The first few moments were a blur. I could take the cafe, the walk through the park, the aisles between the courts, the grounds and everything else. Those places you could feel, touch and bathe in them with full presence and awareness. But the Centre Court is a different beast. That felt like Harry at the end of Deathly Hallows. Was it all real or happening inside your head? I had at least 3 hours to spend in the outside courts and they were spent watching less tennis and more checking the safety of the Centre Court tickets inside my jeans pocket. My apologies to Garbine Muguruza, the first ever player I watched live in Wimbledon. In a Grand Slam. On grass. Fun fact: she reached the finals. Everything from finding the hallway entrance to spotting the gangway and the seat is now surreal. Was probably then too. I remember the Royal Box was to my right. The players enter and exit from that side. I remember watching Petra Kvitova, chuffed that I got to watch another player – a WTA one at that – who had made that court her home. I remember watching her signing autographs. I know for a fact that Federer took the player chair directly in front of me and I was just single digit number of rows behind him. Good enough to briefly appear in the official highlights reel.
True to its pilgrimage credentials the whole thing involves sizable physical effort. The green carpet is laid out for you right from Southfields tube station where you disembark to visit the Wimbledon park and grounds. A shopping mall during Christmas would be less decked up but Southfields will have fake grass, benches in Wimbledon colors and green and purple all over. Taking you’ll know it when you see it to a whole different level. From here they’ll tell you it is only a five minute walk but it takes longer. And feels longer than that. Especially if you are planning to camp at the park and are lunging around a lot of supplies for your 12 hrs or like in my case, an overnight stay. Textbook definition of Very British Problems.
The more popular British problem that is treated with measured flippancy namely the weather was another thing acting up in 2015. No overcast skies or threats of Centre Court roof closing like they predict every year. Instead London was treated to record breaking hottest days at least in the first week of Wimbledon 2015. So here I was (with my wife) carrying supplies, tents, a couple of bags and making that long walk from Southfields to Wimbledon Park where The Queue (mind the caps) begins. What first hits you is disappointment. The utter shock. The crowd gathered – this is around 8.30 AM on Day 2 – will probably fill the grounds and the courts three times over. My split second decision was to turn back because there is no way I am getting a ticket today. I was right. A queue card thrust upon me when I entered had a five digit number. But I was here for tomorrow. The crowd grazing on the sprawling green grass of Wimbledon Park was for Day 1, some camping since Saturday (It is June 29, 2015 – Day 1 of Wimbledon. Defending champion Novak Djokovic will begin proceedings on Centre Court), some Sunday and lot of people still coming in to make it for the grounds pass. As my apprehension was going nowhere, every 100m I asked “Is this queue for Day 1?” I was told to move along and a couple of times it was snakes and ladders out there. My wife and I, with our bags and tent, would cut across a gap and move ahead or come in the way of a family closing and packing up their tent to get in for Day 1 and be told to step back. The holy grail was at the end with a couple of teenagers in uniform holding up a big yellow banner that said queue ends here. Not the one going in but the one that’s been slowly forming since previous evening for Day 2. Roger Federer, Petra Kvitova, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal were to begin their Wimbledon that day.
There is an Argos across Wimbledon tube station but buying a tent is not your biggest problem. We were two so we got this one. Anything else depends on the size of your group but this is adequate. There is no hurry to put up your tent as soon as you find those people with the banner because the queue might keep moving ahead for a good 15 minutes. They’ll tell you once you are settled and you can set up your tent and everything. It’s okay if you are not an experienced camper, there will be plenty of hands to help you out. Soon after this we were given the queue card. The one for Day 2 and not what was forcefully handed to me when I entered the park. The queue card determines your position in the queue. At that point I still wasn’t sure how many people were ahead of me or how many each tent actually held. There are 500 tickets each for Centre Court, Court 1 and Court 2 every day for the queuing crowd. Our queue cards were 332 and 333. Centre Court alright! Note: Do not drop your face if your number is 500 or 600 odd. There will be plenty of Rafael Nadal fans in the top 500 who’ll make way for you. Nadal was playing on Court 1.
