As chronicled in these pages, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience when I made it to Wimbledon in 2016. I certainly was not expecting a deadly pandemic, let alone anticipating that such a tragedy (which kept all spectators away from the US Open in 2020 and kept me away in 2021) would pave the way for my return to the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
I have been careful about avoiding Covid, more careful than most, certainly than most Americans at this stage of the pandemic. To be sure, it is rational to worry less about Covid than in 2020, now that we have vaccines and antiviral medication. Still, I’ve been spending my Covid micromorts sparingly: while Covid is not so likely to kill me (and didn’t when I had what was once called a breakthrough infection, a month after my first booster shot), it can still be very unpleasant, and then there’s the danger of long Covid, to say nothing of the unknown risk of viral infections that cause serious effects down the road.
Against this background, on Friday, March 18, 2022, at 12:31 p.m., I received an email from the All England Club that began:
We are delighted to be writing to you with an update on ticketing for The Championships 2022.
As you may be aware, guests who were successful in our 2020 Wimbledon Public Ballot had the opportunity to transfer their tickets to The Championships 2022.
A limited number of these tickets have now been returned, and we are pleased to let you know that they are available to purchase via our ticketing website.
To view availability and purchase tickets please click on the button below.
Fortunately, the email did not go into my spam folder, and I saw it within a few minutes of its arrival. But what to do? Spend the micromorts or save them? Could I predict how bad Covid would be in the early summer? Not with any degree of expertise, that’s for sure. Notwithstanding the uncertainty, the lure of Wimbledon outweighed my fear of Covid, and I plunged forward.
I was able to purchase two tickets (the maximum) for the first Wednesday of the fortnight, and a tennis-loving cousin, whom I’d notified of the email, bought two for the first Tuesday. In 2016, we were on Court 1; this time, we got Centre Court. Not too close to the blades of grass, we would eventually learn when our digital tickets became available a fortnight before the fortnight, but Centre Court all the same! (It helps that Centre Court is not a monstrosity like Arthur Ashe Stadium, so there are no truly bad seats in the house.)
• • •
A lot can happen in six years, certainly in the life of an athlete. Gordon Forbes’s memoir of life on the amateur tennis tour was titled A Handful of Summers, and not without reason. (Speaking of Covid risk, the disease claimed Forbes’s life in December 2020.) So let’s look at the players I saw in 2016 and consider where they are now:
· Ivo Karlovic: Dr. Ivo is now 43 years old and outside the top 400. He has not played on tour since the delayed Indian Wells event last October.
· Borna Coric: Still only 25 but plagued by injuries, he has fallen outside the top 250.
· Venus Williams: Venus is 41, outside the top 500, last played the tour in August 2021, and is not entered at Wimbledon.
· Donna Vekic: Turning 26 during Wimbledon, she’s hanging onto a spot in the top 100, with a losing record so far in 2022.
· Kei Nishikori: He’s 32, had hip surgery in January, and hopes to return to the tour this summer. In the meantime, he hovers just outside the top 100.
· Thomaz Bellucci: At age 34, he’s fallen out of the top 1,000, his most recent activity being the qualifying for the Pau Challenger last November.
· Ruben Bemelmans: Also 34, he’s outside the top 300 and mostly playing Challengers.
· Angelique Kerber: Still in the top 20 at age 34, she won two of her three major titles since I saw her, and made the Wimbledon semifinals last year.
· Laura Robson: After numerous injuries, she retired before Roland Garros this year at the age of 28.
· Mona Barthel: Outside the top 400 at age 31, she is playing ITF events.
· Danka Kovinic: At 27, she’s toward the bottom of the top 100 and reached the third round of Roland Garros, where she took eight games from Iga Swiatek.
· Gilles Muller: Now 39, he retired in 2018, with his best results in the majors being the quarterfinals at the US Open and Wimbledon, and the round of 16 in Australia.
· Santiago Giraldo: He retired in 2020 at the age of 32.
For good measure, I’ll add two whom I would have watched had I been able to squeeze into the stands on Court 8:
· Jack Sock: A year later, he made it to the ATP Tour Final, before injuries sidetracked his career. With his 30th birthday looming in September, he is ranked outside the top 100 but managed to qualify for Wimbledon this year. At this writing, he is through to the third round.
