The toilets at Wimbledon are spectacular. Like all American sports fans, I grew up knowing sports-stadium bathrooms as sites of almost unimaginable psychic trauma, humid chambers crammed with alingual, porcine men pissing savagely into troughs. Places whose stained and broken floor tiles exerted a viscous, ropy stickiness. Places where civilization, properly construed, did not exist. Well, I'm happy to report that you can leave those preconceptions at the door when you book your ticket to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Yes, sir. The public men's room outside my little, disused commentary booth at Centre Court would not be embarrassed to show its face at the United Nations, or in a restaurant that sold wine by the carafe.
I'm talking wood stall doors that go all the way down to the floor. Burnished steel. Big, high-fauceted, mathematically hemispherical sinks. The sort of towel dispensers into which a loop of Jesus-is-this-actual-cloth keeps feeding back into itself as you pull fresh towel downward. The happy murmur of guys with Ray-Ban Wayfarers propped on their heads not being traumatized at all. It occurred to me on one visit that the mid-century dream of the airport must have looked like this — all these modernist curves, space and comfort, the vertices in the transportation network of the future in chrome and wood and glass. A little mood lighting to get you where you need to go. I saw one guy, a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman in a navy blazer and crushed linen pants, give in to the impulse of freedom encouraged by this environment by doing the full no-hands routine at the urinal, fingers laced behind his head, elbow-wings soaring, subtly waggling his hips, just luxuriantly whizzing, landing that first serve a hundred percent of the time.
I've settled into a Wimbledon routine. Every morning, construction noise at my hotel wakes me up around 8:07. I shower and get dressed. To exit the hotel, I have to find my way through an impromptu maze of construction barricades populated entirely with construction workers and baffled English ladies looking for the breakfast. The hallways all have a line of support pillars running down their middles. The support pillars have uniformly been wallpapered with an unsettling M.C. Escherish "London" pattern: dark monumental towers and bridges folding into one another, occasional blips of red in the form of double-decker buses apparently doomed to unceasingly traverse this hellscape. On closer inspection, the double-decker buses are revealed to be repeated iterations of the same double-decker bus, pasted in at a horrific angle. I can't even conjure a narrative to cover the sort of post-apocalyptic tourist-board scenario that could explain the dystopian fate of this bus. I've enclosed a picture so you can see how truly unsettling it is, as wallpaper.
There is so much scaffolding around my hotel that I am tempted to say the hotel is shaggy with scaffolding.
131 toward Kingston. 93 toward Putney Bridge. South London a pinkish blur in the window. The closer you get to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, the more shops have tennis balls hung in their windows, strings at different lengths to simulate a "bouncing" effect. Outside Wimbledon Station, the queue for the direct shuttle to the tournament snakes through a series of crowd-control dividers draped in Marks & Spencer–branded "1/2 price strawberries" bunting.
I like the walk from my bus stop to the club because the club-bound foot traffic at that point has the highest number of non-rich people, per capita, of any part of the tournament. This is especially true on the second Monday, the famous "year's best day of tennis," when all 32 remaining male and female players play for a spot in the quarterfinals. Just a fantastic tennis crowd turns out for this event. Don't get me wrong, there's no shortage of earls and countesses — lots of Grace Kellyish headscarves, lots of heart-stopping pairs of legs emerging from indescribable short dresses — but also jean shorts and backpacks and sweatshirts and (soul-wrenchingly) sport coats with the arm tags still attached.
I catch a glimpse of that rumored and hugely likable figure, the tennis fan in a black leather motorcycle jacket. Two of the big stories at this year's Wimbledon are the inspiring runs being made by a couple of Americans (Mardy Fish, who had a recent heart scare, and Brian Baker, who missed years with various injuries, both of whom have made it through to the second week) and the struggles of the top seeds (Nadal out, Federer, Djokovic, Murray all dropping sets), and the crowd's conversation murmurously runs through both. I walk part of the way with a pair of delighted fat ladies from London, somehow dressed in non-matching silk halter tops and capri pants, who come every year to watch Federer because, one says, "well, he does grow on you over the years, doesn't he?"
"And he's simply lovely," her friend chirrs.
