Wimbledon, Finally

June 27, 2016


For decades, I’ve dreamed of attending Wimbledon, but I was not prepared to camp out on the famous queue in the hope of getting a ticket, nor was I eager to pay eye-popping prices on the secondary market. I’ve been entering the “ballot,” an online lottery for tickets, for about ten years, with no success. This year, to my astonishment, the overseas ballot came through with tickets for Court 1 on the opening day of the fortnight, and there was no choice but to book a trip from New York to London to attend the Championships.


Unlike debenture tickets, which may be resold at market prices, tickets awarded through the ballot are restricted from resale. Winners, having paid for their tickets in advance (in my case, a very reasonable 44 per ticket), must pick them up at the ticket office. Wimbledon takes strong measures to deter scalping of these tickets. Winners may purchase only two tickets and must bring photo ID and proof of address.


First, however, one must get to Wimbledon. In my case, that meant the Tube (all italicized words with hyperlinks are linked to photos) from central London, arriving easily and quickly at Southfields station for a 15-minute walk to the All England Club. Signs are painted onto the streets to show the way to Wimbledon – and to caution against buying from “touts” (scalpers). There is a parting of the ways when a sign sends ticket holders straight ahead and invites those who wish to join the queue to turn left. (You can see a mass of humanity gathered on the queue in the background of this picture.) And then, finally, I caught a glimpse of the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon.


When I got on line (excuse me, “queue”) to pick up tickets, I was interviewed by a smiling gentleman in a three-piece suit reporting on the Championships for Star TV in Asia. Before recording his report, he found a couple of willing participants on the queue. Once the camera rolled, he approached us as though spontaneously – and spoke of us as though we had waited on the queue overnight. My interviewer asked which match I was most hoping to see, and I said it was the all-Croatian contest between “Dr.” Ivo Karlovic and Borna Coric. He half-chuckled at the nickname for Karlovic, which certainly did not originate with me, and then moved on to his next spectator. It was only when I got back to the States and poked around Star TV’s website that I realized I had been interviewed by Prakash Amritraj, whose father defeated Rod Laver at the US Open in 1973.


After catching a glimpse of the sign on Court 18 memorializing the famous Isner-Mahut marathon, I hustled over to Court 8 to get a seat for the match between Dr. Ivo, 37, and his countryman, who will turn 20 in November.


It was a day of contrasts between Wimbledon and the familiar US Open, and one of the most obvious distinctions was the seating accommodations. The show courts at the US Open provide extensive seating, which is not such a benefit when one sits in the far reaches (or even the not-so-far reaches) of Arthur Ashe Stadium, whereas all the seats at Wimbledon’s show courts are good. But Wimbledon falls a bit short on the field courts, where seating is very limited. Court 8 featured three rows of seats behind the umpire’s chair and only row on the opposite side of the court, with no seats behind the court. Another contrast is commercialization. The walls at the US Open are covered with advertising. At Wimbledon, British restraint prevails: the umpire’s chair on Court 8 advertised Slazenger balls, Robinsons (which no one, so far as I can tell, drinks), and Evian. On the courts with speed guns, IBM is mentioned; on those with clocks, Rolex. That seems to be all there is, and the net remains unmarred by corporate logos. (Wimbledon also has an official car, champagne, outfitter, banking partner, coffee, and beer, but they’re discreet about it.) At the US Open, the ball boys and girls sprint onto the court before the match begins; at Wimbledon, they march. Nationalism is also muted at Wimbledon. The American flag is ubiquitous at Flushing Meadow, but I don’t recall seeing a Union Jack at Wimbledon. There are children all over the place at the US Open, but far fewer at Wimbledon. The water fountains at Wimbledon, unlike those in Queens, include nozzles where you can easily refill a bottle. And it is quiet at the All England Club: no music blaring on the grounds, no planes swooping in to land.


The seats on Court 8 were all snapped up well before the 11:30 scheduled start to the match, indeed before 11:00. Play on all courts save for Centre Court and Court 1 was called for 11:30; on those two show courts, it was to begin at 1:00. There are four show courts at Wimbledon: these two plus Courts 2 and 3. Court 3 has some seats open to anyone with a ticket for that day’s play, but the other three all have assigned seating throughout the day.


