A big sporting tournament is also a festival. As much an English festival as Glastonbury, Wimbledon is also a pilgrimage site. Radiohead or Rafa play the main stage, but some duo you’ve never heard of called Isner-Mahut will do something so incredible on Court 18 that everyone will be trying to get in to see them. Their heroic exertions have since been memorialized with a plaque, and Court 18 is now a historic site for the tennis faithful even when nothing much is happening there.
As with pilgrimages and festivals, people are on their best behavior. Arriving at Southfields Tube station — confusingly, a more convenient station than the various Wimbledons — the mood is more buoyant, the level of civility higher than it was wherever your journey started. The spirit of the festival emanates from the grounds and into the surrounding neighborhood. Inside, it’s a temporary utopia. It might be difficult to get in, but once you are in, the atmosphere is inclusive. (Even the presence of that advertisement for the Jacobean tendencies of the French Open, the hated royal box, these days offers only symbolic resistance to the feeling of togetherness.)
Dressing up in costumes tends to be limited to campy re-creations of the Borg-McEnroe era (hair, headbands and skimpy shorts), but as with any self-respecting festival, there is a considerable degree of intoxication. Flushing Meadows has the reputation of being more raucous than SW19, but Wimbledon is in England, and we English pride ourselves on being able to chuck it down our necks with the best of them. Beer, Champagne, Pimm’s — you sell it, we’ll swill it. It’s really striking how much boozing goes on. And yet the standard of behavior remains consistently high. Lest this sound sentimental, I should also point out that Wimbledon is the most heavily militarized of all the Slams. In the wake of terror attacks in the capital, visitors this year were treated to the not-necessarily-reassuring sight of officers patrolling with body armor and assault riffles, but a large number of stewards have always been soldiers and sailors. Unfailingly polite, courteous and helpful they may be — but they’re still the military. So although there is no trouble and everyone happily buys into the social codes and etiquette of Wimbledon, it’s a useful reminder that Gramsci’s notion of hegemony assumes that consent is underwritten by the possibility of coercion and force. Mainly the soldiers and stewards help people find their seats and make sure no one is moving around or standing except during the end-changes. At an Andy Murray match, a woman seated near me unfurled a Scottish flag — and was told that was not permitted. This came as a surprise but is, on reflection, an excellent prohibition. A shared love of national flag waving might form the basis for some kind of accord between North Korea and the United States; Centre Court is better off without it. Any deviations or transgressions are dealt with courteously and quickly. The nearest we came to a ruckus was when a highly regarded journalist stood up and tried to leave at the end of a game, but not during an end-change. A soldier told him to sit down. The journalist started running his mouth, swearing, whereupon the soldier shifted into a different register, making it clear that the request to sit down had become an order and that this order would be vigorously enforced. Having thoroughly enjoyed this altercation, I later asked the soldier how close the journalist had been to getting his ass kicked. “Well,” he said in a heavy, friendly Jamaican accent, “if we’d met outside, in civvy street. . . . “
Although Wimbledon is a festival, there is no music; players enter the court unannounced, without fanfare. It’s the opposite of the year-ending A.T.P. Finals at the O2 arena in London, where the unfortunate paradigm is that of a nightclub — flashing lights, blaring music. Players come from all over the world, obviously, but Wimbledon retains the feel of a local tournament where the standard of play happens to be exceptionally high — and this is especially evident on the smaller courts.
I’d had a great desire to experience the Wimbledon fortnight, in the flesh and in its entirety, ever since I was turned away at the gates in 1980. I had actually caught some of the same acts — excuse me, the same players — earlier in the year when the caravan passed through Indian Wells, Calif. So I knew whom to look out for, who was up and coming, even though I knew, also from Indian Wells, that it’s difficult to recall exactly whom you saw play the day after watching them. A tennis tournament is a narrative that is all the time consuming itself. Defined by elimination as well as survival — by the end of the first round half the players are toast — it’s as much a demonstration of instant amnesia as it is of memory.