· Ernests Gulbis: He briefly visited the top ten but now, almost 34, he is ranked in the mid-300s and is playing Challengers.
This survey suggests not only that a professional tennis career is fragile but also that the dedication that brings players to tour level often keeps them plugging away long after dreams of glory or big paydays have faded. Of the 14 players I saw in 2016, only one remains in the top 20. It’s also striking how many of the players I saw six years ago are, like our one top-20 survivor, 34 years old; at 28, they would have been close to their primes.
• • •
The first bit of good news at Wimbledon this year was that the rail strikes that had hit Britain the week before the fortnight began did not recur. This enabled me to travel on Monday from the airport to Paddington Station and thence to my hotel on the excellent Heathrow Express (which is economical, too, if you order in advance) and on Tuesday and Wednesday to and from Wimbledon on the Underground. (Italicized hyperlinks refer to photographs.) When I was at Wimbledon in 2016, winners of the ballot queued up to enter the grounds and receive paper tickets. Now, paper for ballot tickets is no more, as everything appears on the Wimbledon app. The two days I was at Wimbledon this year, the app ticket included a moving image of a strawberry and teacup, respectively. By requiring these moving images, the tournament seeks to prevent transfer of tickets via screenshot.
Perhaps the most exciting action of my two days at the tournament occurred before the first ball of the day was struck on Tuesday. I had gone to Court 14 to watch David Goffin play Radu Albot. Play begins on the field courts at 11:00, while Centre Court does not begin until 1:30. Centre Court, Court 1, and Court 2 all required dedicated tickets. The other courts are open to all ticketholders, but only Courts 3, 12, and 18 provide substantial seating. Court 14 offers three rows of seats on either side of the court. There was a small gap between the tread and the riser on one of the steps in the stands, and a spectator unfortunately dropped her telephone – which, among other things, contained her ticket – into the gap. With the phone having fallen under the stands and there being no way to crawl underneath to retrieve it, the situation appeared dire. To the rescue came the grounds crew, consisting of several young people whose primary responsibility is to cover and uncover the courts as required by London’s frequent rain. Their secondary responsibility, it appears, is to recover dropped phones, and they seem to get a lot of practice. The procedure involved the use of a litter picker and two smartphones. One smartphone, suspended on a long cord, went down through the hole, its camera having established a video call with the second smartphone. The grounds crew looked at the second smartphone to ascertain where the dropped phone had fallen. It took about five minutes of manipulation until they got the lost phone in position to be plucked out from under the stands by the litter picker, whereupon they returned it to a very grateful owner. She offered the crew a £20 reward, which they declined with a smile, as though their heroic efforts were all in a day’s work, certainly when they were not busy with rain.
I wondered how the match was being televised, as there were cameramen stationed on either side of the net, each focused on only one player. Eventually, I noticed the robotic camera behind the court, which must be the one used for the TV feed.
As for the match, Goffin cruised past Albot, who has fallen out of the top 100 at age 32 and had to qualify. Playing on relatively pristine grass, Albot took a spill in the second set, and Goffin fell harder in the third, but both were able to continue. The first two sets were routine, 6-2 6-2. In the third set, Albot came back, going up 3-0 with two breaks of serve. He gave one back with a double fault in the fourth game, and Goffin drew even in the eighth game. Goffin raced to a 6-2 lead in the tiebreak and closed out the win 6-2 6-2 7-6(5). The match was not particularly close, with Goffin winning 55% of the points, but the statistic that jumps out was success on second serve: Goffin won 62% of such points and Albot only 43%.
I then proceeded to Centre Court for my first time. (In 2016, I had been on Court 1.) My seat was in Row ZD, and it was striking how far the permanent portion of the roof extended: I could not see the sky from my seat, and this was true for those sitting quite a few rows ahead of me. The part of the roof that retracts is relatively small, and there’s no risk of sunburn for most ticketholders on Centre Court.
