I have a sort of ritual every year in that I clear the calendar for the final week of Wimbledon, make sure my internet connections are good with access to sites showing the games and then kick back. This year I made the mistake of watching the first week so that by the time the second week came around I was already losing interest in the little ball going back and forth with little men in my little laptop screen running around after it furiously. This is because my interest was piqued by Andrew Murray’s comeback adventure; indeed, if I hadn’t tuned in for that first week, I wouldn’t have seen him play. I’ve never much liked watching him play (as per previous post), but a good story is a good story and so I tuned in.
I grew up in London, England and first started watching tennis in the large dining room in West Acre House at Harrow School. There was a generous side area apart from the dining tables which sat around 100 boys from ages 13 to 18. The summers were languid. Afternoons year-round were for sports, be they team sports on various fields, or other sports like running, squash, racquets, fencing. I played mainly squash myself. Every once in a while our House had to play another House so there was the occasional cricket game, but mainly I remember them as good opportunities to find a nice large tree to sit under and get a good bit of reading in. Except during Wimbledon week. I don’t know about other Houses, but in West Acre we all crowded into the area in front of an old black and white television to watch. Every afternoon for hours we watched the whole presentation. Copious amounts of white bread with butter and jam were consumed after being toasted on the nearby toaster table. Tea was freely available in large dispensers somehow. We cheered, we groaned, we watched every shot. In those days there were men like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Connors, Arthur Ashe with new stars arising like Björn Borg, Ivan Lendl and the emerging John McEnroe whose crazy hair-do and ghastly manners were matched in impact only by the exceptional touch tennis he wowed the world with.
Ever since that time, I have tried to tune into Wimbledon. I left Harrow in 1972 but remember watching one time in 1980 at the bar in the Gramercy Park Hotel; I worked for a non-profit educational foundation a block or so away on 21st Street, so goofed off during the mid-mornings that week to quaff a few beers and watch Wimbledon. One day I was elbow to elbow with a mid-thirties or so Baron Wedgwood, the scion of the original Sir Josiah Wedgwood whose family name is still on fine china sold worldwide, albeit now part of a Finnish business consortium along with Daulton and other old names. (Maybe my bar companion Wedgwood watched too much tennis?!)
Why the quasi-ritual, though? Partly it’s the tennis. I find top-level tennis absorbing: the leading players clearly lead extremely disciplined lives, so on top of prodigious talent they layer in years, indeed decades, of hard work, every day, working on fitness, skills, preparation, the mental aspects. In the last twenty years or so, starting with Sampras perhaps who won an unprecedented fourteen grand slams, the world number one in the rankings has exhibited great levels of discipline and commitment, because that is what it took to beat Sampras, himself an exceptionally talented and hard-working champion, and then maintain the ability to win further championships thereafter. Federer’s extraordinarily graceful style of play made it look easy perhaps, but to beat him took total commitment tournament after tournament. And the same goes for Nadal, especially on clay, where only recently have other champions been able to occasionally topple him from his throne where he reigns as ‘King of Clay.’ Djokovic on Sunday paid tribute – as he has often done – to both Federer and Nadal in that they made him the player he is today, because in order to beat them he had to develop an entire well-rounded discipline honing body and mind into a weapon able to achieve victory on the court. Top-level professional games are often very close, intense, and decided by only a few key points. Not to mention that the shot-making, at these levels, can be highly entertaining.
But the tennis is not the only reason I watch Wimbledon every year. Mainly it is a return to some sort of continuity in life. I don’t go to church and left my old Buddhist community from the 70’s to 90’s along with all the great friends of my youth with whom I shared so many aspirations, follies and grand times at the feet of an iconoclastic genius trickster Tibetan master. Earlier, I had left England at the insouciant age of nineteen. I like English movies better than most American ones, speak with a faded English ‘mid-Atlantic’ accent, and deeply miss the wild but also well-tamed English countryside. Everywhere I go, I am always comparing whatever landscape presents itself to England, especially the counties like Surrey and Sussex near London with which am most familiar. Rolling green fields with occasional large oak trees is my default go-to terrain; on walks I expect to see hedgerows brimming with flowers, teeming with birdsong. So Wimbledon reminds me of boyhood, of growing up in England, and its grass courts remind me of the playing fields of Harrow where I occasionally pretended to play cricket in between downing no end of sticky ice creams.
England in those times, and therefore also for me, was what I now think of as a ‘real country.’ America is now fracturing, the victim of deliberate political sabotage perpetrated for reasons one seemingly cannot fathom other perhaps than presuming that desire for control on the part of a remote leadership class is somewhere in the mix. Their relentlessness is an almost demonic insistence on making things unpleasant, on denying ordinary people the ability to lead positive, uncomplicated – if still demanding – lives without confronting them with one existential crisis after another, keeping them in thrall to perpetual anxiety as macro-scale financial policies erode the value of their currencies making saving difficult and thus also the accumulation of wealth over succeeding generations, especially given the huge cut taken every year by taxes; meanwhile their familiar cultures and values are shredded daily by new progressive initiatives whose only common theme seems to be that anything they hold dear is now deemed irreparably wicked and deserving only of being thrown, along with later their corpses presumably, onto the trash heap of history.
So watching Wimbledon, watching the players dressed in white, hearing the pounding of their feet, the thwacks and thuds of balls hitting racquets and turf, hearing the timeless moans and applause of the enthralled crowds, watching Wimbledon is both a reprieve from the relentless degradation of our civilization and a brief return to the days when I knew what being part of a great country and culture was, when we knew what was what and who was who, being all part of the same community called England or Great Britain, sharing so much joy and pride in such basic camaraderie.
Of course, this is an overly nostalgic and hagiographic description. But it’s how things felt back then, both to a teenager growing up and to most people living in such countries. Of course the same leadership class shenanigans were ongoing (witness the entirely unnecessary hardships and slaughter of The Great Wars of 1914-1948) but the sense of togetherness within some sort of national community was for sure far more developed and enveloping. That’s all breaking apart now.
But for two weeks – well, next year it will be back to one week again! – I can return fondly to the days of my youth and to a country which I will always dearly love and whose countryside will always be home, even if only in memory.