What the hell, we can do with a few illusions in life, can’t we? writes Nirmal Shekar
Almost all the sublimely enjoyable things in life tweak reality. In sport, no single event does this more successfully than does The Championships at Wimbledon. It is both a phenomenal achievement and a sleight of hand.
Yet, it serves the purpose. As the great Friedrich Nietzsche said, man cannot stand too much reality. “How much truth can the spirit take,” he bemoaned. To tell you the truth, not very much, unless a person wants to deliberately cross the line dividing the sane and the not-so-sane.
Then again, Wimbledon does not deliberately misrepresent reality. There is no conscious attempt on the part of the honourable men who run the event to do anything like this. It has just evolved to become what it is from its Victorian garden party roots.
While taking advantage of all that state-of-the-art technology has to offer — look at the marvel that is the Centre Court roof, for instance — Wimbledon still manages to retain its late 19th century aura.
The present is nothing but the accumulation of the past. But in almost all other great sporting events, the past is virtually obliterated. At Wimbledon, the past and the present coexist in a happily-ever-after union.
Some would choose to dismiss this as an illusion, at best, and romantic hogwash at worst. But what the hell, we can do with a few illusions in life, can’t we?
If life is a theatre of the absurd, as Albert Camus said, then Wimbledon surreptitiously draws a veil over the worst of everyday reality and replaces it with a different kind of theatre — one that has little in common with the dreariness of our 24/7 lives.
Like any number of other illusions we live with, the grand, awe-inspiring sporting spectacle at the All England Lawn Tennis Club is cloaked in make-believe. But it doesn’t hurt; instead it comes as a balm.
Finitude is a precondition of human value. All good things, and bad, come to an end. But Wimbledon, with its unmistakable gloss of gentility and high culture, seems to have been around for ever.
In an age when avarice is a virtue rather than a mortal sin, we lack the moral vocabulary to express our disgust at some of the events that pass for sport these days. Perhaps Wimbledon is the only event that manages to evoke ‘spiritual’ states akin to the finest of music.
The most profound emotions that sport evokes — rarely, to be sure — have as much to do with the ambience as with the skills of the performers.
This is precisely why, during my 25-plus trips to the spiritual home of tennis, it hardly mattered to me who the top seed was or even what the quality of the men’s and women’s line-ups were.
It did not matter if Bjorn Borg wasn’t around anymore. You did not lose sleep over Andre Agassi’s absence. This was England’s sporting emblem of undisputed supremacy and durability and the great names were only a minor part of the script.
The first time I walked in through Gate No.5., now called the Fred Perry Gate, I was over-dressed, over-awed and underprepared — emotionally and in every which way — for what awaited me.
On only the second day at Wimbledon, over 27 years ago, the late John Parsons, who was the Tennis Correspondent of The Telegraph for a long time and a friend and well-wisher for a much longer time, invited me to join a small group of journalists who were to discuss the quality of media facilities with a core group of the All England Lawn Tennis Club members.
Used to working in T-shirts and jeans until then, this correspondent rushed to Oxford Street the next morning to pick up a decent pair of trousers, a jacket and a tie. The exercise was well worth it.
The gentlemen of the committee were courteous, generous and made sure that a man visiting the hallowed inner chambers for the first time, someone from an entirely different continent and culture, was made to feel at home.
There was a minor problem though. One of my hosts offered me a glass of Sherry — and a few more — and it did take a long cold shower and two strong cups of coffee to get to the Centre Court for the match that afternoon.
Of course, those days, play on Centre Court did not start before 2 p.m. Pretty civilised, you would think.