Centre Court, Wimbledon

It was round about halfway through the second set and things were hotting up on Centre Court when I noticed the mobile starting to flash silently in my breast pocket. Furtively I fished it out. There was no choice. You have to be on call. Even in the throes of the greatest tennis match ever played, you have to be ready to respond to events.

I saw that someone had sent me a text. Was it news of a burst main on the Marylebone Road? Had the police made some breakthrough?

It was my old mucker Steve Norris, and here was the message he had the effrontery to send me. “Shouldn’t you be attending to civic duties,” texted Nozza, “rather than swanning around in the Royal Box at Wimbledon?”

I am afraid I was simply too engrossed in the game to reply, and so here – belatedly – is the reason, Steve old horse, why I spent the bulk of Sunday watching tennis.

I was there because I had never been to Wimbledon before, and I discovered that it is just about the sublimest thing this country has to offer.

Oh it wasn’t just the flummery of the Royal Box, though I must say that the quality of the entertainment was stratospheric. It was the game that was the thing. It was the theatre. It was a pageant that told you all you needed to know about the human condition.

In the four-hour, 48-minute struggle between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal we saw the eternal conflict between time and talent.  Any human activity – sport, art, literature, politics, even journalism – will produce its dominating exponent.

There always seems to be someone who possesses a God-gifted ability to command the stage; until the years go by, and nature starts to take her course, and the sap runs more thickly in the veins of the master, and the younger talents start to snap at his heels.

And slowly experience becomes no substitute for energy, and genius finally loses out to sheer hunger – and that is what happened on Centre Court on Sunday.

When I think of the great Wimbledon champions of my lifetime, I think of the pathetic moment when they were eventually tipped off the pedestal. Borg was mighty in his time, wielding his wooden racket two-fisted like a Viking Berserker; and yet even in the moment when he snogged that trophy for the fifth time, his tendons were becoming invisibly less full of snap, and his fabled monocular vision was getting imperceptibly foggier, and he was ripe to be displaced by the genius of McEnroe; and then McEnroe’s magic was gone and everyone idolised Becker until Becker made his last leap and the era of Sampras was ushered in, Sampras who served like a bullet to win seven times until he was himself usurped by some gigantic Croat with a gigantic serve.

Now the amazing Federer, who has won five times in a row, has both depressed and consoled us with the fact of his professional mortality.

Of course I was on the side of Federer, especially since his opponent had a peculiar habit of bending forward before every point and tugging from behind at the gusset of his shorts. It was very rum indeed.

There we were in the Royal Box, with the President of Switzerland and assorted dukes, duchesses and the heir to the Spanish throne, and Rafael Nadal seemed to be unable to sort out what is known as a serious wedgie.

I pointed this out delicately to one of the tennis supremos, and he said that it was a well-known Nadal phenomenon.

This pant-twanging was a ritual, he said, like saying a Hail Mary, and the challenger had been doing it since he was eight. I suppose I might have forgiven him for that, because we all suffer from some sort of obsessive compulsive disorder, but sometimes there was also frankly too much Nadal soundtrack to the rally.

The Swiss champion was silent, and almost impassive, while Nadal would yelp with each shot like a loose fan-belt. And while both men played shots of extraordinary creativity, and while I found myself rubbing my palms and jiggling up and down at the suspense of the rallies, it struck me that Federer was the true merchant of style.

Nadal certainly carved huge quantities of topspin from the ball, and yet there was a rasping clunking noise as he hit it. Federer seemed to serve faster and more smoothly, with less effort, and, though he made a few unforced errors, there were some shots which seemed to approach the Platonic ideal.

The Greek philosopher said there were these things out there called the Forms, eternal perfect examples of worldly things.

Well, we don’t need to look for the Form of the cross-court forehand zinger – it was forged on Sunday afternoon by the racket of Roger. And yet, somehow, we all knew that Nadal had the edge.

Every time the rally went beyond five or six shots, you felt the Spaniard was the more dangerous, and so the crowd did that wonderful British thing: they got behind the underdog. Ro-ger! clap, clap, clap, they went, and as the evening wore on, the passions rose.

The crowd started to gasp at every point like a huge vacuum cleaner. Roger recovered his energy, and the shades lengthened, and the pigeons started to swoop across the court as though they had no idea of the titanic battle taking place.

It was just magic, and it struck me that it could not happen anywhere else but the Centre Court at Wimbledon.

I feel grateful beyond words to have been there and, if you really want to know, the last incumbent of my present office didn’t go once in eight years – and refused to visit this wonderful adornment of London, even when the tournament was not in progress.

How can we hope to produce a champion of our own, when some politicians are still so idiotic as to pretend it is an elitist sport?

So that’s why I felt it necessary to watch the tennis on Sunday, Steve.

It was not only a joy to take the hospitality of the Royal Box. It was a civic duty.

[First published in the Daily Telegraph 08 July 2008 with the heading, “Norris, old sport, I was fulfilling my civic duty at Centre Court.”]

14 thoughts on “Centre Court, Wimbledon”

  1. It was a fantastic game – I ignored the howls of protest from my son (missing Top Gear) and we were enthralled. He was for Nadal and I for Federer. Talk about family entertainment. (Actually who needs a husband? This was better than er ‘marital relations’) But early in the game I thought Federer wasn’t on form. He seemed to rally (hur hur) but made loads of unforced errors, errors you wouldn’t expect from that calibre of player. Nadal, as you say, was hungry. It was a blistering match between them. Excellent.