As he generally does, Karlovic towered over his opponent. Coric won the toss and elected to receive, presumably figuring that the best chance to break the giant’s serve would come while the big man was cold. Not a bad theory, but we would see only four break points during the course of the match, none in the first set. Karlovic fell behind at the start of the tiebreak, pushing a backhand volley long, but got back on serve with Coric serving at 4-2. With Coric serving at 8-9, Karlovic’s return clipped the tape and crawled over to nestle in the grass, unplayable. Karlovic had to raise his hand in apology, but he also had to be thrilled to survive the set.


Karlovic registered a break point in the seventh game of the second set, but Coric erased the danger by placing an approach shot to Karlovic’s backhand. Karlovic tried to pass with what I think was his first topspin backhand of the match, and the ball bounced before reaching the net. In the next game, Karlovic saved the first break point he faced with a service winner up the T on second serve. Throughout the match, Karlovic bombed away on second serve, not temporizing with slice or kick. Remarkably, he never double-faulted, and he threw down 26 aces.


In the second-set tiebreak, Coric, whose groundstrokes will get him into the top twenty and possibly better, hit a winner off return of serve to grab a mini-break, then consolidated his lead with a marvelous point on his serve after retrieving a lob under difficult circumstances. Another winning service return gave the teenager a 5-2 lead and he then took care of a service point to lead 6-2: four set points, the first on Coric’s serve. Needing to get back two mini-breaks, Karlovic began by taking away the net and finishing the point with a smash. He served up an ace and service winner to get to 5-6. Karlovic erased the second mini-break with a chip-and-charge return setting up an overhead. Coric got to 7-6, but Karlovic saved a fifth set point with a fearless serve-and-volley point on second serve, featuring a first volley that hit the baseline. A Karlovic ace set up set point for the giant, and then he out-rallied Coric on the young man’s serve to steal the set, 9-7. A distraught Coric sent a tennis ball flying over the field courts.


A highlight of the third set had nothing to do with our match. On Centre Court, the Brit James Ward was down 0-6 0-3 to Novak Djokovic. When he finally broke the string and claimed a game, the roar from Centre Court was easily audible on Court 8, and smiles broke out all over.


Things suddenly got serious on our court with Coric serving at 4-5 15-30. He served and volleyed, which was rare for him all day, let alone on second serve at a crucial juncture. Coric netted his volley, giving Karlovic two match points. On the second try, Karlovic closed out the match when Coric hit a forehand wide: the only break of serve in the match, and the clincher. After shaking Coric’s hand, Karlovic did a little dance in celebration.


Having seen the match I had touted to millions of Asians, I repaired to my assigned seat on Court 1, where 36-year-old Venus Williams had just taken the first set from Donna Vekic, on her last day as a teenager, in a tiebreak, after the latter had served for the set at 6-5. My seat was on Level 3, Row O – and it was fine, as you can see here. Because Wimbledon eschews mammoth stadiums, those fortunate enough to get seats don’t rue their attendance. Williams had a mild case of the yips on her service toss, catching quite a few (though not nearly as many as I’d see later in the day), but she was generally in control after the scare in the first set. She saved a break point at 3-4 and broke in the next game on a Vekic double fault. Venus served out the match, 7-6 6-4.


The next match on Court 1 featured Kei Nishikori and Sam Groth. A contingent of Aussies in yellow shirts somehow got seats near the court to cheer on their mate, though they would not have much to cheer, nor were they as boisterous as their counterparts at the US Open. Groth is coming back from foot surgery and is reported to be suffering from nerve issues in his neck and right arm. When he caught his service toss, he apologized with a very audible “Sorry, mate.” Like Coric, Nishikori won the toss and elected to receive.  Like Karlovic, Groth has a big serve and a one-handed backhand of limited utility. Groth tries topspin more often, without notable success, and he lacks Karlovic’s skill of keeping the slice backhand low to the ground and skidding through the court.


