At tennis' greatest theatre, change has been ushered in gently, almost unnoticeably, writes Nirmal Shekar
Twenty five summers ago, on a glorious sunny morning, an egregiously overdressed sports reporter from India walked in circles for almost an hour around Wimbledon Park in south west London before locating the correct point of entry for mediapersons — Gate No. 5 — at the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
After security clearance and a good two minutes spent staring at the statue of the last Englishman to have won the men's title 50 years earlier — Fred Perry — the reporter, heart pounding, feeling a sense of reverence and awe he'd never before experienced in his short career up until then, walked up the steps leading to the Centre Court like an ardent pilgrim on the verge of realising a cherished dream.
Slowly making his way down those same steps was, to the reporter's utter disbelief, the great Perry himself, with a broad smile on his handsome, if creased, face.
As the reporter introduced himself with uncharacteristic shyness, Perry, after patiently answering a few questions, resumed his journey down the steps. Then, quickly turning around, he asked: “Is it your first Wimbledon visit?”
“Yes,” muttered The Hindu's newly-designated Tennis Correspondent, fidgeting with the notepad on which he had just scribbled down Perry's comments.
“Enjoy yourself. You will never forget the experience,” said Perry.
That was 1986. Today, Perry is gone — he died in 1995 at the age of 85 — but even now English fans who want to come face to face with the last of their male champions will have to make their way to that statue just inside Gate No. 5. And Wimbledon has come a long way since that unforgettable summer.
But then, has it? On Tuesday, an elderly gentleman watching Roger Federer play his first round match on television, turned around to me and said: “This is the only tournament that looks exactly the same each passing year. Nothing seems to have changed there.”
That's an illusion, of course. But what a mighty effort and vision it has taken to preserve that illusion!
Sport's great pastoral idyll, its Garden of Eden, tennis's Victorian tea party... the raving reviews may be familiar to all of us. A lot of it might sound like romantic overkill but the best of sport is part illusion and part reality.
“How much truth can the spirit take?” asked Friedrich Nietzsche rhetorically in a much larger context into which sport hardly fits, although it is very much a microcosm of life.
That — the appetite for truth — differs from person to person. But what the hell, harmless illusions are just what the doctor ordered, not the least for emotional good health.
So there is sport, and then there is Wimbledon. And the twain shall never meet?
Well, not exactly. Through the years, the greatest tennis championship in the world has changed with the times. New courts, state-of-the-art facilities for players and spectators, a hill with a giant screen — named Henman Hill when it was first put up but later changed to Murray's Mound — new, slower lawns to play on, heavier balls….you could go on and on.
As a Grand Slam event, it may be very different from the other three — the Australian Open, the French Open and the U.S. Open. White clothes, grass courts, a Royal box, advertisement hoardings that are almost invisible and a vulnerability to the fickleness of the English summer weather — now partly compensated for by the 84 million pounds sterling roof over the Centre Court — but the players' routines, and a lot of other things, remain the same as in the other Slams.
But what Wimbledon has accomplished with greater success than any other sporting event in the world is to preserve its great traditions, ushering in change amidst seeming changelessness.
Change can be either ugly and rapid or slow and graceful. The choice is ours.
“It is wiser to contemplate the law of impermanence than to try to repeal it,” wrote Larry Rosenberg.
There are no wiser men running sport anywhere in the world than those who have sat on the successive committees of the All England Lawn Tennis Club. They have not rebelled against change; they have just made sure that it is not garish — as it almost always turns out to be in many sporting events — and more importantly, not rushed to feed avarice.
At tennis' greatest theatre, change has been ushered in gently, almost unnoticeably; it is evolution under a familiar forest green canopy. This is precisely why Wimbledon is unique in modern sport. There is nothing quite like it.
“Oooh, I say,'' the incomparable commentator Dan Maskell — known as the Voice of Wimbledon — used to exclaim from the TV commentary box as a McEnroe drop volley would settle down inches from the net across the court like a falling autumnal leaf.
Then again, The Championships doesn't need an exclamation point, does it?
The most profound emotions that sport can evoke have to do as much with the ambience as with the skills of the performers. This is precisely why Wimbledon stands alone.
In a world in thrall of the fad of the moment, Wimbledon has preserved its unique identity.