Once this ritual is done you are on your own. Sit back and read a book. Take a walk to the lake. Strike a conversation with your neighbors. You have 24 hours to kill. You’ll find all kinds – the knowledgeable fan from Melbourne who attends every Australian Open, fellow fans from India briefly living in the UK, the tennis fan who was surprised to know Rafa has won the US Open (let alone two), the seasoned attendants for whom Wimbledon is like weekly grocery run. You get pizzas, ice creams inside and enough pimm’s to fill up the Thames. If your queue card check was just complete, you can always risk a walk to the Sainsbury’s to get some supplies if you need. Or the Starbucks to charge your phone. If it is Monday, the Sing Swell Choir will come entertain you. It helps to stay in the vicinity of your tent because once or twice stewards come around to check if you are staying at your position and have the valid queue card. On the day that card is your most valuable possession.
The stewards come around 6-6.30 AM and wake you up if you aren’t already awake thanks to the cold. Yes, it is summer but this is English weather we are talking about (again!) and you are inside a sub £15 meager tent that can morph into dew dispenser. They come from the top, they shoot from the sides and they are present when you turn around and come in contact with the edges of your tent. So yeah, that tent I’ve linked above? Not so sure. I never got a chance to research into how why and what else of this problem but think about it when you are buying a tent. Your first task is to rush to the rest rooms where you first join a queue (the whole country digs them) to relieve yourself and another for the wash to brush your teeth. Your second task is to pack up your tent, bags too big to be allowed inside and drop it at Left Luggage. You can collect them later in the evening. There too will be a queue. The whole park is waiting to get inside the grounds.
At this point it becomes something of a Waiting for Godot. There are different iterations of the waiting, your queue card is exchanged for a wrist band denoting your choice of court/ticket, the baggage security checks, an overhead crossing to get to the side of the All England Club and finally inside after purchasing your ticket (only cash). This will approximately be around 9.30-10 AM and during the first week of Wimbledon you have at least an hour to kill worrying about your coffee and breakfast before play starts on the outside courts. I had looked at the schedule and penciled in Muguruza who was first on Court 15. Intimacy is what surprises you the most about Wimbledon. Coming from a country full of cricket worshipers, you are used to everything – even big matches, historic events – happening at a distance. But as touched by tradition and history as Wimbledon is, it never comes across as enormous like the MCG or Eden Gardens or even Arthur Ashe. It is right there for you to go grab it. That closeness is what you feel when you are sitting court side because there is only court side on Court 15 (and many other courts). The ball doesn’t bounce and sit up but skids through, always trying to stay low but in the mercy of top spin loving baseliners today. Muguruza can read the words on your shirt when she walks across from the baseline poking at the strings of her racket between points. It is Day 2 so even the aisles are packed with people watching from the sidelines or the more privileged, who clearly weren’t in the queue, watching from the fancy brunch places on the upper floors of the show courts. If you are sitting on few of the top rows of Court 18, you can actually watch the action on both Court 18 and 19. There is Dustin Brown turning on whatever he turns on during the grass season every year on Court 9. More fascinating is Leander Paes in a suit giving his friends an unofficial tour around the club and also remembering to introduce them to Brown and his brand of tennis.
That other guy though. He walks on to the Centre Court to a rousing ovation that I bet stirs something in you no matter you are there for the first time or seventh. It’s the second match of the day on Centre and Roger Federer plays Damir Dzumhur. It’s over before you could pronounce that but there are other little details in watching Federer live. There is that collective joy in contributing to that unadulterated affection the Wimbledon Centre Court bestows on him. Tennis may be a global sport but it functions like a community. You may recognize fans in the front row that follow Federer to every corner of the world from some match that you had watched on TV. In all their Swiss colors. That ya ya yei (or is it ja ja ja?) sound that he makes with calibrated frustration after flubbing a volley, something you’ve never heard before. That very composed, not at all loud Come On! or Allez!, not from Federer but from someone in the crowd immediately after a winner. You’ll be surprised how seriously they take the Quiet Please. About the play itself, is there anything left to say that can be said differently? How do you describe the shot at 1:53 below? When you are here to watch him play, an event that may not happen again for reasons related to his life and yours, what do you go for? A high quality high stakes match or a Round 1 like this where he is at his relaxed best and can bring his whole array of shots without a sliver of doubt? You are here for the show and it is increasingly becoming apparent that so is the 34 year old post-2013 Federer. Federer who plays IPTL, visits India and Singapore, juggles his season to inaugurate an ATP 250 in Istanbul and will now play an extra tournament during the grass season in Stuttgart from 2016. He is aware that you are coming for him and if you cannot he makes sure he comes to you.