Nishikori never cranked up his serve and sometimes seemed to be playing at 75% effort, but it was enough. In the fourth game, he recovered from 0-40, winning eight straight points to get to break point on Groth’s next serve, and eventually garnering the break that decided the first set. Nishikori went up a quick break in the second set, but Groth broke back immediately. Nishikori regained the edge when Groth netted a half-volley on break point in the fifth game, and another break sealed the set. I left after the second set, hoping to grab a seat on Court 12 for the still-to-come match between Gael Monfils and Jeremy Chardy, albeit without success. Nishikori would go on to a straight-set win, 6-4 6-3 7-5. Groth was resolute about coming to net, but won only 18 of 39 points there, a tribute to Nishikori’s passing ability. Nishikori was more sparing with his approaches, but highly successful: 17 of 24.


After failing to get onto Court 12 and seeing that Court 8 was filled up for Jack Sock and Ernests Gulbis, I stood behind a few rows of spectators on Court 10 to catch the end of an all-lefty battle, with Thomaz Bellucci (photo) finishing off Ruben Bemelmans (photo), 8-6 in the fifth set.


I then returned to Court 1 for another lefty-versus-left battle, between the Australian Open champion, Angelique Kerber, and the hometown favorite Laura Robson. Five years ago, Robson had defeated Kerber at Wimbledon, but she is coming back from a nearly three-year absence caused by a wrist injury, and she is a long way from peak form. Robson probably has an edge in firepower, but Kerber was able to get everything back until eliciting an error. Robson barely avoided peril in her first two service games, but from 2-2 in the first set she dropped six consecutive games. Robson was catching her service toss again and again, and would ultimately double-fault five times and win only 35% of second-serve points (in contrast to Kerber’s 86%). Each player struck 15 winners, but the unforced errors told the story: 32 for Robson (drawing sighs from the British crowd) and 7 for Kerber. The final score of 6-2 6-2 adequately tells the story.


With the day’s slate of matches waning and the difficulty of getting onto the field courts, I grabbed a seat on Court 16 to watch Mona Barthel and Danka Kovinic. Kovinic, with a surprisingly potent serve for her height, is currently ranked ahead of Barthel, number 54 to 69, though the older Barthel has had more success, topping out at number 23. When I arrived, Barthel was up an early break, 2-1, and she cruised to a 6-2 win in the first set. With injury problems and a drop in her ranking, Barthel seems to have hit hard times commercially: there was no stenciling on the strings of her Wilson racquet, and her white dress did not bear a logo. Unusually for a contemporary player, she does not make an effort to run around her backhand, even on balls where she could do so fairly easily.


After holding for 2-1 in the second set, Kovinic, who had slipped on the grass, took a medical timeout and received physio tape under her right knee. As sometimes happens, the delay shook up the player who was not injured, and Barthel dropped her serve upon missing an overhead. She broke back, however, and forced a tiebreak. With Kovinic serving at 3-4 in the tiebreak, Barthel captured three consecutive points, claiming the match by a score of 6-2 7-6.


Reluctant to see the day end, I stood behind several rows of standees to see Gilles Muller (photo) serve at 6-7 in the fifth set against Santiago Giraldo (photo). I saw Muller save two match points in that game, and the two players battled on (with nearby courts being watered) until 11-11, at which point the umpire had had enough, suspending the match for darkness at 9:18 p.m. The next day, while I was flying home, Muller finished off a comeback from two sets down, prevailing 15-13 in the deciding set. In all, he saved four match points.


I may never make it back to Wimbledon. From the look of things, there were about 150 people on the queue to collect overseas ballot tickets when the gates opened. Even if there are 500 such winners every day, that makes for only 6,500 tickets over the fortnight – out of, potentially, millions of entries. I can only feel grateful for the opportunity to visit the shrine of tennis and fortunate that the rain held off on my lucky day. With the United Kingdom abuzz about Brexit and its consequences, I happily enjoyed a full day of world-class tennis at the greatest tournament in the world. That’s a memory that will stay with me forever.