The last time this happened, the Second World War was still some years away, Edward VIII was King-Emperor of the United Kingdom and its empire (including us, by the way) and men still played tennis at Wimbledon in long-pants and full-sleeved shirts.
So you can understand why 77 years after Fred Perry won the men’s singles at Wimbledon, the prospect of a British winner at Wimbledon was so enthralling. Last year, Andy Murray had made it to men’s finals, only to be demolished with cool Swiss efficiency by Roger Federer.
But this year Federer was gone, a victim of an upset defeat in the early part of the tournament. And though Andy Murray was up against the world’s greatest living tennis player Novak Djokovic in the finals, all of Britain hoped that he might triumph. After all, he was playing in front of a home-crowd, had shown remarkable resilience in the tournament (bouncing back from what looked like certain defeat in the quarter-finals) and this time, he seemed to have what it takes to be a champion.
For someone like me who has no great interest in tennis other than a superficial knowledge of who the players are, there could not have been a better match for my first visit to Centre Court. Even if one lacked a knowledge of the finer points of the game, the emotion and the drama were so all-pervasive that it was impossible not to get caught up in the sense of history in the making.
I grew up watching Wimbledon on TV as a child. But compared to the passion Indians display for sport, the Wimbledon of my childhood seemed curiously unemotional. Everything looked formal and regulated. The players were addressed as ‘Mister’ or ‘Mrs’. (Thus Evonne Goolagong, my favourite female player of that era, was “Mrs Cawley”). When TV cut to shots of the audience, it was always old buffers in suits. And the great champion of that period was an unsmiling little man called Rod Laver who won every match with the air of a guy who was just doing his job.
But this year’s men’s final was so full of emotion that you could have been at an Indian cricket match. The woman next to me looked like she would burst into tears every time Djokovic broke Murray’s service. And whenever the two men ranged opposite each other for a sustained volley, the whole of Centre Court seemed to stiffen with tension.
The last game of the final, when Djokovic came back from three match points, was so tense that the crowd almost stopped breathing. And when Murray finally won, the audience
exploded in such a show of joy (and Murray slumped to the floor, exhausted and drained) that everything I remembered about the formality of Wimbledon was suddenly forgotten.
But of course, Wimbledon can be formal. A service break is usually greeted with polite applause. (But during this match, the audience jumped to its feet for a standing ovation when Murray broke Djokovic’s service). When the crowd makes too much noise, the umpire demands silence only by saying “the players are ready”. And there’s the royal connection. Usually at Wimbledon, Prince Charles and his family can often be spotted. But there is a tacit understanding that the final will be the Kent show. The senior royals stay away and the Duke of Kent is always the star.
The Duke wore a suit, of course, to this year’s final and because Wimbledon is a formal occasion, he did not bother with linen or beige but wore the sort of outfit most of us would wear to office. All around him, in the Royal Box, were more men in sober suits and ties.
I had worried about what to wear at Wimbledon. A friend of mine who had attended a match without a tie was given one by the club and asked to put it on. And certainly all the photos I saw – umpires dressed by Ralph Lauren and women in designer wear – suggested stiffness and formality.
Fortunately, I turned to Rebecca Richardson for advice. Rebecca is one of the wine-masters for Jacob’s Creek, the official wine of Wimbledon. So she was there every day, hosting elaborate wine lunches at the Jacob’s Creek marquee.
“What should I wear?” I asked. “Just a shirt and jeans in this heat,” she said.
But surely Wimbledon has a no-denim policy? “I’ve been wearing blue jeans, everyday,” she responded.
The mystery was solved when I got to Centre Court. Yes, you have to dress formally in the Royal Box and in the areas where club members sit. But elsewhere (i.e. 80 per cent of the seating) you can wear what you like, secure in the knowledge that the TV cameras will never focus on your part of the crowd.
But I wondered about the folks in the Royal Box. It was 29°C in the stands – and 49°C in direct sunlight on the court itself. Who could wear a suit and tie in this heat?
I watched closely. As the temperature rose, the Duke of Kent took off his jacket. Freed from these restrictions, David Cameron quickly took his off too. So did Ed Miliband, Wayne Rooney, Gerard Butler, Bradley Cooper and nearly everybody else in that area. Ronnie Wood had been allowed in without a tie (so much for the rules) and then took his jacket off. Cleverest of all was Victoria Beckham who arrived in what looked like a black lace negligee and seemed cool (and inappropriately dressed) throughout.
It is increasingly difficult to buy tickets for the men’s final. For the Murray-Djokovic match, scalpers were offering tickets at
£5,000 a pair or more. So the biggest crowd at Wimbledon consisted of people who had paid small sums of money to sit in front of a large screen to watch the telecast, some distance away from the courts.
More and more people get to see the matches through the medium of marquee hospitality. Large companies and sponsors (Jacob’s Creek, for instance) erect temporary clubhouses to which they invite friends, customers and the media. Each marquee comes with a certain number of tickets. So an invitation from one of the marquees usually includes lunch before the match, the final at 2pm and then tea (if it’s three sets) or drinks (if it stretches to five).
Obviously this is an invitation to die for – especially for one of the finals. But at least some of those who turn up don’t care too much about the matches and treat the whole thing as no more than a glamorous social event. (Few people, though, can feel as guilty as I did in Centre Court, thinking: this seat should have gone to a real tennis lover.)
Most marquees offer high-quality hospitality. Jacob’s Creek, as a wine maker, had the advantage of offering seven different wines (and of having Rebecca to tell us about them) and a gourmet meal with the traditional Wimbledon strawberries, freshly picked that morning.
Though many people at Wimbledon kept saying how great it was to have an English champion, the truth is that Murray is not English. He is Scottish. No sooner had he won than Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, (something like an Indian chief minister) whipped out a huge Scottish Saltire flag that he had hidden in his wife’s hand bag, while the English looked outraged at this breach of decorum.
But the English were always awkward about Murray’s Scottishness. As one Englishman told me before the final, “If he wins, he is British. If he loses, he is Scottish.”
Not that it is easy to define Britishness these days. The night before the final, Rebecca came with us to a dinner hosted by Illy Jaffar of Pernod-Ricard. Illy sounds like Geoffrey Boycott but despite the Yorkshire accent, he is of South Indian origin. But because he grew up in England he is now completely British.
Illy took us to dinner at Café Spice Namasté, the first of the chef-driven Indian restaurants to make a name for itself in London. Café Spice Namasté is run by Cyrus Todiwala and his wife Pervin, Parsis from India, who I’ve known for decades in their Taj Group past.
But Cyrus, Pervin and their two sons are British now. Not that this stops Cyrus from cooking amazing Indian food or Illy from enjoying it. But it shows us how flexible a concept Britishness can be. (And how international the world now is. Rebecca’s Australian wines went perfectly with Cyrus’ Indian food.)
And Britishness can change too. If Scotland votes to secede from the UK in the forthcoming referendum, then Murray won’t be British any longer.
In which case, I guess the Brits will have to wait another 77 years for a new champion.
From HT Brunch, July 21
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