London Diary / July 9, 2016

July in England means the sun occasionally coming out of purdah, locals walking about in flimsy tee shirts while we jettison our overcoats for pullovers. It means children tugging their parents to ice cream vans, flowers in vivid colours everywhere. . . July in England also means Wimbledon.

As a student many years ago, a group of us went there every single year. “We must go early”, we said to each other, but however early we went, it was never early enough. You knew that the moment you got into the tube. There was palpable excitement even in the compartment which built up as we neared our destination. There was also a barely suppressed air of competition, because we knew, and ‘they’ knew, that each person on the train wanted to be ahead of you in the queue.So when we got out of the tube station, we walked as fast as possible, noting once again that the average English walking pace is faster than our race-you-to-the-post speed.

Once in the queue which stretched for miles, or at least a few hundred yards, the competitive spirit disappeared to be replaced by a feeling of camaraderie. We all smiled at each other, exchanged wry jokes about the long wait ahead and discussed the day’s matches. We secretly enjoyed the buskers doing their songs or little acts, ‘secretly’ because we wanted to ignore the hat when it was passed around. We also ignored, with no guilt at all, the scalpers who worked the line selling expensive Centre Court tickets at inflated prices. They didn’t make many sales because if we could have afforded the tickets at even their official prices, we would have got them earlier, wouldn’t we ? For we were the ‘Free Entry’ wallahs, the ones who paid only to get into the grounds of Wimbledon.

That wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because when you got in, you had access to all the ‘lesser’ courts , 18 of them if I remember, and even find a ringside seat. If you saw a sizeable number of Indians outside one of these courts, you knew one of our compatriots was playing there. On these courts you might not get to see the very top seeds, but that would be offset by seeing the action really up close.

For the big players, you had to queue up at one of the three show courts. With courts number one and two, you got in fairly quickly and even got a seat for a bird’s eye view. Centre Court was different : the queue was longer, and slower, and you had to have a Zen like fortitude to listen to all the cheering and applause inside, for action you couldn’t see. Once you got in, you had to stand, which wasn’t so good for vertically challenged people. I saw more armpits on Centre Court than I have in the rest of my life.

More recently, a corporate friend invited me to see the tennis instead. Rather grandly, we went in one of London’s splendid black cabs all the way from city centre to Wimbledon’s gates. We arrived a couple of hours before start of play, not to do something as common as queue up, but to partake of the goodies at one of the hospitality tents. Champagne, strawberries and cream, pate and smoked salmon followed by a sit down lunch with great wine and conversation, then coffee and cognac. My friend and I looked at each other, then at our watches. Play had begun but no one else seemed to have noticed ! We made our excuses and ran to our Centre Court seats where the Williams sisters stood across the net, showing us that sibling affection has its limits.

This year I am going one better. I have a TV set all to myself as BBC One and Two zoom across the courts. A couple of days ago I saw Roger Federer come back from the dead to beat the marvelous Marin Cilic. Two real gentlemen on court, no histrionics, just the most incredible tennis. Neither deserved to lose. But, of course, King Federer had to win, which he did.