The annual Wimbledon tennis championships are well underway, and the first week has seen some brilliant tennis, with the usual upsets, injuries, rain delays and, for the first time, interruptions by Just Stop Oil protesters.
Every year, when the tournament gets underway, I’m flooded with memories of my teenage years spent there, chasing favourite players for autographs – and watching a bit of tennis too.
Growing up in Wimbledon, my friends and I would walk up the hill to the All England grounds every afternoon after school. It was a kind of ritual during Wimbledon fortnight.
In the 1960s, it only cost about 2/6 (old money) to get into the grounds. If you were lucky, someone leaving early would pass on their ticket and you would have a seat on Centre Court or Court 1, maybe getting a glimpse of the graceful, three-times champion Maria Bueno.
An informal affair
Up until 1968, when the tournament went professional, only amateur players were allowed to play and winners took home about £200. Players used wooden tennis rackets and there was a standing area on Centre Court (more of that later).
The grounds seemed much smaller then – No.1 Court was attached to the side of Centre Court, not a separate building – and you could walk around quite easily compared to nowadays. Compared to the huge, highly corporate organisation now, there was a very informal atmosphere and I almost always bumped into people I knew.
The ivy-clad Centre Court is still much the same from the outside, but in the 1960s the players would congregate on the balcony, and it was there that my friends and I used to hang around in the hopes of seeing our idols.
My personal favourites were the Italians Nicola Pietrangeli and Orlando Sirola. Not only were they a great men’s doubles duo, they were also highly entertaining on court. Sirola was a gentle giant, while ‘Nicky’ was a shorter, fiery player. Three-times winner, Aussie John Newcombe, ran a close third: very handsome, but he wasn’t as much fun to watch. Sadly, I never got their autographs, but I lived in hope, and just a glimpse from the balcony would make my day.
A match that I didn’t see
The women’s singles final used to be played on a Friday (it was moved to Saturdays in 1982). In 1963, my best friend and I hatched a plan to see it by queuing up for standing places on Centre Court. This involved bunking off school, a rare occurrence for me. Incredibly, we managed it and took our places in the stand. We were looking forward to seeing the exciting new player, Billie Jean Moffitt (now King), who would later go on to win Wimbledon six times.
My parents had bought seats – they were big tennis fans too – and we waved to each other across the court before the match started. It was a particularly hot day and the standing area was extremely crowded – and with hindsight, probably unsafe (though it wasn’t removed until 1990).
I don’t remember much else, but mum and dad told me afterwards that I suddenly disappeared. The next thing they saw was a body (mine) being lifted above the crowds and passed to the exit. I had fainted in the heat. My friend nobly left too and sat with me in the first aid room until I came round. When I recovered, we were given seats on No.1 Court, where the Junior finals were being played – a poor substitute – so we never got to see the women’s final (Billie-Jean Moffitt lost to Margaret Smith that year).
I still go to Wimbledon most years, either by getting tickets through the ballot or by queuing up, if I can face it – no point even trying when Andy Murray’s playing. My favourite players of all time to watch must be the long-haired Swedish player Bjorn Borg (five-times consecutive winner), athletic player Steffi Graf, who won the women’s title seven times, and incredible eight-times champion Roger Federer, with his effortlessly beautiful play. Hardest to watch? Undoubtedly Tim Henman (sorry Tim).
The size of the championships and layout of the grounds today faze me somewhat, but the atmosphere is still fantastic, especially on the outside courts, where you can watch the winners of tomorrow. The tournaments at Eastbourne or Queen’s Club are just not the same, and now that Centre Court and Court 1 have roof covers, rain can’t even stop play completely any more.
Where else can you watch first class tennis until the sun goes down, eating strawberries and cream? And every time I get the bus from Wimbledon station to the grounds, passing my old school and the road I lived in for years, memories of my childhood and ’60s teenage heart-throbs pour back. Enjoy the second week!
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