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Centre Court

At Wimbledon with Rolex

His ferocious grace makes him appear to float a fraction above the famous grass, whether it’s the lush, sappy carpet of the opening day or the parched, hard savannah of the final Sunday

Centre Court at Wimbledon has its own microclimate; intense, pressurised, and high octane. Slip into one of the dark green seats on match day, and you’ll hear an uncanny, low level hum. It’s the sound of 15,000 people paying attention, and, en masse, putting on a musical performance of their own. The ball, reaching speeds of close to 240 km an hour, provides the explosive percussion to the crowd’s chorus. On wet days, when the roof slithers across the arena to repel the rain, the sounds are amplified even more, and become concussive rather than simply percussive. Add the rippling roars of the fans and their clattering applause, and the soundtrack is simply thunderous. While the crowd may scream, showy advertising hoardings do not. Unlike the other Grand Slams, Wimbledon would never allow such a thing. Instead it remains a restrained, timeless enclave of purple and green. Even the frothy hanging baskets of flowers are colour coded.

Each summer, visitors to Wimbledon devour 34,000 kg of strawberries, 110,000 scones, 320,000 glasses of Pimm’s, and 29,000 bottles of champagne. It’s the food of a mythical English summer, which, so often, exists only in the imagination. Even when there’s a deluge, the fans stoically sit it out, listening to the raindrops pinging off their steamed up plastic ponchos. Years ago, before the arrival of the roof, there was always an unspoken dread that the rain would come on the same day as your prized golden ticket. But the drama was part of the deal, and it still is for those with tickets to the roofless courts.

No other tennis tournament has Wimbledon’s sense of timeless poise – a consequence both of its history and its refusal to bend to the jurisdiction of the future. The Royal Box, a vast ocean going wooden raft tilting into the sea of green plastic seating, has a protocol worthy of an independent principality. Male guests are discreetly warned in advance that ties must be worn, ‘to avoid any embarrassment.’ The tournament rule that competitors wear all white clothing has become stricter over time, rather than less so. This year, two male players were sent off court for sporting dark underpants that were judged to gleam through the snowy white of their shorts. Comically, an official ran on bearing bundles of spare white underwear for them to change into before play could resume.

No competitor, however celebrated, comes on court at Wimbledon certain that they can write themselves into the tournament’s history. As three time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker put it this year, you can only live in the present moment, and hope that the future will take care of itself. Time is such a precious commodity at Wimbledon that the tournament has its own official timekeeper. Rolex has performed the task of counting the seconds and the minutes, precisely marking time since 1978. A discreet golden Rolex clock face adorns the dark green hoarding on Centre Court, alongside the board that displays the speed of the ball.

This juxtaposition of timing devices is the perfect metaphor for Wimbledon: the speed clock showing supersonic serves, standing alongside the sober Rolex timekeeping clock verifying the present moment. Tick, tick, tick – time is racing by, time is standing still. Only Roger Federer seems able to stop time. This year he became the only man ever to win eight titles at Wimbledon, and the oldest man in history to claim the title. His ferocious grace makes him appear to float a fraction above the famous grass, whether it’s the lush, sappy carpet of the opening day or the parched, hard savannah of the final Sunday. Federer’s famous balletic backhands explode off his racket like popped paper bags, while cunning drop shots slither over the net and die in the conniving grass.

Staring at the timekeeping clock on Centre Court this year, I was sent back into my own past as a ball girl. The games we used to hate were the doubles. If you’re crouched down by the umpire’s chair ready to sprint across the court to hoover up a ball, it’s infuriating when the player at the net sweeps it up with their racket head and flips it at you to catch instead. It’s like preparing to be Usain Bolt and trying to turn into Magic Johnson halfway across the court. But that, of course, is what the players are striving for on every single point – to be as fast as Bolt, as dexterous as Magic, and, thereby, to write themselves into Wimbledon’s past, present and future.

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