  2. The previous Mayor failed to understand Wimbledon – even as a business? Mad. Superb sport, entertainment, cultural cohesion – it’s good to have a Mayor that understands, enjoys and promotes all that. We need leaders that are seen to appreciate such events and the diverse ways in which anyone can participate. (Mind you, Jaq: it didn’t do much for the family in this house: I burned the dinner.)

    Glad to see some sense is also being applied to the C-charge. Any chance that Tube fares can be next target: they are way too high. (Montpellier manages unlimited travel for 30 euros a month; Barcelona charges less for 10 tickets than London charges for one.)

  3. ‘Red’ Ken didn’t like Wimbledon? Why am I not surprised. Yes, of course Boris had to be there, it’s one of the greatest events in London and holds the spotlight of the world on Wimbledon. I’d like to see Boris and Stanley on court next year playing doubles with two children from Westminster school maybe? We sometimes get to hear about the achievements of disadvantaged children but London hosts some world leading private schools and we should be proud of those too. They must be doing something right so perhaps Micheal Gove and the Tory cabinet could note what those things are..

    Dinner? We had a sofa picnic as I wasn’t moving (but I did provide hot pizza to go with it).

    I would check the taxi charges – £10 to go from Kensington to just outside Westminster! The tube is cheap. Is it true that Boris is no longer allowed to ride his bike?

  4. Sorry, Gill – you actually put “The previous Mayor failed to understand Wimbledon”, my mistake.

    Yoh, Ken – players hit a ball across a net with a raquet. If it falls outside the designated court the other player wins a point. If it don’t get over the net the other player wins a point. And if you miss the ball the other player… well you get it.

    You’ve got to explain these things haven’t you? The lefty socialists still don’t understand why the NHS is a mess, education is a mess, the Home Office? Oh crikey!

    All they seem to do is juggle statistics for that feel-good factor when actually to repair the quite serious damage will take time..

  5. Tennis Balls Vs Confused Ones

    Boris, this will be short.

    You rightly point out how much you (and probably the entire “assortment of dukes and duchesses”) were horrified by Nadal’s ugly fidgeting on Centre Court last Sunday, performing the “pant-twanging ritual” of a “serious wedgie” (or even a series of them).

    Your sensitivities equal mine on the subject. However my disappointment at your presence at some bizarre parade recently far eclipses my grief and I hope yours, at Federer’s loss.

    My support of you for the Mayoral Chair is very different from my surprise at your presence at some dreadful parade recently full of morally confused individuals along London’s streets. Just why on earth do you lend yourself to it Boris? “Gay parades” are nothing other than the parade of mankind’s confusion concerning very basic morals – and for clarity I say the “act” of homosexuality is a moral evil; that we are to respect the homosexual but not his sin, we certainly do not parade the sin.

    How can you preside in such seeming support of the most distasteful display of moral confusion known? Please say! Were a group of heterosexuals to extend themselves in such a manner in public we should rightly have them all arrested for gross indecency.

    I support you as Mayor of London but am horrified at your support of such parades which attack the very centre of London life. Well beyond Plato, Aristotle’s “Politics” provides plenty of clear pagan arguments about the required first cell of all society, so one need not coil with thoughts of being tutted as “religious” in defending London’s interests.

    My disappointment is at Mankind’s inability to make simple distinctions; your presence – as Mayor – at the parade, confuses those distinctions still further.

    Yours sincerely,
    Franz Forrester

  6. Fantastic piece, I am impressed. and these obsessive compulsive disorders: yes, I immediately go for cleaning my nose to clear the way from intruders into my affairs, and not to give them pleasure in their WATCHING THIER SUBJECT MISSION!
    It works very well; after few minutes of thorough cleaning, missioned lovers are completely PUT OFF and disappointed in fulfilling their missions !

  7. Roger Federer was absolutely sublime. His elegant, subtle strokes, the strong way he fought back, his Zen like calm and the gracious, noble way he accepted defeat made him the supreme champion and we all thought, he is still number one, no-one else displays such qualities. He was ice cool, with whiplash strokes, and the cardigan was the final elegant touch. It was the thrust of the rapier against the blow of the mace.

    Nadal is a very powerful, intense, talented player. However, he is a bit of a caveman, black locks every which way, the bandana, oozing testosterone, I bet he tears red meat with his teeth.

    Ken probably never went to Wimbledon because he isn’t comfortable with the idea of being gracious in defeat. If he was playing at Wimbledon, and lost he would probably stalk the winner, disputing line calls and demanding an instant replay until he won.

  8. I’m just looking how to visit the Wimbledon Center Court while
    I’m in London. It may be the wrong place that I’m trying to get through but I couldn’t find the contact. I’d be very much obliged if you would kindly let me know if Wimbledon Center Court is opened to public visitors when there is no tournament
    or where shall I contact to get the right information.

  9. Boris
    I for Nadal, his raw talent and determination is awesome. I am so thrilled to see you writing so wonderfully with your creative sense of styling with words so oft forgotten. Thanks B, you should attend every year.

  10. I love Winbledon too, the atmospere, the grass and people.
    Love both Federer and Nadal !!

    I missed the final but watched the earlier games. The early games are less crowded !

  11. I prefer horse races! Much more fun and a chance to win some money, based on how well you can pick the winning animal out of the line up! Matched with food, drink, and music (jazz if you are lucky)


Comments are closed.