WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND / / It was raining when we arrived at Wimbledon. Of course.
England had been sweltering under a heat wave for a week, but as my wife, Ann, and I set out in the morning for our long-awaited visit to tennis' hallowed lawns, the clouds rolled in, the temperature dropped, and the rain began to fall. The main reason for our trip to England, five months in the planning and years in the dreaming, seemed to be in danger of turning into a damp disappointment.
You don't have to cross an ocean to see top-level tennis: The U.S. Open, one of the four major tournaments of the tennis world, begins Aug. 27 in New York. But ever since watching the classic 1980 men's Wimbledon final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe on television, I had fantasized about setting foot one day on the grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, a prosperous suburban village southwest of central London. Set amid verdant parkland, the grass courts and dignified grandstands are not only the embodiment of all that is best about the sport, but also irresistibly English in their serene understatement.
And so for years, I had participated in Wimbledon's arcane "public ballot," the club's lottery for distributing a scarce commodity -- tickets to the main courts, including Centre Court -- to the untold thousands of Anglophile tennis fans dying to get in.
Year after year, my hopes foundered on the rocks of random selection.
But in January last year, I received an unmarked envelope from SW19, the English postal code that includes Wimbledon.
"Your application for tickets via the 2006 Public Ballot has been successful," the letter began. After that momentous but appropriately restrained declaration were eight steps that had to be followed to buy the tickets, including a procedure for notifying the All England Club in case I had changed my name since mailing my application.
Applying for tickets through the public ballot is a shot in the dark in every sense, considering that hundreds of thousands of requests are mailed in. You cannot specify which court you want. Everyone wants Centre Court, of course, but the lottery system is used to allot not only about half of the tickets for the "Cathedral of Tennis" but also for the No. 1 and No. 2 courts, the smaller, less-famous show courts.
You cannot specify how many tickets you want. Two is the maximum. You cannot specify which day you'd like to attend. All 13 days of play during Wimbledon fortnight are included in the lottery. And you certainly cannot specify where you'd like to sit. You can't even count on sitting together.
Considering all of those factors, we did remarkably well. Our tickets were for Centre Court, next to each other, on the second Thursday of the championships, the day set aside for the two ladies' semifinal matches. The tickets were a stiff 69 pounds a piece -- nearly $125 -- but deciding whether to go or not was not even a decision. "No" has to be a possibility for something to be a decision, right?
But now, after sending off a certified check and spending plenty more on airfare and lodging, we waited under our umbrellas for a double-decker bus to take us from the Wimbledon station on the London Underground to the 84-year-old grounds on Church Road.
Looking for a silver lining, we reflected that Wimbledon is famous for its rain delays, so there was something fitting about enduring a spot of dampness. Like a dish of strawberries and cream, a visit to Wimbledon wouldn't be complete without it.
And fortunately, soon after we reached the grounds, the rain petered out. A loudspeaker announcement informed the crowd waiting to pass through the security checkpoint that, barring further rain, the matches would begin on schedule at 1 p.m.
That set the tone for what turned out to be a glorious day of watching four of the best women tennis players in action, and, not incidentally, wandering the grounds and drinking in the atmosphere.
Spread over 42 acres, the All England Club consists of 19 grass courts, a variety of restaurants and food counters, two large shops and seven smaller outlets that carry Wimbledon merchandise, and a new tennis museum that features a holographic John McEnroe conducting a tour of the men's locker room.
In the center stands, well, Centre Court, dedicated by King George V in 1922 and frequently renovated and expanded over the years, including repairs in World War II, when five German bombs destroyed 1,200 seats. Next to it stands the new No. 1 court, completed in 1997, which has a giant TV screen facing a hill where as many as 3,000 people can watch coverage of the main matches.
From the top of the hill -- officially the Aorangi Terrace -- the whole of the All England Club and the rolling hillside beyond is on display. As befits a place that hosts the only Grand Slam tennis tournament still played on grass, the overwhelming color scheme is a deep, restful green. Advertising logos are mercifully discreet.
