DAY one and the forecast is rain. Welcome to the 120th All England Lawn Tennis Club Championships. Walking around an empty Wimbledon, all is nearly ready for the half a million spectators who will follow me through the gates over the next fortnight. Ask the players what they think of the place and the one word you hear above all others is “special”. The annual sporting drama on English summer lawns is about to begin.
I’ve been a regular at Wimbledon for years, including a fair share of waiting in line along Church Road. But this is my first time here as an accredited journalist in the international press centre, a lob away from Centre Court. There are 700 of us, including the likes of the Sydney Daily Telegraph, Tennis World India, New York Times and Japan’s Kyodo News Service. Bet they’ve never been in the queue.
Five British women have made it through to the contest for pluckiest first week loser in the ladies’ singles, while the men’s singles draw throws up the usual illogical hopes of a historic home victory. Tim Henman, Andy Murray and Greg Rusedski lead our ten-strong strike force. All are unseeded.
Greg is the current British No 1, but returning from injury, while Tim faces defending champion Roger Federer in the second round, should he beat Swede Robin Soderling in his opening match – and England’s recent record against Sweden isn’t the most encouraging.
Andre Agassi fans were already queueing early on Sunday morning to see their hero in his farewell to Wimbledon. Tim, 31, has no immediate thoughts of following him into retirement and is under less pressure than usual, thanks to young Andy.
The 19-year-old Scot is now the chosen one lumbered with the nation’s hopes, even though this is just his second Wimbledon. Mother Judy reckons he’s still two or three years away from his best. “He doesn’t like being told what to do,” she said, before ensuring her son was out of bed and on the practice court by 10.45am on Sunday. Still without a coach, he’s drawn the No 31 seed, Chile’s Nicolas Massu. Judy is a proud mum. Andy’s older brother Jamie is also at SW19 this year, playing in the doubles
The competitors’ complex is in the Millennium Building, along with the press centre. A main interview room provides the buffer between the two. It’s just part of the new world served up by a media pass. For a start, there’s free stuff. Inside a Wimbledon 2006 bag for your laptop are two books crammed full of facts and figures about the players and the history of the event. Want to know which champions wore glasses in a final? Easy. Turn to page 392. And, of course, there are several pages chronicling the exact details of decades of rain delays. Now I know why those TV commentators always sound so clever.
IBM provide the on site technology, which is appropriate, given that most top sports stars are now International Business Machines generating millions for their sponsors, especially at this time of year.
It’s a dazzling operation, from scanning my photo ID when I enter and exit the grounds to providing players on Centre and No 1 Courts with a detailed analysis of their performance, plus a full length match DVD, before they’ve even had a chance to take a shower.
Wimbledon just loves its facts and figures. Some 28,000 kilos of English strawberries will be consumed during the next fortnight. The price per punnet – with cream – of not less than 10 strawberries has been held at £2 since 2003. That’s washed down with 150,000 glasses of Pimm’s, 17,000 bottles of champagne and 100,000 pints of draught beer or lager. Yes, somebody, somewhere is counting.
But out on court in the heat of battle, the statistics, not to mention the strawberries and half a billion TV viewers around the globe, are totally irrelevant. At its very best, tennis is the modern day equivalent of two gladiators locked in combat. In the fifth set of a Centre Court thriller, who has the heart, courage, talent and mental strength to survive? Britain may fall short when it comes to winning any of the trophies, but Wimbledon is one of the world’s truly great sporting events, complete with our gallant boys and girls battling the odds for the chance to meet Sue Barker.
And that’s why for two weeks every summer, when the rain clouds clear and the shadows lengthen, the game that begins at love all is the game we all love.
Join me in my two week adventure at Wimbledon. This blog will be regularly updated each day. Also check out the links on the right, including Wylie’s Wimbledon 2006 photo gallery.