June 24, 2014
Walking through the Wimbledon gates again, it is like being allowed back into a magical fantasy land, one which never disappoints. You feel you are already in the embrace of a dear old friend, who will make the tribulations of the real world disappear. While players on the outside courts are already battling hard to keep their own dreams alive, the champion must wait a little longer to make his grand entrance on Centre Court.
There is just time to enjoy one of the perks of having a debenture holder’s ticket – the Rooftop Bar on the fifth floor of the inner sanctum. Pimms with a salmon and crayfish sandwich, a crystal-clear view across London to the Shard and The London Eye. This is perfect.
Far below, you watch players try to summon their powers on Court 16 and 17. On one side of the net, Wimbledon ambitions will be prolonged. On the other, they are already being shattered early. Down to the second floor, through the wonderful Terrace restaurant and along a short corridor at the other end. There it is! Show your ticket and you are in. The historic Centre Court. The sheer majesty of it.
To your left is the Royal Box, while just below you, the families and coaches of the champion and his opponent are just taking their seats.
Celebrities are peppered everywhere. Movie stars, comedians, sportsmen who have reached the pinnacle of their own game…all have come to salute the champion. So in that instant there is no difference between us, we are merely privileged spectators with a common purpose.
First, we applaud the ball boys and girls. Then the line-judges. There is nothing as warm as a Wimbledon welcome.
At 12.59pm, a single shriek from a woman desperate to be first to spot him. More cheers as he moves into sight and waves. A crescendo of applause, we are all on our feet now, this is something akin to hysteria. In that instant we know we are honouring the heroics of the previous year. If the champion is our personal favourite, we dare to hope he will do it all over again this year.
There is perfect silence for the first serve, then the exquisite ping of racquet on ball. The title defence has begun.
Cheers as the champion wins points, gasps when he doesn’t. Raucous applause as he closes out the first game and settles his own nerves. For nerves there will be, however great the champion. It doesn’t always go according to plan. Audible horror, as though the world has caved in. A double fault! How can the Wimbledon champion serve a double fault?
Yet the champ pumps himself up whenever threatened, determined to focus on his opening test. Many a big name has fallen at the first hurdle because this is Wimbledon and everyone wants to take a scalp here.
This champion will not let it happen. He takes control with all the skill and fluency which took him to the top. Yet he is only human. Now and again, we see chinks in the champion’s armour. Fortunately, the opponent doesn’t truly believe he has the right to upset the crowd. He lets his chance slip away.
There is sympathetic applause for the challenger. This is Wimbledon, we are generous of heart and fair of mind. Once more the contender makes a fight of it…we have a match! Still the champion prevails, and we love every moment of his brilliance. There is nothing quite like the sound of applause on Wimbledon’s Centre Court. It is the sound of sheer satisfaction. The sound of joy, sometimes understated, sometimes given full expression. Joy at where we are, whom we are watching, joy at being alive and lucky, to be here, in this special place,a little piece of paradise.
The champion moves in for the kill. It is over. The crowd rises to its feet once more and hails the hero.
There will be tougher days, when even greater levels of support might be required. For now, sympathy for the loser, a wave of love for the champion, and they are gone. Yet it isn’t over. This is just the beginning.
Even now, somewhere outside Centre Court, there lurks real danger, a genuine threat to the champion.
Over on Court One there is a man fancied by some to be capable of taking the champion’s title. He doesn’t have the same following and so the atmosphere on Court One cannot be quite as electric as that on Centre Court, not on this particular day. Yet the Court One air is thick with expectation all the same. We are witnessing a special talent, he dismantles his opponent patiently, efficiently, still able to save energy for later matches. This contender will progress quietly, until he can stake his claim and ambush the champion.
It comes with the territory. This is what champions must deal with each year. From the opening day, from their first rapturous welcome into the sunshine, they know a storm is brewing and sooner or later the fates will see them collide with a gladiator hell-bent on taking everything they have.
This inescapable reality lurks somewhere deep inside the champion’s mind, even as he milks that first Centre Court applause.
This is what it is to be the main attraction on the opening day of Wimbledon. Revered…and hunted.