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Saturday, 2 July 2016 11:48 AM BST
Memories of Middle Sundays past
It's carnival time again as the gates prepare to open on Middle Sunday for only the fourth time READ MORE

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Middle Sundays. As celebrated French crooner Maurice Chevalier (almost) sang in the 1958 musical Gigi, “Ah yes, I remember them well.”

Those three previous occasions, 1991, 1997 and 2004, when it rained and rained and rained at Wimbledon are among the most vivid memories of my 42 years reporting The Championships.

The first one remains the most cherished, simply because of that historic fact: the first time the All-England Club had opened its gates on the sacrosanct middle Sunday of The Championships. By then the other three Grand Slams were all playing on the middle Sunday in Paris, New York and Melbourne. Consideration for The All England Club’s near-neighbours had always been one of the prime factors, plus the fact that, even as recently as 1991, Sundays were very much a rest day in Britain.

But when it took most of the first week to complete the first round of the two singles events there was no alternative. The barricades had been swamped by the sheer volume of water. With no precedent, Wimbledon offered seats, even on Centre Court, for £10, purchasable at the gate, with ground passes £5.

And how the public responded! By the time the gates opened at 10am the queue stretched for one and half miles down Church Road. People’s Sunday had arrived. In his excellent Wimbledon Compendium the club’s historian Alan Little called it “a carnival atmosphere."

So impressed was the All England Club - “This day was deemed a great success by all present, players, spectators and officials” it declared in a press release - that the following year it announced the establishment of Middle Saturday, an attempt to recreate the special atmosphere, a move which has been extremely popular ever since.

Six years later it happened again, as a result of the wettest ever first week.

“The players are going nuts”, said John McEnroe.

Two successive complete days of play were lost for the first time in 88 years and as I wrote at the time, “The only one on the premises with a racket in hand was the statue of Fred Perry…but we’re all in the same boat. The Ark. Things got so bad on BBC TV that the urbane and unflappable Des Lynam brought his dog Daisy into the studio to interview her.” So once again the gates were flung open, the people responded and attendance for that year surged to a two-week record of 436,531. More carnival.

In 2004 the heavens opened again. The first Wednesday and Saturday were complete wash-outs. Britain’s "Official Hero", Tim Henman, was asked to carry the Olympic torch around the grounds on that Saturday. The rain got to the torch and as Tim hoisted it aloft it went out. But next day he did better and beat Morocco’s Hicham Arazi in a Centre Court match watched on the giant TV screen by teeming thousands on what had been known as Aorangi Terrace. 

That day it became what it remains, unofficially, to this day: Henman Hill. Attendance for the fortnight was a record 451,208.

And now global dampening, rather than warming, has struck again. History has repeated itself in more ways than one. In 2004 Henman was the sporting hope of the nation after England flopped at the European Football Championships. Now that mantle is worn by Andy Murray.

I really look forward to it. What fun those three Sundays were as the grounds swarmed with folk who had never dreamed of getting into the world’s premier tennis tournament and wandered round, marvelling at it all.

So here we go for a fourth time. Pop the laptop bag into the boot and it’s once more onto the South Circular, dear friends. 

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