On Court 14, the only advertising one saw was for Slazenger and Rolex. On Centre Court, there was signage for Evian, IBM and Jaguar (on the speed gun), and a mystery brand called OPPO. Some research indicates that the latter is a Chinese manufacturer of smartphones and a sponsor of The Championships, as it is of Roland Garros, too. Relative anonymity may be a good marketing strategy, insofar as it forced me to look up the brand rather than just ignore it. As for Evian’s signage, whatever happened to the good old days of Robinsons Barley Water? That relationship came to an end this year.
The first match I saw on Centre Court was between Iga Swiatek and the qualifier Jana Fett. Swiatek, number 1 in the world, entered Wimbledon on a 35-match winning streak. Fett is best known for holding a 5-1 40-15 lead over Caroline Wozniacki in the third set of the second round of the Australian Open in 2018. Wozniacki saved the two match points and went on to win her only major title.
Fett seemed to have the yips on her serve, catching many tosses and double faulting nine times. Even when she didn’t catch her toss, she had a slight hitch in her motion when the ball was at its apex. Swiatek punished Fett’s second serve, taking 19 of 25 points.
Swiatek made quick work of the first set, 6-0. Fett came to life in the second set, breaking serve in the first game and reaching a 3-1 lead. She had five break points for a 4-1 lead, but Swiatek turned the tide, holding serve and continuing on a five-game tear for a 6-0 6-3 win.
The next match, between Rafael Nadal and the 23-year-old Argentine Francisco Cerundolo, was more competitive than one might have expected. Nadal, whose serve broke 120 mph only on occasion (as opposed to the days when he would hit 130 mph), had to save three break points to reach 5-4 in the first set, and then broke Cerundolo for the lead. The second set was also closely contested, but Nadal prevailed, 6-3. Nadal went up an early break in the third, but Cerundolo struck back and broke again to serve for the set at 5-3. He squandered two set points and fought off two break points before closing out the set, 6-3. Cerundolo sets up to serve at some distance from the middle of the court, especially on the ad side, and yet he was still able to find Nadal’s backhand with many of his serves. In the fourth set, the youngster broke for 2-1 and saved two break points to extend his lead to 3-1. In the next game, Cerundolo had four break points to take a big lead, but Nadal did not budge. Nadal broke at love in the eighth game to tie the set and held at love, completing a run of eleven consecutive points, for a 5-4 lead. With Cerundolo facing match point at 4-5 30-40, he sent a backhand down the line wide, and Nadal advanced. As is often the case when the great players scrape through, they do better on the big points: Nadal converted 6 of 14 break points, while Cerundolo managed only 4 of 18.
The final match of the day was an epic between Serena Williams, closing in on 41 and playing singles for the first time in a year, and Harmony Tan. Williams hits much harder than Tan, who features a variety of spins, including many drop shots (often followed by lobs) and sliced groundstrokes. Tan’s second serve was slow enough that Williams frequently attacked it. Williams took a 4-2 lead in the first set, but Tan broke to reduce the margin to 4-3 by taking a long game on her fourth break opportunity. The players remained on serve until Tan scrambled to break for a 6-5 lead, at which point she gestured to the (predominantly pro-Williams) crowd to cheer her. Tan held her nerve to close out the set, staving off a break point and shutting the door with a crosscourt forehand passing shot.
There was a delay before the second set began, as the roof was closed and the lights were turned on. This made a difference not just for the players, but for the spectators sitting under the permanent portion of the roof, who had been submerged in the dark like patrons at a movie theater. After breaking serve in a 30-point long second game, Williams ran off to a 5-0 lead in the set and finished it off, 6-1.
When Williams broke for a 2-1 lead in the third set, it appeared that she would be off to the races, but she also appeared tired and out of match shape. Tan broke back in the sixth game to even the set. But Williams broke in the ninth game to give herself the opportunity to serve for the match. At 30-30, she netted a backhand; on break point, Tan came up with the goods, with a crosscourt backhand pass. Tan held with some difficulty for 6-5 and Williams fended off a match point with a swinging forehand volley on the way to 6-6.
