I grew up in south-west London and it is true that the championships managed to make it slightly less boring. It was the only time in the year that anything happened. It was as if tennis had landed on us from outer space.
We would go to SW19 after school and beg tickets off debentures, who handed them over with amazing generosity, and wave at Boris Becker in Wimbledon Village. He always waved back. I blagged my way into the men’s singles finals once, in 1987, and watched Pat Cash beat Ivan Lendl. I still remember Lendl’s expression of absolute defeat and wondered why anyone could care so much about tennis, even here.
Wimbledon is unique and lovely: a rare victory for the outer suburbs. It manages to be both thrilling and restful; savage and polite. It has a unique sound — the plop of a ball on grass, a unique cuisine — if strawberries and champagne are a cuisine, and a unique atmosphere. It is less snobbish than Henley and less insane than Ascot, which has pens delineated by social class in a row along the stands. I worry about the horses.
Hubris, though, is the sin of the fortunate and I fear the club has over-reached with its plan to giganticise. There are always complaints about national institutions. Wimbledon’s tend to the sleepy and minute: the strawberries are too expensive. They are the wrong shape.
This, though, is more serious. Having bought Wimbledon Park Golf Club on a promise they would not develop it “otherwise than for leisure or recreation purposes or as an open space”, the club now wants to build a vast tennis Disneyland. It will still be “tennis in a garden”, it insists, just a larger garden. Yet the Capability Brown Society, who also love gardens, call it “desecration” which gives a fair sense of how angry it is.
I have known and loved Wimbledon. It is vivid and that is not something often said about SW19 if you accept that the Wombles don’t exist. Yet I doubt this urge to professionalise everything. Wimbledon frets that without expansion, it will fall behind other Grand Slam tournaments. Yet in its faint air of amateurism — its sense of being a tennis club that landed in a London suburb and became world famous — is all its charm.
On the entrance to the Centre Court there is a quote from Rudyard Kipling: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster / and treat those two impostors just the same”. It might do better to quote Oscar Wilde: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves”.
In other news…
The Charity Commission is investigating the Captain Tom Foundation to discover if his family have profited from it, and this feels like a bitter end — a truer end — to a fairytale. Tom Moore was a hero of the pandemic, raising £38 million for NHS charities before his death.
As ever with these curious stories, the response to the hero is more interesting than the man himself. We fell on him, as if desperate to believe in his goodness. Yet a functioning nation does not need heroes in peacetime. It needs to work. There were so many private agonies, all swept away by the idea: we can agree that we like Tom Moore. Who wouldn’t? But if you obsess on one thing, it allows you to forget another. It felt like a daydream of benevolence: denial. The pandemic was something more complex, and worse.