Why Wimbledon remains a big bucket-list item!

THE IRC’S JONNY GOULD COLUMN
Alternate Wednesdays

I’ve never been to Wimbledon. Well – not as a spectator. I was sent there on a number of occasions as a Sports Reporter back in the late ‘90’s by one of my early TV employers, ITV’s London Tonight. It wasn’t the easiest of gigs as ITV have never had the rights to cover the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, so we had no credentials to get in.

Every year therefore, the Channel built a platform outside the front gate of the All-England Club, which, with the right camera angle, made it look as if I was actually inside the ground when I did my live broadcasts. To add a tad more authenticity to this, my producer would also instruct me to try and sneak in past security to get up close and personal with the action. It never worked of course, as every year the eagle-eyed security guards would spot me and throw me out. It almost became a rite of passage – Wimbledon Security versus Escapologist Enthusiast ITV Sports Reporter. There was only ever going to be one winner – you see Wimbledon takes their Security very seriously.

In fact Wimbledon’s attitude to security covers all sorts of vermin – not just dodgy non-accredited sports presenters. Cue Rufus the Hawk. Forget about Tom Cruise and Kate Middleton, the true star of the All England Wimbledon Tennis Championships is our feathered friend Rufus, who patrols the skies for the full fortnight. Rufus’s owner Wayne Davis has worked the Championships for 22 years, whilst Rufus has been his go-to bird of prey for the last 15 years.

Andy Murray and Rafa Nadal are just two of the former Wimbledon winners who’ve requested a selfie with our fearless featherful guardian of the sky.  Mind you the All England Club isn’t Rufus’s only high profile gig. His other illustrious clients include Lords Cricket Ground, Westminster Abbey – oh and Fulham FC. Rufus isn’t precious. He’s a bird of the people. Just like the Championships.

Wimbledon is the jewel in the crown of the global sport of tennis and welcomes Royalty and ordinary fan with equal enthusiasm. There are more than 40,000 people on site every day for the full two weeks, and tennis fans of all shapes and sizes are welcome to indulge their love of the sport in white. In many ways Wimbledon is the perfect representation of modern Britain. A sport crazy country still tied to many historical traditions – deference to Royalty for example. A country that loves a strict application of rules (we Brits do love a queue), and a country with an almost blind allegiance to tradition. But also a country with a love of the under-dog, a country that welcomes outsiders more than it is ever credited with – a country that loves to put on a show and treat its guests with respect and warmth.

The inhabitants of this year’s Men’s Final are a case in point. There was no Federer, no Nadal, no Murray – no one in fact in the Final that the British tennis neutral could get excited about. Asking a British tennis fan to choose between Novak “No Vacc” Djokovic and Nick “Brat-Boy” Kyrigos is like being asked to choose your favourite despot – Putin or Stalin? Yet the Centre Court crowd were as passionate, and as supportive as ever.

But the tennis is actually only half the story. Did you know for instance that the Club wasn’t initially even primarily a tennis club? It was actually founded on the 23rd of July 1868 as The All England Croquet Club. Its name was changed in 1877 to The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club and only in 1899 to The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Despite these slow beginnings it is now the most prestigious tennis club in the UK, and currently has 375 full-time members, and around 100 temporary members. There are also many honorary members of the club who are either past Champions, or have served the club in a notable way.

So what makes it so special? Well certainly an eye for detail is one reason. In 1997 the Club opened a maze of underground tunnels and rooms hidden from public view. These are the veins of Wimbledon, literally circulating the lifeblood of the Championships. Staff can get from A to B without having to navigate the crushing crowds, and player changing-rooms and drug testing centres are hidden away from prying eyes. The tunnels are also used by the players. In fact in 2017, ahead of his 4th round tie with Giles Muller, Rafa Nadal banged his head while jumping to warm up in the tunnels beneath No.1 Court. There’s also a library in these tunnels that has a stock of 20,000 books – containing pretty much anything that’s ever been written about the sport of tennis. That’s open to the Public by the way – definitely one for your bucket-list.

STORED AT 20 DEGREES CELCIUS: Slazenger is the long-time balls supplier.

What about the immaculate state of the Courts and surrounding area? The Wimbledon Head Gardener Martyn Falconer has been in residence for 23 years. His team source for every Championship around 20,000 different plants from SW London to all over Europe, including 30,000 petunias. The grass on every court is cut to a strict 8mm in length. There are also 15 racket-stringers on site throughout the Championships, to accommodate about 450 daily requests for a re-string! 

All this requires the efforts of 6,000 staff employed for those 2 weeks in June/July, including 250 ball boys and ball girls. The ball boys and boy girls are recruited from 31 local schools and have to endure intense training starting the previous January. The teenagers are expected to walk in silence and are not allowed to speak to players unless spoken to first. Now that’s a challenge for our modern-day teenager.

The club keeps about 53,000 new balls stored at exactly 20 degrees Celsius, all of which are covered to keep them in mint condition. These balls by the way have been supplied by Slazenger since 1902. Used balls are sold daily at £2.50 for a can of three, and all the proceeds raised go to local charities. Now here’s a good trivia question:

“How many balls were used in the 2010 marathon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, which finished an unbelievable 70-68 to Isner in the deciding Set?”  Answer at the end of this article.

But my favourite Wimbledon tit-bit is the story of the Championship’s staple diet – strawberries and cream. This was a tradition started as far back as the reign of King Henry the VIII (1509-1547), who apparently loved to snack on them while watching tennis at Hampton Court Palace. And it’s clear that Henry wasn’t the only fan of the Championship’s signature dish. Some 200,000 punnets are sold every year, so with 10 strawberries per punnet, that’s 2 million strawberries consumed per Championship. This is just a little more popular than the other great British culinary delight, Fish & Chips, of which 18,061 portions were sold at the 2019 tournament.

So if like me, you’ve yet to experience the sheer unadulterated joy of the Wimbledon fortnight, then get it on your bucket list. One piece of advice though – avoid looking up, just in case Rufus is passing by!!

Until next time!

(Trivia Question Answer: 123) -IRC. 

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