That left us with a match tiebreak to decide the contest, now that the four majors have agreed, at least on a trial basis, on a uniform format for resolving final sets. Once again, victory appeared to be in Williams’s grasp, as she took the first four points of the tiebreak. Tan, however, won ten of the next thirteen points, holding all her service points and taking three of Williams’s, for the upset win. The crowd gave the players a well-deserved standing ovation.
Wednesday morning featured on-and-off rain, with tents covering the courts. The superhero grounds crew, now involved with the weather rather than cellphone recovery, deflated the tent on Court 18 and rolled it up for the match between Frances Tiafoe and Maximilian Marterer. (Let’s also give credit to the ball kids, who were regimented and fantastic at all the matches I saw. And, this being England, when fans arrived at Court 18, a friendly Honorary Steward toweled off the seats.) Another official used a long pole to drop a tennis ball onto the grass to see if it provided a sufficient bounce. The weather, however, had other ideas, as rain began to spit every few minutes. More than once, the ball kids placed towels on the players’ benches and the umpire brought his things to his chair, only to retreat when the rain resumed and then repeat the process when it stopped. While waiting for the match to begin, I was entertained by a Texan in his twenties who works for Microsoft and queued up for a ticket 4:45 in the morning. He was joined by a substantial crew of hardy young folks who had done likewise. As he explained, each person on the queue gets a number, and eventually the first five hundred are entitled to seats on Centre Court. After that, tickets are provided for Court 1, Court 2, and the grounds. Many people passed on Court 1 in order to get Court 2, presumably to see Carlos Alcaraz. Indeed, the Texan was outside the first five hundred on the queue, and yet he got a ticket to Centre Court – and not in the upper reaches of the stadium. Instead, he got Section 111 and paid roughly the same amount as I had, roughly $125 per ticket. (While queuing to get into the grounds, I met an American who had paid $1,800 per ticket for debenture seats that day.) As this seating plan shows, there are ballot (and, I gather, queue) tickets in the sections beginning with 1, 3, and 5. The debenture tickets, which require a large financial commitment and may be resold freely, are in the sections beginning with 2. Thus, my tickets, in Sections 506 and 518, respectively, were hardly the best on offer for ballot winners – but how choosy can one be?
The match, scheduled for 11:00, finally began at 12:48. If I may kill the suspense, Tiafoe won by the same score as Goffin had the day before – well, except for a different score in the decisive tiebreak, 6-2 6-2 7-6(3). He pounded 15 aces (often breaking 130 mph on the speed gun) while offering up no double faults. He dropped only five points on first serve, never faced a break point, and won 60% of the points. The left-handed Marterer sometimes found himself handcuffed on Tiafoe’s twist second serve, which moved into his body. Now 24 years old, Tiafoe is highly unlikely to win Wimbledon this year, and is not a very good bet to ever win a major, but he looked like a world-beater on this day.
My enthusiasm for watching Novak Djokovic on Centre Court being minimal, I was determined to watch some doubles. Toward that end, I squeezed onto Court 4, catching the end of the second set and then the third as the second seeds and defending champions, Nikola Mektic (photo) and Mate Pavic, brushed aside the singles players Benoit Paire and Albert Ramos Vinolas, 6-4 6-1 6-1. As is his wont, Paire, tennis’s answer to James Harden, was pumping in the double faults and generally looking lackadaisical. (He was knocked out in the first round of the singles, too, by his countryman Quentin Halys.) I was making snarky remarks about Paire’s performance until I noticed that a gentleman in the row in front of me, with a beard not quite as long as Benoit’s, had a badge identifying him as Thomas Paire. I took Thomas to be Benoit’s father, but later learned that he is an older brother. Also in that entourage was a woman with a cap bearing the Mercedes logo and the number 44 (in honor of Lewis Hamilton, presumably) and a very blond boy who was far more interested in his iPad than in the match. With Paire’s history at Wimbledon and his dissatisfaction with the lack of ATP points at the tournament this year, perhaps his insouciance was to be expected.
