Both Sides Now – Wimbledon 2023

Jerry Balsam


It is an evergreen lament that I have never won the Wimbledon overseas ballot and never will. That did not change in 2023, but who knew that Wimbledon had a B-List? I learned of that list early in the New York City morning on March 30, when I received an email from The AELTC, Wimbledon, which began:


Dear Jerome, 

We have now concluded the traditional balloting of our tickets for The Championships 2023.
However, as part of the next phase, we are delighted to let you know that you have been selected to purchase tickets through our online ticket shop. Please be aware ticket availability is not guaranteed as tickets are sold on a first come first served basis.


Translation, as best I can tell: You’re still a loser, but we have a very nice consolation prize for you. Indeed, the consolation prize was arguably better than the real thing. Ballot winners are told which day and which court are available for their ticket purchases, while those on the B-List are given a wide choice, albeit of only a few available tickets.


I contacted the cousin with whom I attended Wimbledon in 2016 (when she won the ballot on her first try) and 2022 (when tickets were thrown open to the world after winners of the ill-fated ballot of 2020 failed to claim their winnings, with 2021 having been a reduced-attendance event). She had not made it onto the B-List, so we continued with our usual deal: whoever wins the right to purchase tickets brings along the other as a “plus-one.” If both of us win, as under the special circumstances of 2022, we buy tickets for two days.


We chose the second Wednesday of the fortnight, which would also be the second day of singles quarterfinals. In addition, we acted upon some of our learning from last year, when we met a contingent of folks who had queued up at 4:45 a.m. and were able to obtain tickets. Not just any tickets: good tickets. Assuming you support the idea of the queue rather than selling everything in advance online, Wimbledon does a smart thing. At the US Open and other important tournaments, the best seats are often sparsely occupied, as the tickets find their way, for various reasons, into the hands of people who are not that interested in tennis. Anyone who shows up at Wimbledon at 5:00 a.m., let alone camps out overnight, evinces an intent to use whatever tickets he may be able to purchase. Thus, when the television cameras pan around the Wimbledon show courts, they don’t detect a sea of empty seats. In this regard, it also “helps” that Wimbledon’s field courts generally don’t offer substantial seating. Therefore, if you obtain a show court ticket on the queue, you’re less likely to check out the action on Court 14.


With a Sunday night flight from New York bringing my cousin and me to London on Monday morning, we decided to queue up on Tuesday and hope for two days at Wimbledon. Had I ever been hardy enough to camp out for tickets, or for anything (Narrator: “He was not”), those days are long gone, so we decided to try the early-morning arrival. On Tuesday, we caught an Uber from our hotel to the All England Club. (The Tube begins to run at 5:00 a.m., which would not have done the trick.) (Italicized hyperlinks connect to photographs.) We knew we were in good shape when our queue cards were numbered in the 630s, since Wimbledon allocates to queue participants 500 Centre Court seats and 500 on Court 1, plus an additional quantity of grounds passes.


You meet interesting people (and non-humans) in the queue. When the stewards began to awaken the campers, one young man near us emerged from his tent and we learned that he was from the Netherlands and had been staying in a London hostel. (I say “stewards” advisedly. On the grounds at Wimbledon, one sees many “honorary stewards.” The stewards, who had spent the night minding their charges on the queue, were significantly younger.) Our Dutch neighbor had queued successfully during the first week, when the lines were much longer. The queue was suppressed on our day because of intermittent rain and the threat of more. This Dutchman returned to the queue for a second visit because his hostel hadn’t had enough room for him when he returned from a Monday night on the town. What better way to find a place to sleep, save money, and give yourself a chance at some more Wimbledon? Another tent-dweller whom we encountered turned out to live and work within walking distance of me in New York. This fellow holds two jobs: attorney at one of the major law firms in New York and rabbi of a local synagogue. After returning to New York, I told one of his law firm colleagues what he had done, and my interlocutor agreed that this was the kind of thing the rabbi/attorney would do. In retrospect, I’m amazed that I stood for roughly five hours, from 5:00 to 10:00 a.m. If there is a next time, I should do what others from the non-tent contingent did: bring a blanket to sit down on.