The most-sought-after tickets are always for the semifinals or finals of a tournament, but the first rule of tennis narrative is that a great match can break out at any time, between any players, on any court. And that’s not all. A match that looks certain to be over in the next 15 minutes can turn, in that quarter of an hour, into an epic whose end is nowhere in sight. Nothing is better, for a spectator, than to sense this happening, to feel a match gradually — which in tennis can be an exact synonym of suddenly — tightening its grip, becoming, for the uncertain extent of its duration, the center of the tournament. The question then becomes how to maximize the chances of your being there, of happening upon this happening.
BY TURNING UP, in my case, at Court 3 to watch Nick Kyrgios, whom I saw play at Indian Wells, whom I also missed at Indian Wells when he withdrew from his match against Roger Federer because of food poisoning. Their encounter a few weeks later in Miami was reportedly the best men’s match of the year. So Kyrgios was one of the batch of young male players — along with Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem — with the potential to make it to the end of the tournament. As it turned out, Kyrgios didn’t even make it to the end of the match. When they are not chasing something — a ball, other runners — all athletes move in such a way as to preserve as much energy as possible. Many of them move as though they are underwater; Kyrgios was moving as though on the ocean floor — and not only between but during points. A big man in even bigger shorts, he looked severely hobbled, but because this hobbling seemed an extension of his normal lugubriousness, it seemed that he was hobbled not just by his wounded hip but by the hunched ontology of himself.
The trainer was called, and Kyrgios quit, establishing the keynote for this year’s tournament: players taking to the stage injured, unable to compete properly but fit enough to pick up their fee. There was talk of Murray’s dodgy hip, of Novak Djokovic’s gammy elbow, his wonky shoulder, his interesting personal life, which, as John McEnroe later put it, was maybe going the way of Tiger Woods’s. In addition to the tennis narrative, there are always these personal or extrasporting stories whose kinks and twists become entwined in the sporting narrative because of the effect they have on that mysterious spot, the athlete’s head.
But it wasn’t Djokovic who retired the next day, it was his opponent, Martin Klizan, followed immediately by Federer’s ailing adversary, Alexandr Dolgopolov. Obliged to wear all white, a surprising number of male players were waving the white flag before they had even broken sweat. Routinely frustrated by our national railways and airline, the packed and good-natured Centre Court crowd let up a groan of epic disappointment as two players in a day called it a day in rapid succession. The umpire was quick to announce that there would be further play in the shape of Caroline Wozniacki against Timea Babos, and calm was restored before the attendant troops were called into action.
This flurry of towel-throwing-in introduces the corollary to a point made earlier: Just as you never know when a great match will break out, so too you never know when you’re going to be sold a pup. Unless you’re watching Bernard Tomic, in which case, he made clear after his first-round defeat by Mischa Zverev on Court 14, there’s a good chance he’ll be going through the motions. Post-match news conferences are generally a bore. Tomic’s was sensational because he revealed what must be the unpalatable truth: that the tour can become a bit of a grind. “I couldn’t care less if I make a fourth-round U.S. Open or I lose first round,” he yawned. “To me, everything is the same.” His existential indifference was — as my pal, the veteran tennis writer Michael Mewshaw, said later — like Meursault’s at the opening of Camus’s “The Stranger”: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. . . . That doesn’t mean anything.”
Here we were at a temple of tennis, and one of the gods we came to worship — a minor and thoroughly unattractive deity, admittedly, but still a very tall one — told us that he didn’t believe. Or more accurately, that he didn’t care about our faith, that he was getting paid whether we believed or not. I say we came to worship, and as with Christianity, that worship is predicated on suffering. Stan Wawrinka — who also went out early, to Daniil Medvedev in the first round — had previously talked about making his opponents suffer, and we need to believe that the riches and glory that go to the players are built on a willingness to be nailed to the cross of their highly remunerative vocation. That’s the contract or covenant.
Even Federer, who floats around the court as if he could run on water without making a splash, put in hard work during those long months in the Swiss wilderness of physical rehabilitation last year. Most of us are not particularly dedicated to living our lives. We don’t even pursue affairs with any special single-mindedness; we’re just happy to have one if it comes along. So we like to see the single-minded dedication of elite athletes, the willingness to engage, if necessary, in a match lasting 11 hours (Isner-Mahut), even if the result of that victory is defeat by exhaustion in the next round. Never give up. Chase down every ball.
