Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Wimbledon – It's A London Thing

It’s a London Thing is our Wednesday series in which we turn the spotlight on a unique aspect of London – perhaps a curious shop, sometimes an eccentric restaurant, a hidden place, book or oddity. The subject matter will be different every week. The running theme, however, will remain constant: you have to come to London to enjoy it. It’s A London Thing.

Wimbledon. It’s A London Thing.

So why do I, a Londoner, end up watching it on TV every year?

Okay, tickets are tough to come by and the annual ballot is vastly oversubscribed. Maybe one of these years I’ll be lucky.

But even if I were to acquire tickets for Centre Court to see my countryman Andy Murray lift the title (“Oh, one fine day…” as my mother always used to say) I’d still feel as if I were missing out. For as long as I can remember I have watched Wimbledon on TV. It has become a ritual.

As a sports-mad child, I followed every major sporting event – even golf, an aberration that, as an adult (and a Scot) I find stultifying in the extreme. So much so that, should Scotland gain independence, I firmly believe that Alex Salmond as leader of the nation should issue an apology for inflicting that infernal game on the world. As my old pal Ian once said” “Golf? The pitch is too big and the ball’s too wee.” Like spending time with a dull tour guide (none in THIS parish, of course), golf really is “a good walk spoiled”. Suffice to say, golf is NOT a London Thing.

With every shift of sporting season, every child in my town (and in towns the world over) recreated events in the streets outside our homes. One week, in the fields of our dreams, we were Zico scoring for Brazil, then Ian Botham hitting a boundary. And every June and July we became Jimmy Connors playing at Wimbledon.

The last days of Wimbledon coincided with the start of the school holidays in Scotland. Getting to watch TV in the afternoon doubled the pleasure of following every serve and rally. This is back in the day when TV was switched off by the BBC itself and we youngsters at home were faced with the choice of watching the test card until the moving pictures came back on again, or going outside to run around and stave off obesity in later life. No bad thing.

In my child’s mind’s eye, I pictured Wimbledon as distant, mythical  – a special place, green and pleasant and dedicated only to tennis. A kind of sporting Brigadoon that appeared but once a year, playing its part in a pageant of such similar, equally exotic places – Crystal Palace, Lord’s and Wembley among them.

That Wimbledon was simply a blameless London suburb never once entered my head. That ordinary people lived and ate and shopped there seemed outlandish. Such is the mythology of the world’s greatest tennis tournament.

For me, even now, in calloused and beleaguered mid life, on TV, the magic of Wimbledon still persists.

The BBC Wimbledon Team

On the nightly broadcast Today At Wimbledon frontman John Inverdale sits high above the courts, with central London distant in the background and the greenswards of Wimbledon’s courts at his feet. With his slightly-more-salt-than-pepper hair and square jaw, I am assured by those who know about such things, that he is a bit of a hottie. To those immune to his charms on that particular level, he still exerts a pull, resembling in his eerie some Tennis God, controlling the events beneath his all seeing gaze. Or perhaps he’s a James Bond villain who has seen the error of his ways and now uses his power for the forces of good. It took a great broadcaster to fill the shoes of BBC legend Des Lyman in this role. John Inverdale is that that broadcaster.

Sue Barker is the face of BBC tennis coverage. A former tennis pro, she is now approaching 20 years with the BBC and for an entire generation of TV Wimbledon fans, the tournament just wouldn’t be the same without her. One of the BBC’s foremost sports broadcasters, she brings us her insights on the game with authority and an impressive light touch.

And then there’s McEnroe – a link with those cobbled-together tennis games of my childhood. The goody-two-shoes kids wanted to be Borg and John Lloyd. The cool kids wanted to be the badass John McEnroe.

His career took place at the top of the game, he experienced the highs and lows of top level modern sport. His famous rage of yore is now tamed, the poetic Irish soul within now at peace with the machismo of the combative sportsman. Who better to unravel the psychodrama of combat on Centre Court? He is well worth the license fee.

And we mustn’t forget the old time theme music for Today At Wimbledon – a march entitled A Sporting Occasion. It’s not played every day – these days the editors opt for all kinds of music for a play-out montage, always well done. But when the rumpity-pumpity brass and strings of A Sporting Occasion begin to swell, every Brit of a certain age realizes that the notes have become part of our national DNA.

What is that strange feeling in the breast when A Sporting Occasion blares out in our living rooms? Is it… pride? A sporting emotion that has lain dormant this past 35 years – since a British woman last became singles champion at Wimbledon – and 76 years since Fred Perry took the men’s title.

Our London pride can find a fitting home at Wimbledon every year regardless of results on the court. The Championships are both the most famous and the tennis world’s most coveted prize. And the TV coverage is the finest there is.

Wimbledon. It’s A London Thing.


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