Wimbledon has changed with the times, yet has retained an essential identity. After 41 years of continuous pilgrimage to the Mecca of world tennis, the All England Club still gives him the goose bumps, as it did when he visited it the very first time, says well-known player and commentator Vijay Amritraj. A personal journey back in time as another Wimbledon season comes around…
I was 15 years old when I first stepped into the hallowed grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club at Wimbledon. The year was 1969 and it was a month later that American astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, and I was glued to the television in a small room: where I was playing a junior tennis tournament. I was overwhelmed with emotion and pride that man had reached out to the stars and touched the moon. But I am not quite sure if that feeling was better than my first ever visit to Wimbledon. We all have dreams, and for a 15-year-old from Chennai who grew up playing the game and wondering if I would ever get to England, let alone Wimbledon, this was goose bump time. I am only sorry now that I did not have a picture taken of me entering the all England club through gate number five on Church Road, eyes like flying saucers and my mouth wide open. I managed to save 50 pence from the night before to stand in line and enter the standing room area of the world famous Centre Court. In time to watch my hero, the legend, 41-year-old Pancho Gonzales take on the US Number One Charles Paseral. I will never forget that match that lasted two days and 112 games which my hero won 22/24 1/6 16/14 6/3 11/9. I vowed to myself that day that somehow I would come back and play on that Centre Court someday and make India proud. Things have a way of working out! Pancho Gonzales would coach me for a while a few years later. One of the greatest experiences I have ever had on a tennis court were my years with Pancho as coach and teacher.
Through the years
I cannot believe it but this year I will be making my 41st Wimbledon visit in a row! If that is not a record it must be pretty close. I have been so very fortunate to be at the Mecca of tennis every year since 1969, first as a visitor, then as a junior player, then a regular in the men's singles, doubles and mixed doubles, then in the seniors event and finally as a television commentator. The strange thing is that when I walk through those gates again this year I will have the same emotions and feelings as I had when I came to the 1969 Championships. I am not quite sure what it is! But it is a feeling about Wimbledon that nothing can replicate.
The championships have both changed to keep up with the times and not changed to maintain the aura and tradition of Wimbledon. It is not just a major tennis event, it is the most awaited two weeks in the world's sporting calendar. Since my first visit to the Championships, the biggest change for the players has been the slowing down of the grass courts and the increase in weight of the balls. Yes, we went from white balls to yellow, we went to the tiebreaker at 8 all and eventually to 6 all in the first four sets. But the texture of the grass has changed, so the courts play much slower and the heavier balls make you work harder for every point, with a lot of back court rallies. The era of the great serve and volley player is long gone. You can still get to the net with a huge serve but it cannot be done consistently. The players today have the best return of serve in the game and their back court game is far superior to any volleyer today. The days of Gonzales, Newcombe, Smith and Ashe ended with the era of Pete Sampras. Today Federer, with his superb all round game, is still able to have that edge on grass due to his ability to come in to the net at anytime but backs that up with a magnificent back court game.
Women's tennis has seen the greatest leap with the players today being bigger, stronger and great athletes. But it was really Martina Navratilova who started that fitness trend. Her rivalry with Chris Evert was legendary. The Williams sisters added a completely different dimension to the sport. Today the addition of Hawk Eye to clarity line calls and the roof on Centre Court are probably the best new changes. The game is so much more professional and streamlined than it has ever been.
But Wimbledon itself hasn't really changed that much. It has beautifully maintained the ambience and tradition in spite of adding buildings, courts, gymnasiums, locker rooms, more seating etc… As far as clothing, the predominantly all white still remains, but the bowing and curtsy to the Royal Box is gone on request from HRH The Duke of Kent.
To me Wimbledon is and has always been a place that any visitor to London has to see. No different than visiting the Taj Mahal or Pyramids of Egypt. They say the easiest way to become a member of this amazing All England Club is to win the singles event. I was honoured with that exclusive membership in 2001 and a lifelong dream came true.
This year I will once again join my friend Alan Wilkins to cover the world's most prestigious sporting event on television for Star Sports starting on June 21. But I know what will give me goose bumps again is walking through those gates at the All England Club, feeling exactly what I felt 41 years ago.