THE SCORING SYSTEM of tennis actively promotes this dogged determination, and Rafael Nadal exemplified it as he tried to come back from two sets down against Gilles Müller on No. 1 Court on the second Monday. That’s a busy day in any tournament, so if you have a ticket, you’re confident of value for money, wherever you’re seated. The situation is more complicated if, like me, you have a rover press pass, which enables you to get in everywhere but doesn’t guarantee that you can get in anywhere. There is always the chance that in trying to maximize your experience of all potential matches, you can end up stranded between them. I saw Venus Williams beat Ana Konjuh and most of Murray against Benoît Paire on Centre Court, watched Müller take the first two sets against Nadal on No. 1 Court and then went back to Centre to make sure I got a seat for Grigor Dimitrov and Federer. I had already seen a lot of tennis — both that day and the previous week — but aesthetically this was likely to be the highlight of the entire tournament.
I have a simple rule of support in tennis: Always root for the player with a single-handed backhand. That’s why I somewhat lost interest in the women’s game after the abdication of the great Justine Henin. Dimitrov and Federer are two of the most elegant single-handers. Except, of course, tennis is not a beauty contest. In this case, it wasn’t even a contest, as Dimitrov, celebrated since winning Junior Wimbledon in 2008 as a king in waiting, was obliged to wait some more as he was swept aside. Nadal, meanwhile, had leveled things up, but Müller, instead of collapsing in the fifth set under the mental burden of a squandered two-set lead, was hanging on. They were both hanging on, on the brink of collapse and refusing to collapse — and there were, as I discovered after scrambling back to No. 1 Court, no empty seats. I couldn’t get back in.
Missing one of the pivotal matches of the tournament, I was reduced to watching the drama unfold silently on a muted TV in the press office. The one advantage of this was the way close-ups revealed the expression of almost catatonic concentration on Müller’s face, but I was otherwise in an awful predicament. I wanted the match to be over so that I wouldn’t miss any more of it; I wanted it to continue so that I might have a chance of getting in and seeing it. The compromise was to dash over to Henman Hill and watch it on the big screen. On the way, I looked in at the journalists’ entrance at No. 1 Court. Plenty of times in the course of the tournament I had hurried to a given court and arrived just after an end-change and waited as two of the longest games of the match got underway. On this occasion, though, they were midchange and, incredibly, one seat had suddenly become available. I was in, not just watching this epic struggle but part of it. Or was I? Having missed so much, was I still, in a sense, missing it even while I was seeing it? By missing the previous three hours, had I effectively missed almost the whole thing, like skipping 200 pages of a book — even if this was a book of indeterminate length? I was still pondering this five chapters later when Nadal finally succumbed.
Which is not to say that he was quite finished. For we require still more of players, even after they’ve given their all: They must lose graciously. Perhaps this isn’t such an issue for audiences in America, but I have an English fondness for the stress placed upon being a good loser, the way that this assumes that defeat will be the ultimate outcome of all worldly endeavor. After shaking hands with Müller and the umpire, Nadal proceeded to do two things that went beyond gracious. In the other Slams, players walk off separately. At Wimbledon, it is not a rule — it would count for nothing if it were — but it is a convention, not always observed, that the players walk off together. And Nadal literally abided by this. He waited for Müller.
It’s stirring to see the virile Italian Fabio Fognini, fist raised and clenched, after winning a decisive point. Only a minimal amount of photoshopping would be necessary to transform pictures of him so that he’s standing triumphantly over a stricken foe at the Colosseum rather than Centre Court. The handshake at the end of the match breaks the spell induced by gladiatorial competition. Part of us wants athletes to be carried out on their shields, rather than with aching hips, but their leaving the court together expresses the return to communality, courtesy and civility rather than competition. Even more amazingly, Rafa stopped to sign autographs on the way out. And then he was gone.