After we were safely on the grounds, we looked for some action on the field courts. At Wimbledon, play begins at 11:00 on the field courts, at 1:00 on Court 1, and at 1:30 on Centre Court. We staked out our first match on Court 18, one of the field courts that offers more than a smattering of seating, raring to go for a veteran mixed doubles match between Goran Ivanisevic/Iva Majoli and Mark Woodforde/Martina Navratilova. The clock ticked 11:00 and then some, but the players never showed up and the sun beat down on the spectators. The scoreboard reported a delayed start time of 11:30, and then withdrew that, instead offering an entirely different veteran men’s doubles match starting at noon. We later learned that Ivanisevic had given his opponents a walkover, presumably because his protégé, Novak Djokovic, was due to play later in the day. Eventually, Ivanisevic withdrew from the event entirely and was replaced by Andrew Castle, who went on to lose the two matches he played with Majoli. The lesson, as always: Stay away from Djokovic-related events.


We decamped to Court 3, where Sino-American amity surprisingly reigned, as Caroline Dolehide and Shuai Zhang made relatively short work of Oksana Kalashnikova and Iryna Shymanovich in a women’s doubles quarterfinal. (At Wimbledon, women are “ladies” and men are “gentlemen,” but we’re going to put that convention aside for our modern readership.) Shortly after we arrived, Dolehide and Zhang broke serve for a 6-4 2-0 lead, and they coasted to a 6-4 6-1 victory. This outcome aside, it’s always an opportune moment to ask: Where is Peng Shuai? Let us not forget.


Next up on the same court were the top seeds in men’s doubles, Wesley Koolhof and Neal Skupski, facing the Aussies Jordan Thompson and half of last year’s championship team, Max Purcell, in a third-round match. Koolhof, who always looks too cool for school, dropped serve in the opening game, but played an excellent fourth game to help break Thompson and tie the score. Purcell dropped serve later in the set, and we picked up our marbles and moved to Court 1 with the top seeds leading by 5-2. They would ultimately prevail by 6-3 7-6(3). We would again see Koolhof and Skupski – at the time, each still searching for his first major title in men’s doubles – on Wednesday.


Our first match on Court 1 was the women’s singles quarterfinal between Jessica Pegula and Marketa Vondrousova. We were seated in Gangway 26, Row B. Yes, that means what you think: we were in the second row. When you’re that close to the action, practically breathing on the photographers in the dugout, you get a very good look at Vondrousova’s notorious tattoos. At a ball change, you can see that the old balls are fluffier and dirtier than the new ones.


Pegula broke serve for an early 2-0 lead before Vondrousova reeled off four consecutive games. Pegula tied the set at 4-4, and then Vondrousova wrapped up the set: cashing in a break point on her fourth try by pounding her forehand at Pegula’s backhand and then holding at love.


The second set was all Pegula. Already up a break, she broke serve again and took the set 6-2 with a drop shot/volley combination.


In the third set, Pegula saved two break points in the first game and another in the third. She broke serve for a 3-1 lead after Vondrousova, who had garnered good results with the drop shot throughout, plunked one into the net. Then play was suspended as rain loomed. The grounds crew raced out to push back the umpire’s chair and cover the court while waiting for the roof on Court 1 to close. After the rain delay, Pegula held for a 4-1 lead, and had a break point to make it 5-1. Her failure to seize that opportunity, seemingly innocuous at the time, may have been the turning point. With Pegula serving at 4-2 15-15, Vondrousova raced to double break point with two winners: a lunging drop volley and an overhead. On the second try, she secured the break.


In a long ninth game, Pegula reached game point three times but could not get to 5-4. She erred on consecutive points from the third deuce, and suddenly Vondrousova, who was nearly out of the tournament minutes before, would serve for the match. She did so with aplomb, getting to 40-0 and securing the match on her second opportunity with a forehand volley.


In a way, Vondrousova’s 6-4 2-6 6-4 win was not a shock, despite the deficit she had faced in the deciding set. While Pegula was on a run of 10 out of 13 games, she was not as authoritative as that statistic suggests. Overall, she made 57% of her first serves but won only 54% of first-serve points. (Indeed, she did better on second serve, registering 59% of those points.) Vondrousova had a devil of a time on her second serve, winning only 8 of those 25 points, or 32%. But her first-serve percentage was 70% and she won 68% of those points. This was not quite a Simpson’s Paradox match, but it almost was, as Vondrousova won 90 points to Pegula’s 89. Even though Vondrousova booked a semifinal spot with her win, few would have imagined that she would five days thereafter win the women’s singles.


