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Come On, Tim!

Wimbledon, London

If you want to understand what it means to be British, visit Wimbledon.

But before you start packing your bags let’s sort out a few issues with names. ‘Wimbledon’ is two things. First, it is a rather upmarket borough of London, located in the southwest area of the city close to the equally classy neighborhoods of Kingston and Richmond-upon-Thames. It doesn’t have much to distinguish it as areas of London go apart from the remains of Roman camp that may have been established by Julius Caesar and Wimbledon Common – a large area of parkland that everyone for miles around uses for exercising themselves or their dogs.

Wimbledon’ is the name of something else, too: the world’s greatest tennis tournament – more prestigious than other Grand Slam competitions, including the French or the US Opens. It is also different, aficionados will tell you, by virtue of being a lawn tennis tournament – all the games are played on grass rather than composite surfaces. For those who have only ever played on hard courts, grass presents a very different challenge: the characteristics of a ball bouncing on a grassed surface – especially a worn grass surface – are much less predictable than the characteristics of a ball being played on a hard court. Playing on a hard surface requires fast reflexes. To play on grass, you must be cunning too.

The tournament gets its name from the place because the place is home to the UK Lawn Tennis Association, which organizes the tournament every year. Officially the event is called the Lawn Tennis Championships, but even the LTA refers to it as Wimbledon.

Wimbledon is a great place for Brit-watching because it allows the foreign visitor to observe the islanders partaking in one of their favorite pastimes: hanging on to hope in the face of near certain destruction. The last Brit to win Wimbledon was Virginia Wade, who clinched the Ladies’ title in 1977. A sport that had such a poor record of home wins would sink into oblivion in the States. In the UK, however, winning anything (with the important exception of the World Cup and other football trophies) is still seen as vaguely embarrassing – over there folks prefer plucky amateurs to highly-trained pros.

So it’s kind of heartwarming every year to see thousands of natives turn up to cheer on their latest hero. Number one Brit for the past few years has been Tim Henman. Henman has never won the tournament, though he has come alarmingly close on a couple of occasions. Matches in which he is involved – especially those in the later stages of the tournament – are usually characterized by testy umpires asking for ‘quiet, please’ while his legions of (mostly female) fans shout ‘come on, Tim!’ in increasingly angst-ridden voices.

There are a few other traditions associated with the tournament. The most important is the eating of strawberries and cream. This strangely satisfying dish is on sale throughout the complex during the tournament, usually at a vastly inflated price. It is, however, the essential accompaniment to Wimbledon watching.

The second tradition is rain. This is the UK, after all, and at several points during the tournament the stuff buckets down. None of the Wimbledon courts is roofed, and the heavens opening is the cue for a bizarre ballet in which players and umpires scuttle for cover while club officials and stewards frantically drag rain covers over the court – attempting to resume play on wet grass would result in all kinds of slips and mishaps.

The third tradition centers around the means used by Wimbledon crowds to entertain themselves during these enforced pauses in play. In the past this has usually taken the form of communal singing or carefully-choreographed Mexican waves. British tennis crowds have all the lively energy of British football crowds with none of the violence – everything is very good natured. A couple of times in recent years damp spectators have been entertained by the legendary (and decidedly middle-aged) British pop star Sir Cliff Richard. Perceived by many outside the British Isles to be among the very worst popular entertainers ever, Sir Cliff is regarded in the UK as something as a national icon.

All the charm and good-humour turns into adrenaline and edge-of-the seat excitement on the final weekend of the tournament. Getting a seat for the Gentlemen’s or Ladies’ Final is very difficult. Most visitors watch these climactic games on giant screens outside the Centre Court. Although at one remove from the action, the atmosphere is arguably better away from the tenseness of the court itself. You could probably even get away with a quiet ‘come on, Tim!’ – not that he’ll be playing.

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