It soon becomes clear that the ladies know far more about, e.g., Federer's backhand technique and fluctuating first-serve percentage than I do, and I like them immensely, and we are passed on the sidewalk by a man in head-to-toe Harris tweed who has unselfconsciously made a walking-stick out of his umbrella.
Gate 5. My press badge is laser-scanned by a smiling blonde security guard in a dark blue police-type hat. My bag is searched by one of the francophone African guys set up behind the perimeter of long folding tables that's been erected inside the gates. I attempt to make small talk with my bag-searcher, but my effort is non-francophone and futile. "S'il vous plaît," he says, beckoning the person behind me forward.
There's tennis everywhere at the AELTCC — medium-size tennis on the monitors in stadium gangways, tiny tennis on people's phones, gargantuan tennis on the jumbo screen on Court 1 opposite the hill — but in my little commentary booth, the first live tennis of the day is always completely surprising. The court is so much longer than you remember and is just implausibly green. You notice things in person that you might not spot on TV. The way Jie Zheng, who lost a tough three-setter to Serena Williams on Saturday, breaks out of her hunched-over service-return stance by performing a funny sequence of two-footed forward hops. The way Djokovic checks his racket strings between points, glaring at the spacing like a father disappointed in his son. The way each camera in the row of video cameras in the access trench alongside the court stays trained, during a point, on one player or object, tracking Murray, tracking Serena, tracking, tracking, tracking, like a cat waiting to pounce on a bird.
The Croatian announcer two booths to my left is always (but softly!) announcing his head off.
I always root for five-and-three-setters, partly because I love tennis, but partly because my next stop is the Broadcast Centre, and this is a zone of Wimbledon I have come to regard with a kind of battle-hardened dread.
The downside of the Broadcast Centre is that it is a grim, confusing bunker full of terrifying machinery and stressed-out people and blinking lights. The inescapable lure of the Broadcast Centre, me-wise, is that it contains a snack closet from which I can steal Diet Cokes. I visit the Broadcast Centre somewhere on the north side of 45 times per day. Each time I have the same uneasy feeling of passing behind the curtain of the Apparatus. This is where the brains and computers perform their major labor of filtering, distilling, and processing Wimbledon's jumble of discrete events into Major Narratives for you to follow from home.
Weirdly, the Broadcast Centre is also where I have the strongest impression of moving among the dreams of the old All England Club, all those lost translucent visions. I'll be walking down a hallway half the ceiling of which is a massed bundle of purple-and-green Cat 5 Ethernet cabling,1 a hallway in which a lone, rumpled Japanese man is yelling in Japanese into an iPhone, and suddenly I half-see a girl in a bonnet and ruffled hoop skirt knock a croquet ball through a wicket. It's, I think the word would be, freaky. There are rooms full of racks of what look like massive servers, disemboweled wires worming everywhere, and in among the voltage meters I see picnicking gentlemen passing bowls full of cream in monocles and straw derby hats. There are cold black rooms lined with TV monitors and test patterns and bearded men roaring, "Three … three … get me three the fuck now," and I see Bill Tilden leaning in one corner, hair like black tinfoil, taking a drag on one of his beloved Lucky Strikes. Chrissy Evert is walking down a corridor encircled by her ESPN entourage. I see them plowing through some happy village-green cricket match that's being batted and bowled by ghosts.2
I have no idea what this means. Sometimes it's raining when I go back outside, Diet Coke in hand, sometimes it isn't.
During Federer's tremendous five-set win over Julien Benneteau on Friday night, a theory takes shape in my mind about why tennis crowds are so great.3 Football, soccer, hockey, even basketball — one of the major psychoperceptual elements of each game is that the complexity of the action makes it impossible to be aware of everything that's happening simultaneously. You're trying to follow the intentions of up to 22 human minds, each attempting to execute secret, only partly inferable tactical instructions, each reacting to a vast number of variables including the in-the-moment actions of the other 21 players (both allied and against), each with the possibility of discarding the instructions and going it alone, etc. In technical terms, there's a lot of crashing around. There's a lot of confusion. And it's maybe of interest that the relative aggro-charge and kill-the-other-guy frenzy of each sport's fans is pretty directly proportional to the degree of perceived chaos each sport contains — football, which even highly paid experts can barely decipher without extensive recourse to tape, being particularly screamy and knock-the-fucker's-head-off. There's a weird adrenaline rush in the way these sports push you away, perceptually.