The next quarterfinal was on the men’s side, between the ever-promising Jannik Sinner and the unseeded journeyman Roman Safiullin. Sinner is a hard hitter and has a way of sliding on the grass, but his net play remains uneven and one wonders whether the clock is ticking on his chances to ever win a major. After breaking in the ninth game, Sinner served out the first set, 6-4. A funny thing happened on the way to Sinner’s victory party, however, as he squandered a 3-1 lead in the second set, losing five games on the trot and leaving the match squared at one set apiece. In the third set, Safiullin saved break points in his first two service games, but then Sinner broke for a 4-2 lead. Sinner broke again, with the help of three double faults from Safiullin, to take the set, 6-2. After getting drubbed in the third set, Safiullin took the traditional bathroom break, to no avail. He held serve for 2-2 and then dropped the four remaining games, giving Sinner a 6-4 3-6 6-2 6-2 victory and his first appearance in a major semifinal, where he was destined to have his shortcomings exposed by Djokovic. Despite his second-set glitch, Sinner won 90% of points on his first serve and 55% on his second. He won 41% of return points, compared to Safiullin’s 26%, which makes for a comprehensive victory. Sinner left the court with his regular tennis bag plus his endorsement-driven Gucci bag.


While Sinner and Safiullin had played under a closed roof, the roof was opened again for the women’s doubles invitational between Kim Clijsters/Martina Hingis and Francesca Schiavone/Roberta Vinci. The predominant vibe in this match was fun: the players had a good time poking fun at themselves and each other, and seemed just happy to be at Wimbledon. In Schiavone’s case, her brush with illness must have left her happy to be anywhere. These old-timers still play some serve-and-volley in doubles, and there were more than a few points where all four players ended up at net. Clijsters and Hingis recovered from an early deficit in the first set to register a 6-4 6-3 victory. My cousin caught a ball that Clijsters hit into the stands after match point, and the four players hugged and walked off the court to sincere applause. Thereafter, Clijsters and Hingis came back to sign autographs.


Our final action of the day was on Court 16, where the fourth-seeded Cooper Williams closed out a 6-1 3-6 6-4 second-round victory over Sebastian Eriksson in the boys’ singles. Williams would ultimately reach the semifinals, where he fell to the eventual champion, a Brit (!), Henry Searle. Presumably in recognition of Searle’s Britishness, the boys’ final would be played on Court 1, whereas the girls’ final was consigned to Court 12.


It was not so simple to board the Tube for the ride back to our hotel, as throngs were leaving Wimbledon at the same time, but it had been a superb day enjoyed from wonderful seats. I was reminded of the line from Seinfeld when Jerry explained to Elaine his preference for first-class airline seats: “I can’t go back to coach. I can’t. I won’t.”


But back to coach we would go on Wednesday, in Block 204 on Centre Court. Before play began on Centre Court, we watched 1⅓ men’s doubles quarterfinal matches on Court 3. We began with the 15th-seeded team of Marcel Granollers/Horacio Zeballos against Nathaniel Lammons/Jackson Withrow, followed by another glimpse at Wesley Koolhof and Neal Skupski, this time against Ariel Behar/Adam Pavlasek.


Zeballos, a lefty, is a throwback player with a one-handed backhand. Lammons wore a compression sleeve on his right arm and uses a rarely seen brand of racquet, Solinco. (The best-known Solinco player, Jenson Brooksby, whose gamesmanship makes him less than universally admired, is recovering from wrist surgery and is currently suspended for missing doping tests, with Mikael Ymer joining him on the sidelines after making the round of 32 at Wimbledon.) I had seen Granollers several times over the years, but this was the first time I noticed his unusual service toss: he palms the ball in his left hand rather than holding it more loosely in his fingertips.


In the third game, a Lammons double fault gave Granollers and Zeballos an early break. When Zeballos served for the set at 5-4, an errant return by Lammons nailed Withrow in the head. Zeballos closed out the set with an ace.