There is a small ice cream and beverage stand on top of the hill, but with 10 food-service spots, including a sit-down restaurant, scattered around the grounds, one is unlikely to stay hungry or thirsty for long. During the Wimbledon fortnight, spectators spoon up 61,740 pounds of strawberries and 1,850 gallons of cream, at about $3.70 a serving.
As we walked up and down the lanes between the outer courts, where spectators can get a close view of tennis stars during the first week of play, the gardenlike quality of the All England Club sank in. For me, Wimbledon was even more well-behaved than I imagined. Granted, my main point of comparison is with the U.S. Open, where low-flying jets compete with a zoolike assortment of hoots, whistles and unidentifiable yowls from spectators. Even so, the crowd at the All England Club was remarkable for its civility -- applauding politely between points and maintaining librarylike silence during rallies.
Our Centre Court seats were in row Y -- the next to the last row -- but even so, the people around us whispered their comments to each other for fear of disturbing the players on the court.
When the cell phone of the man next to us started ringing, the man in front of him turned around immediately. "You're supposed to turn that off, mate," he said sharply.
Still, the atmosphere was not stuffy, just grown-up. And well-heeled. Unlike an American sports crowd, T-shirts and sneakers were not the apparel of choice, at least among the adults. Men wearing sports coats or suits and women wearing dresses were not uncommon sights, as might be expected at an event that draws more high-income spectators than any other British sporting event, surpassing even the Royal Ascot horse races.
Now, about those seats. Yes, they were in the next to last row, but Centre Court is compact, seating only 13,798 people. Better yet, it has no space-hogging skyboxes. At the U.S. Open's Arthur Ashe stadium -- capacity 23,200, with two tiers of skyboxes -- sitting in the next to the last row means having a great view of the Manhattan skyline, while the players scurry around the court, antlike, far below.
From our perch in Centre Court, Justine Henin-Hardenne's blistering backhand and Kim Clijsters' gymnastlike agility were clearly evident in the first semifinal, as was Amelie Mauresmo's heartfelt joy at holding off a resurgent --and loudly grunting -- Maria Sharapova. Although I brought my field glasses with me, I used them mainly to peer at the crowd and spy on announcers John McEnroe, Mary Carillo and Ted Robinson in the tiny NBC broadcast booth next to one of the scoreboards.
One oddity of the place, however, is the low-hanging roof that covers most of the seats. It does not interfere with the view of the court, but from our seats, it obscured all but the bottom few rows on the other side of the stadium. To some, the effect might be to heighten the intimacy of Centre Court. To me, it also felt somewhat claustrophobic. But under Wimbledon's long-term modernization project, the roof is due to be replaced with a retractable cover in 2009.
The man next to us, who had been rebuked for not turning off his cell phone, turned out to be an unexpected source of insight into another of Wimbledon's distinctive features -- its same-day ticket sales. Although most tickets are presold through the public ballot or other means, the club puts some tickets on sale every day during the championships. Some of those tickets are good for admission to the grounds only, not the main courts. Still, long lines of die-hard fans queue for hours, and even camp overnight, in front of Gate 3 on Church Road.
But arrive no later than 6 a.m., advised our Centre Court neighbor, Paul Borg, who runs a real estate company on Malta. Borg, 55, has been coming to Wimbledon since the early 1970s. He draws the line at waiting overnight, but an early-morning arrival often gets him through the gate, ticket in hand, by 11 a.m.
And despite the very public shushing, he remains a fan of the All England Club.
"For anyone who loves tennis, it's a dream come true," Borg said.
Stevenson Swanson writes for the Chicago Tribune.
IF YOU GO
Wimbledon Ticket InforMation
It's too late to enter the public ballot for this year's event, which begins June 25. However, those willing to wait in line can purchase same-day tickets to matches or the grounds (standing only), which are available throughout most of the tournament.
To enter the public ballot for tickets to the 2008 championships at Wimbledon you must first obtain an application from the All England Club. Send your request, with a self-addressed envelope, to: AELTC, P.O. Box 98, London SW19 5AE. Include an International Reply Coupon, which is available at most U.S. post offices, to cover the cost of the return postage. Applications can be requested beginning Aug. 1, but requests must be postmarked no later than Dec. 15. There is a separate ballot for people in wheelchairs. For more information, go to wimbledon.org.