It's different in tennis. Tennis, while still being pretty complex from the standpoint of physics, gives you virtually all the information you need to understand the action at first glance. Tennis draws you in. You can see, when Julien Benneteau is charging down a Roger Federer drop shot, how fast he's moving versus how fast the ball is moving, whether or not he's going to get there, what his options will be if he does, whether he'll have to play another sliced drop shot or will get the angle to smack the ball cross-court. You can perceive, with a few omissions like degree of spin and sun-and-wind conditions, almost exactly what Julien Benneteau can perceive; you can play the shot with him in your imagination. And then you can play the next shot with Federer. And I think that's just huge in terms of how tennis crowds act, why they seem so happy and friendly, etc. Some people want Federer to win and some people want Benneteau to win, but both sets of fans are jumping back and forth, imaginarily, from one guy to the other throughout each game. The fans are drawn together, with each other and with the players, because they're all sympathetically sharing the players' mental space. And if that sounds like nonsense, then I encourage you to come to Wimbledon, get seats anywhere on Centre Court, and wait for the first drop-shot gasp, that astonishing collective oooohhhhh of 14,000 people reacting as one to a shot they just barely saw coming. I submit that the drop-shot gasp is one of the most purely magical sounds in sports. It's my favorite part, easy, of sitting on Centre Court.
Federer beats Benneteau in five sets and the crowd breaks up.
After the night's last big match, the stadium stairwells are vaults of oxygen-starved crush, real soccer-tragedy stuff, rich people in brass buttons and pashmina wraps packed in tight and sort of helplessly spooning each other, large dollops of embarrassed English stoicism all around.
One of the central logistical facts of life at the AELTCC is that rich people, especially older rich people, are typically way out of practice when it comes to maneuvering in dense crowds. They lack subjugation awareness, that sense that the crowd controls you. You see accidents that are best described as either "ping-pong type" or "Marxist." An older lady who left her commemorative match programme back at her seat will realize her mistake mid-stairwell and execute an instant, self-assured stop-turn, never dreaming that the stairs behind her are already sealed off with other, equally space-commanding but currently desperate-to-descend older ladies, who are in turn being helplessly smooshed downward by the still more confident and downward-escape-determined older ladies above them, all of them clutching commemorative match programmes, self-assuredly. Whole sections of stairwell can be wiped out by one poorly timed text from a granddaughter in New Haven. Let a jowly burgher with a green plaid sport coat catch a glimpse of a recycling bin at the wrong time and the results are horrific. Eventually most people make it out with only nonfatal injuries. Everyone is very nice.
Monday night. Rain on the way off the grounds. Clumps of umbrellas floating over the crowd like lily pads. Rain has suspended play with most of the late matches still in progress, only Federer, Youzhny, and Djokovic definitively through on the men's side, Sharapova and Clijsters out. Rosol, who beat Nadal, was annihilated in his very next match against Philipp Kohlschreiber, who then beat Brian Baker. On the bus ride back to the hotel, I perform the ritual of chronicling my failings as a Wimbledon correspondent: I don't ask questions in interviews, I'm not writing enough about the tennis. In terms of getting the job done, I don't even know what resources I need. I'm standing in the aisle now, and the guy in the seat ahead of me, who looks like a squishy Willie Nelson, is scribbling something in a stenographic notebook, a numbered list, which I can just about make out.
1. When fever struck. 2. The vacuum experience.
There's a third entry, which he's furiously crossing out. I have no idea what this means. A poem? A list of chapters in a sci-fi novel? His memoirs? But it's terrible, just terrible. I notice all the wrong things. Did I tell you that the restaurant where all the line judges eat is called — I swear — The Officials' Buttery? You can see them congregated en masse around the outdoor tables in the evenings, Ralph Lauren jackets everywhere, looking like they all bought the same cocktails-on-Nantucket costume for Halloween. Or that the ball kids, when they move around the grounds, travel in single file? I take out the spy novel I'm reading and spend a couple of stops with secret Nazi data caches being dredged out of Austrian lakes, hidden networks being exposed. I forget to take off my goofy necklace of press credentials until I'm already back in my room.
Click here for Part 4.