Borg falling to his knees, Rafa climbing into the Royal Box, Jana crying on the Duchess’s shoulder, Petra Kvitova steam-rollering Maria Sharapova. There are a host of memorable images to bubble up in the mind of a tennis fan, but it is only on a guided tour of the Grounds of the All England Club that you truly understand the magic that is conjured up during the Wimbledon fortnight.
The stage is bare and free of crowds, but the air is resonant with ghosts of Championships Past and Championships Yet to Come. Here are the outside courts – neat rectangles of grass without markings, seating or scoreboards; here are the turnstiles, the Holy Grail for Queuers; here are electric fences, ‘grow lights’ and groundstaff at work. The stage is in purposeful hibernation until the next June.
What makes Wimbledon special? As Andy Roddick once said of Centre Court, “I got goose bumps just walking out there. It’s just majestic”. Yes, it is the annual display of artistry, talent, personality and sheer courage from players who commit heart and soul to achieving their best on grass, inspired by tradition that stretches back to 1877.
The award-winning behind-the-scenes tour, which takes 90 minutes, begins outside the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum and takes you into many of the normally private players’ facilities. Walking up between Courts 14 to 17 and No.1 Court, our guide regales us with interesting snippets: from how Robinson’s Barley Water was the original isotonic drink when first supplied to players on the court 70 years ago to how becoming a Singles Champion, and thus an Honorary Member, is the easiest way to join the All England Club (otherwise a private members' club of 375, with a long waiting list).
Before going into No.1 Court, we marvel at how Courts 14, 15, 16 and 17 are so close together, conjuring the intensity of action and crowd appreciation that adds up to garden-party atmosphere. Our party from all over the world found the logistics fascinating. No.1 Court, for example, has 11,400 seats, but never stages semi-finals or finals and therefore has smaller press and photographer facilities. Underneath it, runs a tunnel for the players to walk direct from the dressing room, enabling them to stay focused en route to meet their opponent.
On up to Aorangi Park, aka Henman Hill/Murray Mound, we see in place of the large screen TV a net decorated with letters that make up the word ‘Wimbledon’ wrought in evergreen foliage – a cool photo opportunity. Down the steps and past the rose arbour, we pay homage to Court 18, where the mantra is ‘touch the grass, but no treading’! For here is the scene of John Isner and Nicolas Mahut’s record-setting slogathon – the longest game in history with Isner coming through 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68 after 11 hours and 5 minutes.
Under the huge glass window that is the BBC studio, we find the unlikely reason why The Championships exist at all: the Pony Roller. When, in 1877, the Club needed to raise money to update the pony-drawn roller that kept the lawns playable, players were set a challenge to play… The rest, as they say, is history.
Into the press centre where the world’s media reports from the first ball of the first round to the last winning shot of the draws, meeting deadlines across the globe, aided by a line of Rolex clocks displaying time differences. A visit to the interview room, where players give their post-match comments, is a highlight. You can take your turn sitting in front of the microphone fielding questions on why your backhand slice won the day!
Via the the Members’ Balcony, which affords fabulous views over the new No.3 Court, we cross the walkway from the Millennium Building into the Centre Court complex and emerge in that famous arena. The universal reaction is: WOW!
Even with the cutting-edge retractable roof, Centre Court is a strikingly intimate stage. Get your bearings – Royal box? Check; TV commentary cabins? Check – and suddenly you can re-live in your mind that euphoric moment when Nadal climbed up to the players’ box to hug his team, then clambered over the roof of the broadcasting cabin into the Royal Box to share his triumph with the King of Spain.
Here the anecdotes come thick and fast. Remember when Pete Sampras flew in to watch the 2009 Federer v Roddick final when the Swiss surpassed the American’s record of 14 major titles? When Roddick left the court – even in the mental turmoil of defeat, he looked up at his compatriot and said, “Pete, sorry mate, I tried to stop him”.
The Wimbledon Museum is open from 10am to 5pm throughout the year. Tours run from 10.30am to 2pm. Book onto a Guided Tour now