We had a rain delay of about five minutes in the second set, as a few drops made it unwise to play, but were not serious enough to have the court covered. The set remained on serve until the eleventh game, with Withrow (a childhood friend and doubles partner of Jack Sock) serving. Lammons was poaching on break point, but Granollers nailed an inside-in forehand return down the line for the pass. Granollers fought off double break point in the next game, serving out the match, 6-4 7-5.


Granollers and Zeballos had substantial careers in singles before specializing in doubles; Lammons and Withrow did not. For their quarterfinal defeat, Lammons and Withrow earned a combined £75,000. As of the conclusion of Wimbledon, Lammons had earned $268,865 on the year (out of $629,641 for his career) and Withrow $253,965 (out of $760,177), figures which don’t take account of their considerable expenses. They’re not getting rich playing tennis, but it is what they do.


Centre Court beckoned after one set of the second match, with the underdogsBehar with his funky glasses, Pavlasek with his prematurely gray hair – having taken the opener, 6-4, after breaking Skupski in the third game. Koolhof and Skupski came back for a 4-6 6-2 6-3 victory, and they went on to win the tournament, their first major in men’s doubles, with a 6-4 6-4 win over Granollers and Zeballos in the final. Koolhof and Skupski, currently the top men’s doubles team, have made more money than Lammons and Withrow: they have each made $841,346 year-to-date, with their career figures at $3,780,866 and $3,441,189, respectively. But singles players make a lot more money, as a few examples of career earnings will demonstrate:


John Isner: $22.2 million.

Richard Gasquet: $20.5 million.

Milos Raonic: $20.3 million.

Fabio Fognini: $18.0 million.

David Goffin: $16.9 million.

Albert Ramos-Vinolas: $10.4 million.

Joao Sousa: $8.3 million.

Lucas Pouille: $8.3 million.


None of these players has ever won a major singles title, and only Raonic has been to a major final. Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be doubles specialists.


Seated in Row J of Block 204 on Centre Court, I was just under the portion of the roof that is always in place, as distinguished from the accordion-like part that opens and closes. I was something like 20 to 25 rows from the court and was not enshrouded in darkness, as I had been up in the 500s last year. The compensation for being on the side of the court behind the umpire’s chair was sitting in the shade, while my counterparts on the other side squinted in the sun.


My first match on Centre Court was a rematch of last year’s women’s singles final, in which Elena Rybakina had defeated Ons Jabeur. This was my second match officiated by a prominent umpire. Today, it was the baritone Kader Nouni. On Tuesday, I had seen Mohamed Lahyani for the Sinner-Safiullin match.


Rybakina, the defending champion and bigger hitter, took an early 3-1 lead but relinquished her serve right after breaking Jabeur’s. Jabeur, known for her touch and drop shots, secured a second break, for a 6-5 lead, with a crosscourt backhand winner. Serving for the set proved an adventure, as Jabeur fell behind by 15-40, then scrambled all the way back to set point, then netted backhands on three consecutive points to cede the break. Rybakina took a 6-3 lead in the ensuing tiebreak and, after Jabeur held two service points, closed out the set with a 116 mph ace up the middle.


Jabeur shook off the disappointment of dropping the first set, holding at love and getting to 0-40 on Rybakina’s serve, but the defending champion used some powerful serving, including two aces, to climb out of the hole. Jabeur pounced when Rybakina served at 4-5, with two forehand winners earning her a 15-30 lead, an inside-in forehand winner for 15-40, and a decisive backhand return of Rybakina’s second serve to seal the break and the set.


The beat went on in the third set, as Jabeur broke serve at love for a 2-0 lead. She survived two break points when serving at 3-1 and then grabbed an insurance break with a backhand winner down the line to cap a long rally. Jabeur then served out a 6-7(5) 6-4 6-1 victory. When her post-match interviewer observed that the first set could have gone either way, Jabeur responded, to widespread laughter: “It should have gone my way.” Still, at this point Jabeur had to feel happy about reversing the result of last year’s final and standing two matches from the title – one that would elude her, in painful style, come Saturday. On this day, at least, Jabeur played like a champion, winning 55% of the points, converting 5 of 9 break points (as opposed to 2 of 9 for Rybakina), and even out-acing her lanky opponent, 8 to 7.