In the next match, another high-quality doubles team, the third-seeded Wesley Koolhof and Neal Skupski, dispatched another team of singles players, Diego Schwartzman and Facundo Bagnis, albeit by a more respectable score of 6-3 7-5 6-3. (Another spectator paid homage to Bjorn Borg, circa 1976.) I stayed for the first two sets before going to Centre Court. Skupski’s brother, Ken, took a seat in my row in the first set, accompanied by a boy who might have been his son or perhaps Neal’s. The Skupski brothers have played as a team before, but this year they did not, as Ken partnered with Jonny O’Mara. In the two doubles matches I saw, the three left-handed players – Ramos, Pavic, and Bagnis – all received serve in the deuce court. It appears that those teams have decided it’s better to have forehands in the middle of the court than to defend against wide serves. Before I left, Schwartzman served at 5-5 in the second set. At 40-15, Bagnis missed an easy volley. Koolhof and Skupski moved to break point and then won the game when Bagnis and Schwartzman, both at the net, could not decide who should go for a ball down the middle. Skupski served out the set, with Koolhof putting away the final ball, an overhead that flew into the stands and, it must be said, escaped my grasp when it hit my right (non-dominant) hand.
When I arrived on Centre Court, Caroline Garcia led Emma Raducanu, 6-3 0-1. Garcia is still hovering outside the top 50, but has been as high as number 4 in the world, and it looked that way. She was more aggressive and played closer to the baseline than Raducanu, who of course had the crowd’s ardent support. Garcia’s thighs were taped, but she did not seem to be hindered in her movement. Garcia took a 3-2 lead in the second set but was broken back for 3-3. From there, she reeled off the remaining three games, featuring two breaks of serve, for a 6-3 6-3 win. A striking statistic was Raducanu’s winning only 19 of her 42 first-serve points. When the match was over, Garcia celebrated her win with her trademark dance, a sample of which you can see at around the 3:10 mark here. (When my seven-year-old daughter celebrates victory or success with a similar dance, she accompanies the movement with an “Oh, yeah” vocal.)
My last match of Wimbledon 2022 – and, let’s face it, possibly of Wimbledon period, since who knows whether I’ll ever be back? – featured John Isner and Andy Murray. (Between them, the two have seven children.) What began as a little bit sad, as Murray seemed overmatched by Isner’s serving power, ended up exciting, as the Brit gave the big man a fight. It was never a fair fight, in the sense that Isner can serve bombs at will, including on second serve, so his opponent can never relax. Murray would see only two break points on the day, both in the first set. Of course, a younger and healthier Murray was able to handle Isner, with a perfect 8-0 record, or 9-0 if you count a Hopman Cup match. The last time the two had met was in 2016, and things are different now. Isner, at 37, showed a better backhand and better mobility than one was used to seeing from him, although that’s not to say he never manhandled a backhand or failed to reach or even run for a ball that seemed retrievable. Trailing by two sets, Murray turned it up a notch in the third-set tiebreak, pulling away for a 7-3 win and an “Oh, yeah” dance of his own. The crowd loved it, of course. In the fifth game of the fourth set, however, after Murray had saved a break point, he missed a short backhand and a forehand to be broken. His last best chance came in the eighth game, when he got to 0-30 on Isner’s serve. What followed?
· 134 mph ace up the T.
· 133 mph ace wide to Murray’s backhand.
· 136 mph ace up the T.
· 122 mph second serve, followed up by winning forehand.
At moments like this, the thought comes to mind that it’s a good thing Isner was not a better tennis player than he is. Huge serving makes him competitive. If he could do the other things well, he would have broken the sport.
Isner served out a 6-4 7-6(4) 6-7(3) 6-4 win with a game that featured two more aces (for a total of 36) and concluded with a backhand drop volley. And then it was back to Southfields for the Underground back to Paddington Station. In law school, one learns about the man on the Clapham omnibus, the hypothetical reasonable person. I began this dispatch by musing about Covid safety, so it’s only fitting to conclude with what I saw as I walked to the Tube station. The number 39 bus, to Clapham Junction, was passing. A sign on the window said: “Wear a face covering on public transport.” Almost no one on the bus did. The reasonable person has concluded, rightly or wrongly, that we are now in the every-man-for-himself phase of the pandemic.