it.
The first tournament was held in 1877 and it was sponsored by the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which has been the sponsoring agency every year since.
As the full name of the All-England Club would indicate, the matches are played on grass and the Wimbledon competition is the only major tennis event to be played on grass.
Tradition is very important to Londoners and Wimbledon is no exception. The official name of the event has always been simply The Championships, with Wimbledon added parenthetically, because the grass courts just happen to be located in the section of London known as Wimbledon. Gentlemen’s and Ladies’ Champions are determined in both singles and doubles and there is a mixed doubles category as well.
The players are referred to as Mr. and Miss. The tradition that I would revere above all others is that strawberries and cream should be consumed by those watching the event. One source indicates that 34.000 kilograms (74,957 pounds) of strawberries and 10,000 litres (2,641.72 gallons) of cream were consumed by Wimbledon spectators in 2017. The strawberries are guaranteed to have been picked on the day of consumption. Along with the strawberries and cream, I’m told 32,000 lots of fish and chips were served as well as 25,000 bottles of champagne; 100,000 pints of beer; 135,000 ice creams; 170,000 scones; 190,000 sandwiches; 200,000 glasses of Pimms; 250,000 bottles of water and 300,000 cups of tea and coffee.
There is a very strict dress code for both players and spectators alike.
I remember from a long-ago time reading about Gussie Moran who scandalized the staid Wimbledon crowd in 1949 by wearing a short tennis dress that was short enough that her “knickers” were showing. To make matters worse, the knickers were ruffled with lacy trim. Moran had wanted an outfit that would have one sleeve of her top one color, the other sleeve another color and her skirt to be yet a third color. Tournament host Ted Tinling denied her request because Wimbledon rules strictly state that outfits be white only. But he compromised by making her outfit different. The short skirt and lacy panties were his idea. Needless to say her outfit caused quite a commotion. Reporters covering the event labelled her as “Gorgeous Gussie” and photographerswere battling for shooting locations where their angles would show off Moran’s lace. Her attire caused Parliament to consider taking action. Tinling, who had been the official host for 23 years, was not invited back to Wimbledon until 1982 for his part in what was considered a debacle. Moran’s attire would be pretty tame by today’s fashion standards. But Wimbledon’s dress code which permits only white outfits still is in force. Before the tournament the players have to submit their clothing to the club to be approved. The umpire will deem if the clothing is appropriate and if it meets the club’s dress code. In 1988, 1989 and 1990 America’s Andre Agassi was outraged at the continued dress code rules and refused to play, deeming it a “stuffy” atmosphere.
Some more things I just now learned about the most prestigious tennis tournament:
—The youngest player to win the title at Wimbledon was Charlotte Dod who won in 1887 at the age of 15. For the next five years she retained her title. However, this wasn’t her only sporting activity, as Charlotte was also involved in the London Olympic Games in 1908 where she was awarded a silver medal in archery. In 1904, she won the British Amateur Golf Championship and was even a member of the 1899 British National field hockey team. The youngest man ever to win the championship was 17-year-old Boris Becker, beating Kevin Curren in the final in 1985. Becker wasn’t just the youngest man ever to win but was also the tournament’s first unseeded champion and the first-ever German to win Wimbledon.
—The longest match ever played was in 2010 when John Isner and Nicholas Mahut battled for 11 hours and five minutes. The last set took more than eight hours and was won by Isner 70-68. Isner was involved in another long match this year, but this time he lost the final set 26-24 to Kevin Anderson.
—While the event is in London, usually someone from another country wins. The last English gentleman’s champion was Andy Murray in 2013 and the last English lady to win the title was Virginia Wade in 1977.
—There aren’t any pigeons bothering action at Wimbledon although there is a heavy pigeon population in that part of London. The reason is that Rufus the Hawk is on duty.The All England Club has had Rufus patrolling the area during the tournament for the past 20 years. Before Rufus, there was Hamish the Hawk. The presence of a hawk makes the pigeons very nervous apparently.
—During Wimbledon, approximately 42,000 tennis balls are used. After the tournament ends, the used balls don’t go to waste. They are sent to the Surrey Wildlife Trust where they are used to create homes for harvest mice. The mice have become a threatened species due to the vast reduction in its natural habitat. The old tennis balls are turned into homes for the mice by drilling little doors into them so the mice can utilize them for a nest.
—The grass playing surface is 100 per cent perennial ryegrass. Since the Australian Open went to a hard surface court in 1982, Wimbledon is the only major tennis event to be played on grass.
—The finals are played on Centre Court, which is used only for The Championships, Wimbledon. An exception was the 2012 Olympics which had competition on Centre Court.
—Rain, which happens relatively often in the UK, used to interfere with action frequently. However, there is a retractable roof over Centre Court these days which helps considerably.
— There is a Royal Box. Tradition once compelled players to bow or curtsy before the Royal Box before each match. That tradition ended in 2003. However, if Her Majesty the Queen or Prince of Wales is in the box, players are still expected to do their bowing and curtsying. Princes William and Harry attended this year’s tournament, but players were not expected to acknowledge their presence.
—It is a great honor in Britain to serve as a ball boy or girl for Wimbledon. Those positions are filled by students of London schools. Teachers make nominations based on scholarship and citizenship qualifications. Those nominated still must pass written and fitness testing. Only boys were used until 1983, when girls also were allowed to serve.
—American tennis fans got start-to-finish television coverage of Wimbledon for the first time in 2013. Before that only a few of the major matches were available to watch here.
—There is a museum on the Wimbledon grounds and tours of the facilities are available year around for those who aren’t able to take in a tournament.