Mon, September 23, 2013

World welcomed to Wimbledon

By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency


A view of centre court at the famous Wimbledon All-England Club during the London 2012 Olympic Games. (AL CHAREST/QMI Agency)


LONDON - Centre Court towers above all, the ivy covering the main entrance and the surrounding walls providing the first hint you are entering the grounds of one of the world’s most famous sporting shrines.

People are eating strawberries and cream and yes, Henman Hill looks like a cool sporting place to hang out, just as you would expect it to after watching so many fortnights on the tube.

But what really strikes a first-time visitor to the famed All-England Lawn Tennis Club is perhaps surprisingly the most obvious: It is the grass.

It is what Wimbledon is most famous for, of course, but it is more real and more vibrant than you could imagine. The smell. The colour. The immaculate condition. And the way a tennis ball sounds when it bounds off the surfaces.

It is sacred ground in the sport’s most revered event and is clearly treated as such by those who walk on it, stare and it and care for it.

There are 19 courts spread over the grounds, including the famed Centre Court where on Sunday, the retractable roof salvaged London’s first true rain day of these Olympics. The highlight was Andy Murray, the star of the Great Britain team, who returned to the famed lawn three weeks to the day after losing an emotional Wimbledon final to Roger Federer and easily recorded a straight-set win over Switzerland’s Stanislas Wawrinka.

With Murray in play, the atmosphere made the transition from Grand Slam to Olympic Games a smooth one, though as one observer admitted, somewhat more boisterous than during the championships where the decorum is expected and enforced.

There wasn’t an empty seat in the Centre Court stands for Murray’s match and a rousing reception when it was over as the country’s love affair spreads its wings.

Some other observations from a visit to a place so many sports fans would have on their bucket list:

• The grounds crew around here is famously efficient for a reason. As soon as the rain comes, the grass is covered up before each blade barely has a chance for a drink. When Canadian Vasek Pospisil had his Court No. 2 match with Spaniard David Ferrer postponed in mid-afternoon, it took the crew all of 25 seconds to cover it up. And it would have been faster if officials had cleared out quicker. Guess all that practice helps.

• Yes, there are strawberries and cream and yes they look good enough to eat.

• Perhaps it was because of the roof, but Centre Court seems smaller than you might expect. And that’s a good thing. As intimate a 15,000-seat venue as you can find, just walking up the gangway (as they call the staircase entrances) and getting an initial glimpse is a sensation not to be forgotten. Old and elegant, there is no mistaking you are in a special place.

• The facility is what you would expect from a place that borders on pretense — it is a private member’s club in a ritzy part of town, after all — but lives up to its pristine reputation. Forget the tennis and you could be strolling in a park or an English country garden, the grounds are so clean, groomed and in full bloom.

• Purists are no doubt offended and in fact, it was a little disappointing that one of the Wimbledon traditions is on hold. For the Olympics and all the patriotism that goes with it, the All England Club has waived its requirement for all participants to wear all-white apparel during matches. Love the Canadian touch though, mostly white with just a subtle trim of red stitching.

• Before the rains came, Henman Hill was alive with fans flocking to the area to the side of No. 1 court where fans love to congregate on match days and watch the action on a larger screen. Named after former British player Tim Henman, word is some already want to call it Murray Mound after their latest star in the sport.

• There is a Royal Box at the south end of Centre Court and the royals often use it (though they weren’t here on this day.) The patron of the club is her majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the president is the Duke of Kent.

• Murray, by the way, noticed a difference in the crowd from Wimbledon as England’s sports fans took advantage of the chance to see an institution that is difficult to acquire tickets for during the tournament. A major goal of London 2012 organizers was to expose the world to some of its famous locations as part of the Olympic blueprint. From the beginning, the All England Club was at the top of that list.

“A lot of people that come to Wimbledon, their knowledge of tennis is fantastic because a lot of them have been many times to Wimbledon,” Murray said. “But a lot of people there today, it would have been their first time. They were obviously very, very excited and the atmosphere was great.”

Which of the world's great sports venue do you dream of one day visiting? Tweet out your thoughts with the hashtag #bestvenue

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

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