Behind the Scenes of Wimbledon
For two weeks in 2019, July 1 to 14, the world will be watching ‘The Championships, Wimbledon’ from their homes, taverns, tennis clubs, and airports. Most certainly, Sea Colony will have it dialed in at their national award-winning tennis center. Although I do not have recent statistics, a billion television viewers worldwide once joined together in watching the Championships.
To be clear, this Is not a commercial or advertisement for the brands I will reference in this article because Wilson Sporting Goods, Prince, and Wimbledon have been through multiple ownerships, and operate under different business models today. But most readers will recognize those brands from the 70s and 80s.
My wife calls me the Forrest Gump of tennis. For a decade and a half I had very unique access to the grounds of Wimbledon and that very special group of world class participants who gather there each year. Movies have been produced and books written, but they never come anywhere near capturing the aura and charm of Wimbledon. Center Court humbles even the most arrogant superstar, and transcends tennis as one of the most important social events in England along with Royal Ascot and Cowes. The Masters in golf and the Kentucky Derby are the only sport events even approaching the majesty of Wimbledon.
One July morning, very early, I walked into center court many hours before that day’s matches. I sat alone in the old Center Court. It was silent, painted forest green, and the grass courts were beautifully manicured. I could almost hear echoes of the crowds from great matches played decades earlier still reverberating around the stadium. I always tried to exhibit good sportsmanship, but on that morning, in what I consider the temple of sportsmanship for all racket sports, I became a disciple.
Sport should be an example how to live our lives, with gusto, discipline, and responsibility, but also with humility and example for others. In my last University of Maryland match against a North Carolina team, the opposing coach sat next to me while we watched my team mate play, and he complimented the way I had conducted myself the prior four years. He pointed out that the two players we were watching were not just playing a tennis match, they were practicing how in life they should handle adversity as well as success. I reflected on that conversation as I sat in reverence in the alter that morning. Folks who now play pickleball, or any other racket sport, should respect that all racket sports share this DNA. Wimbledon is their grandfather, and this is why it distresses me to see tennis speak unkindly of pickleball and vice versa.
Wimbledon is actually a village just outside London. It’s where, late for a meeting, I converted several hundred dollars to English pounds, and so involved was the process that I took off up the hill afterwards leaving my English currency at the teller’s window. Half way up on a very hot day, I heard an Englishman calling after me. The bank manager, dressed in a fine wool suit and huffing and puffing, was chasing after me to give me my English money. That’s Wimbledon, a friendly place, and it is the location of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club which hosts the famous tournament. It is where the tournament has been played since 1877 when only twenty-two male players competed in front of several hundred spectators. Today an army of unseen workers produce this fairy tale event which unfolds with military precision over a fortnight.
Oh yes, grass courts. Lush, whisper quiet grass courts. A field of green grass in the center of a darker green wood stadium. The courts were wonderfully maintained each year and were pitch perfect on the first day of Wimbledon only to be torn apart by the miles of running, sometimes in spikes, leading up to the finals. Looking down onto the court was a very specific ‘Member’s Enclosure’ periodically filled with ladies wearing hats in all the colors of summer flowers, and men wearing traditional navy blazers. Gentlemen are expected to wear light woolen blazers regardless of summer heat until the Duke, President of the Club, surrenders his.
My favorite personal memorabilia is a photograph taken from spectator seats inside the famous Center Court as my two Wilson girls played the Ladies Finals. Both Billie Jean King and Chris Evert later autographed and presented this to me. The entry to Center Court, to the temple of sportsmanship, is a special portal. Call me an old softy, but I get chills every time I think of the first time I saw that portal. I stood there thinking of all the great players who passed under it. Above the portal are the two famous lines from Rudyard Kipling’s “If.” These two Kipling lines are the very essence of what sportsmanship should be. Actually, those lines are the essence of a quality life.
“If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and meet those two imposters just the same”
Perhaps I was hypersensitive to the history of tennis because that year, the small department at Wilson where I worked was involved in the production of the 100th Anniversary of Tennis. We invited all the living legends of tennis as well as an army of the celebrities who then had recently adopted tennis, and gifted our guests with Wilson tennis balls in crystal crafted by Tiffany. It was a grand event and we staged it in the famous Chicago Soldiers Field.
The great Donald Budge was one of our guests. In 1937, Budge, the top player in the world, played Wimbledon Center Court in a Davis Cup Tie with Germany in what was reportedly, up to that point, the greatest tennis match ever played. Budge played Germany’s Gottfried Von Cramm, an aristocrat and crowd favorite. Von Cramm used his public popularity to stay out of the clutches of the German SS, who had proof that Von Cramm was gay, a criminal offense in Germany. Adolf Hitler apparently telephoned Von Cramm in the locker room moments before the match telling him that losing was not an option. Von Cramm played the fifth set as if his life depended on it, and it did, and Budge raised his game to equal brilliance. The German held off five match points before losing 8-6 in the fifth. The following year Von Cramm was snatched by the SS and put into prison. Once released he was drafted into the army and sent to the Eastern Front.
…Email me at Vaughn@my.com if you would like the rest of the story about some of my experiences at Wimbledon in the 70s and 80s.