Victoria Azarenka bt Irina-Camelia Begu 6-1 3-6 6-1
Roger Federer bt Julien Benneteau 6-2 6-2
Juan Martin Del Potro bt Andreas Seppi 6-3 7-6
Caroline Wosniacki bt Yanina Wickmayer 6-4 3-6 6-3 (30th July 2012)
Along with football, another sport which doesn’t sit too comfortably with the Olympics is Tennis, which already has four major tournaments each year. Not that it hampered tickets sales at all though. With the tournament being held at Wimbledon, demand was nearly as high as for the Wimbledon Championships itself, so it was with some surprise that my speculative punt on a centre court ticket came off in the initial ballot.
More so than at Wembley the day before, this event did actually feel like the Olympics. The purple branding was everywhere, as were the volunteers. These pointed the way from Wimbledon Station to the world’s slowest shuttle buses. They weren’t helped by the fact that if there was a gold medal for most traffic lights in the world, Wimbledon town centre would storm it, along with the most useless ones too, letting you edge forward about one car length at a time. If the Wimbledon town planners have a slogan, it should be “we’re getting you there, very slowly”.
I’d never been to Wimbledon before, or any tennis championships for that matter, so it was good to discover just how much there was there beside the centre court games that I could see. For a start, once through the airport style security, only missing somebody asking “did you pack your lunch yourself, sir?” to complete the airport feel, the first thing you come across are the practice courts. Here you get the chance to get up close and almost personal to the players warming up for the games later on. For some reason, most of these were women, and the first I saw was Serena Williams. I say “saw”, as the initial shock was hearing her. Some say you could dub adult movies using some of the gasps and moans from the female tennis players hitting the ball, but Serena could dub the male parts too, such was the gruffness and volume that accompanied every whack. Heck, if David Attenborough ever needed sound effects for a documentary about rutting bears, she could be called upon as well. TV really doesn’t capture it.
There are twelve courts at Wimbledon, but only two have reserved seating, meaning anybody can walk in and watch any match taking place on the other ten. I got to poke my head into No. 1 Court, but mainly spent the time before the games actually started just wandering round, taking in the ambience, plus also the view of the London skyline from The Hill. With games on the outside courts starting half an hour earlier, I was also able to take in part of a match between Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez and Polona Hercog. Maria eventually won in two sets. I only saw a couple of games, sat directly courtside on the park benches which formed the seating, with the ivy covered Centre Court as a backdrop, before going into Centre Court itself.
As well-trimmed the ivy is outside, there’s no disguising the fact that Centre Court is an old venue once into the concourse. The white interior of the upper concourses are on the very cusp of charm and inadequacy. The rather functional lower concourse, even with the wall of photos of the previous champions, would never lead you to guess you are below the most genteel of venues.
Centre Court holds 15,000 but actually looks smaller than you imagine. Maybe it’s the impact of the higher sides vanishing under the sloping roof – itself something of an illusion with the real roof now mechanical and able to cover the whole arena. Unlike most mechanical roofs, it’s so light and unobtrusive that the place looks barely changed from how it was before. Proof indeed that having a covered stadium needn’t mean a stadium that looks like the inside of an aircraft hangar.
It’s just as well, as Centre Court is one of those stadiums that could only be in England. The subdued dark greens of the seats, walls and roof give the place a historic edge that a modern venue would struggle to achieve. For somewhere in its 90th year, it works very well. There are no loveable inadequacies to put up with, with the old roof supports having long since gone. My main complaint would be that although the dark green padded seats give the place a fine look, far too many of them were on view for the first match of the day between the No. 1 seed Victoria Azarenka and the Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu.
With the Wimbledon championships colours having been replaced by the more vivid, and certainly more widespread purple of London 2012, the place didn’t look exactly as people are used to. That wasn’t the only change. The “all-white” rule was gone, with players now wearing the colours of their team, and players at Wimbledon don’t usually enter Centre Court with The Clash’s London Calling booming out from the PA system.
With the place just half-full, and most of the spaces being in the expensive seats, it has to be said, the place didn’t have quite the buzz I’d hoped it would have. Then again, I’m not used to sports where the crowd goes silent just as the play is about to start. It didn’t seem to faze Azarenka, who swept to a brisk first set in just 24 minutes, losing just one game. It looked like it was going to be a quick match. The biggest question would be if anyone in the crowd would crack and burst out laughing at Azarenka’s curious vibrato grunt, sounding like someone had unexpectedly inserted an ice-cube into her rectum as she hit each shot.