The last match of the day on Centre Court was between two 20-year-olds, Carlos Alcaraz (born May 5, 2003) and Holger Rune (born April 29, 2003). Alcaraz repeatedly demonstrated the power and touch that made him the top seed. Rune, listed at 6’2” but looking almost fragile, often topped 130 mph on his first serve and reached 115 mph or better on many second serves. Rune had a large cheering section in the friends’ box and its environs, seated not far from Alcaraz’s coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero. They urged him on with calls of “Holger, Holger, Holger” that sounded like “Holga, Holga, Holga.”


There were no service breaks in the first set, though Alcaraz had to save a break point in the opening game and dig out of 0-30 in the ninth game. As he often does, Alcaraz pulled the serve-and-volley out of his extensive toolkit to level that game, sending a slipping Rune to the grass on the second occasion.


Alcaraz drew first blood in the tiebreak, securing a mini-break at 1-1 with a three-shot combination: lob, drop shot, and crosscourt backhand pass. He then missed a backhand into the net to cede the edge. Rune, serving at 3-3, hit one of his high-speed second serves, but this 115 mph offering missed the mark, giving Alcaraz a mini-break he would not squander. Serving at 3-6, Rune tried the serve-and-volley, but Alcaraz’s backhand return down the line passed him cleanly to close out the set.


The wheels came off for Rune at 4-4 in the second set. Serving at 30-30, he plunked an overhead into the net. On second serve at break point, Alcaraz struck a backhand return down the line for the winner, and he served out the set at 15.


In the third set, the functionaries responsible for such matters distributed straw hats to denizens of the Royal Box as the sun reached their exalted quarters. Alcaraz won a cat-and-mouse contest of drop shots and volleys to earn two break points in the fifth game, cashing in the first when Rune’s serve-plus-one ended with a backhand into the net.


Alcaraz showed some racquet skills before serving the eighth game, bouncing a ball off the thin edge of his frame before holding serve at 15. In the next game, Rune fended off a match point and went on to hold, striking serves at 129, 130, and 130 mph on successive points. But then it was Alcaraz’s turn to serve for the match, and he sprinted to a 40-0 lead. A double fault and an errant passing shot made it 40-30, but Alcaraz sealed the deal with a 93 mph second serve that elicited a forehand return that floated way over the baseline.


The final tally for Alcaraz was 7-6(3) 6-4 6-4. He faced only the one break point mentioned above, won 25 of 35 points on his second serve and, in only his fourth career grass-court event, showed signs of the Wimbledon champion he was soon to become. A large crowd gathered outside Centre Court hoping to see Alcaraz after he left the arena.


One mystery persists after this visit to Centre Court: Was the roof asymmetrical? Was it always? It appeared that the “accordion” portion of the retracted roof protruded further into the court on the Royal Box end, i.e., the right-hand side of this photo.


In other Wimbledon maintenance news, we were treated to the sight of the grounds crew sweeping Court 4 behind the baseline, removing surprising amounts of debris.


But there would be a little bit more tennis before we left the All England Club. In 2016, I had tried to get onto Court 12 to see Gael Monfils play Jeremy Chardy, but it was impossible. This time, we waited on a long line (excuse me, queue) to get onto that court, and we finally saw our friends Schiavone and Vinci again, this time playing the relative youngsters Sania Mirza and Jo Konta. When we got in, Vinci, serving at 4-6 4-5, saved several match points before holding. Mirza was broken in the following game, following which Schiavone disappeared for a bathroom break. The proceedings being lighthearted fun, Vinci warmed up her opponents while waiting for her partner to return. Schiavone, serving to level the match, was broken at 30, and then Mirza and Konta breezed through the tiebreak for a 6-4 7-6(2) victory, thus concluding Wimbledon 2023 for me.


Each of the years I’ve been to Wimbledon, I wonder whether this will be my last opportunity. A lesson I’ve taken from this year’s visit is, if I ever make it back with ballot tickets, to try for another day via the queue. Anyone who wins entry to the grounds through good fortune with the ballot – and patience and endurance with the queue – can be said to have looked at Wimbledon from both sides now.