The second set was a different story, with the underdog Romanian winning the support of the crowd to definitely rattle the No.1 seed, winning it 6-3. A shock looked possibly on the cards when Begu broke Azarenka’s serve in the first game, but Azarenka broke back straight away, and then just steam-rollered away to take all the remaining games for a 6-1 3-6 6-1 win.
The turn around between matches is quick, with barely 15 minutes between one ending and play starting for the next. Dashing out for refreshments, I returned to find the arena rather more full. Next up was world No.1 Roger Federer, and the dysfunctional Olympic family decided that they could be bothered to turn up for this one.
After watching a match of women’s tennis, watching a men’s game is something of an eye opener. It’s just so much faster. The more conservative 2nd serves of the men are still at the speed of the 1st serves of the women. You wonder have the players even have time to react to the ball, let alone return it. A normal 200 kph serve will travel from baseline to baseline in under 0.43 seconds.
It took Federer a bit longer, but that much longer, to dispatch Frenchman Julien Benneteau, winning 6-2 6-2 in just 58 minutes. Federer apparently wasn’t at his best – I’m no expert so I won’t judge – and Benneteau was competitive, but Federer, one of the few sportsmen on the planet who’d need a large pay cut to survive on Manchester City wages, just had enough to swat him aside as if playing the game was just a minor inconvenience.
As he departed, so did most of the crowd. Next up was a match between Juan Martin Del Potro, ranking 9th in the ATP rankings, and 28th placed Andreas Seppi, perhaps not the most obvious choice for a centre court match. I decided to dip out for an hour of this game and see what else I could see in the other courts. I had my eye on a Daniela Hantuchova match on court 16, who I obviously admire for her tennis skills, but that game had already finished by the time I got there. Instead I wandered around taking in a few games here and there of a variety of matches. The Olympics/Wimbledon organisers perhaps were perhaps not always the best judge of the appeal of each match. One involving 2011 Wimbledon champions Petra Kvitova was stuck on the tiny courts, with crowds straining outside over the walls for even the merest glimpse of play, while the large No.2 court was mainly empty for a game between Serbian Janko Tipseravic and the 94th ranked German Philipp Petzschner. A hard-core of enthusiastic Serbian fans made the German look a very lonely man.
I went back into Centre Court to see a battling 2nd and deciding set of the Seppi/Del Potro match, which Del Potro won with a tie-break, to win 6-3 7-6.
Hopes that some crowds might return to see 8th seed Caroline Wosniacki were rather dashed as the stands seem to thin out even further. I can hardly moan about Centre Court being filled (or not as the case may be) by day-tripping fans more interested in wandering about and taking pictures than the tennis going on, as I was also a day-tripper who took a lot of pictures, and I’m hardly an expert on the game. I did recognise that being here could be a once in a lifetime experience though, and wanted to enjoy as much of it as I could. Going to home beat the rush from somewhere you might never get to go to again seems crazy to me. I wanted to be there as long as possible.
Just as well really, as Wosniacki’s eventual win did go on rather longer than I’d bargained for. Two and a half hours it lasted, with one game in the 3rd set lasting a mammoth 18 minutes, with most of those during a 13-deuce arm-wrestle for control of the set. Having won the first 6-4 and lost the 2nd 3-6, this game came with Wosniacki serving at 3-1 up. By this time I’d taken advantage of the empty seats to move from up in a corner to plumb seats dead centre, just behind the camera view, and I found myself rooting for Wosniacki for no obvious reason. It’s not as if I have any Danish connections. I was pleased therefore when that 5th game ended with it going to Wosniacki, eventually. With the sun having long since left the pitch and now way up in the stands, I was there for the duration. Mind you, despite my feelings earlier about wanting the day to last as long as possible, knowing I’d have to get up at 5.30 in the morning to make the hockey at the Olympic Park the following day (start time 8.30 am – cheers guys!) I didn’t want to be here too long.
From 4-1 up it was just a case of holding serve to win, to end the match, and effectively my day, at Wimbledon. The closed stalls and covered outside courts showed that for nearly everyone else, the day had finished some time ago.