WIMBLEDON, England –As I woke on July 3, in a small village to the west of London, the weather was as dreary as it had been the whole of the previous week. For six days I had not seen the sun (except for a few cruelly brief spells), and I was already beginning to miss the champagne days of my adopted Long Island home. How do they stand this? I wondered, as I peered through the curtains. Above me was a 20-mile-thick meringue of cloud. It leeched the sun out of the light so that the little bit that managed to penetrate to earth was as pale as the tomb. The mud on the footpath outside looked as though it had been mixed with motor oil and whipped in a blender.
“At least it isn’t raining” was about the only thing one could say, and so that is what we said as we made our way, on tubes and buses, toward the Holy Grail of tennis, with that chins-up cheerfulness that only a people who have survived thousands of years of miserable weather could muster.
I was hungry when I arrived at the All England Club, so I headed for the Aorangi Cafe, underneath Court One. Earlier in the week, it had been packed to overflowing. Now the place was almost empty. The reason was that most people assume that, unless they have a ticket for the “show courts” (Centre and Number One courts), there is no point coming to Wimbledon on the final weekend. In fact, it is one of the best times to watch tennis. For a grounds pass costing seven pounds, you can watch the stars of today on the giant TV screen that has been erected on “The Hill,” or see the stars of yesteryear (the Over 35s) and the stars of tomorrow (Junior Wimbledon) on the outside courts. If you keep your ears open and ask around, you may even get your hands on a Centre Court ticket — for face value, not at scalper’s price. You won’t have to battle the crowds. And you may even have, as I was about to, a surprising encounter.
I had just paid for that classic Wimbledon combo — a Styrofoam cup of tea, brewed so strong that it looked like coffee, and a pot of strawberries and double cream — when I noticed a man in the line behind me. He was in his late 50s, with thinning, black hair swept back off a prominent forehead, dark glasses, a blue blazer, tan trousers, white golf shoes and a burgundy Ralph Lauren sport shirt. In one hand he had two bottles of mineral water; in the other, one of the red seat cushions you can rent for the day. A fancy, carved cigar-holder poked out of his breast pocket.
“Mr. Nicholson! Good afternoon.”
The face that sent shivers down the spines of millions in “The Shining” turned toward me and smiled an edgy smile that could not quite conceal the actor’s irritation at having being spotted. By now, the girl at the checkout had realized who it was, too; and I was worried that if she did not breathe again soon, she would drop dead on the floor.
Nicholson pulled out a wad of pound notes held in a gold bill-clip, paid for his mineral water and began to amble back toward Centre Court.
“I am amazed that you can walk about like this … incognito,” I said, falling in beside him.
“Yeah,” he replied, in that inimitably gravelly voice. “It has to do with my former life as a bank robber.”
“Surely you can’t do that in New York,” I said, chirpily.
“I can do it anywhere.” He paused, eyeing me meaningfully. “Tell me: Were you the second person I saw in there?”
I felt like Darzee, the foolish bird, as it meets Nag, the cobra, in Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.”
“Yes … ?” I said tentatively.
“And did you say hello to me?” continued Jack, with that unnerving mixture of jocularity and menace that is one of the hallmarks of his acting.
“Yes … ?”
“You’re asking the wrong question then,” he said with a grin.
I decided it was best to come clean. So I explained to Nicholson that I was a toiler in the salt mines of journalism. Would he mind saying a few words ? He did not say no, so I pulled out the micro-cassette recorder I always carry with me. Naturally, this attracted attention, and I could sense Nicholson growing tense. A girl asked for an autograph. A steward extended his hand and invited him for a drink in the LTA Sponsor’s Lounge.
“See what I mean?” Nicholson said to me, dryly. “Isn’t that a silly question when you think about it?” He paused. “But I changed it,” he continued. “Like a bank robber. “
I let out a nervous chuckle. Then Nicholson bared those famous canines, threw back his head like a wolf and let out one of those long, howling, manic laughs that have made him a screen legend. It was as though a land mine had been detonated. It echoed off the walls. It shook the windowpanes. It sent the molecules in the bottles of mineral water Nicholson held in his hand crashing into each other, like particles in an accelerator.
I knew he was as much laughing at me as with me, but such was the infectious energy released by his laugh that I joined in. Seconds later, we were roaring like old buddies over a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.
When the last tremors of his laugh had subsided, I asked him about tennis. He is a big fan (he never misses the U.S. Open, either) and spoke affectionately of some of the legends of the past. Ilie Nastase, he told me, is an old friend. Indeed, during the mad Romanian’s election campaign for the post of mayor of Bucharest, Nicholson had written him a letter of recommendation. “In Romanian,” said Jack, pulling a face.
I asked him what he thought about the bratty young kids who dominate the tour today. “Well, I’m a bratty old kid,” he said, with a chuckle. “What do you think I think of them?” After a pause, he added: “They’re good lads. Tennis needs people like that. It would be dead if McEnroe wasn’t in the commentator’s booth.”
And Wimbledon? “I love it,” he replied emphatically. Then, once more baring those famous teeth in a grin, he added: “I sell a couple of parking places to pay for the tickets.”
The second week of Wimbledon could be called “A Tale of Two Boys.” Tim Henman had steadily advanced through the early rounds, looking sharp and focused. But it was another British sporting icon, David “Boy” Beckham, the dazzlingly gifted playmaker of the English World Cup soccer team, who dominated the headlines in the early part of the week.
Beckham and Henman epitomize the newfound self-confidence and flair of “Cool Britannia.” In every other way, they are studies in contrast. Until his fall from grace, when he kicked a defender in England’s tempestuous second-round match against Argentina, putting an end to England’s chance of winning the World Cup, Beckham was a working-class hero with the style, and following, of a rock star: Sting in cleats. He drives a convertible BMW (registration plate: BECK 5), likes going clubbing with his girlfriend, Posh Spice, and doing silly, nouveau things like soaking in a Jacuzzi filled with champagne. Most of his friends have probably taken ecstasy. In other words, he is a Bad Boy.
Tim Henman, by contrast, is every middle-class British mum’s idea of what a son should be. He is good-looking, in a willowy, Peter Pan sort of way. He grew up in Oxford, and sounds like it (Beckham has a strong Manchester accent). He is squeaky clean, focused and articulate. His grandfather played at Wimbledon. His girlfriend, Lucy Heale, is a producer with the BBC. None of his friends, I am sure, has ever taken ecstasy.
“Henmania” has been spreading across England for some years, but it reached critical levels last week. In its ability to overwhelm the cerebellums of large segments of the population, it can be compared to another recent British malady: Mad Cow Disease. Henmania has been known to overcome retired colonels in Surrey and bowler-hatted stockbrokers in the City (though they tend to prefer the Lolita of tennis, Anna Kournikova), but its primary host group is women. Symptoms include the wearing of ridiculous hats covered in Union Jacks, a racing pulse, swooning at the sight of a tennis racquet and an inability to drink from a teacup without one’s teeth chattering against it.
No wonder, then, that as he walked onto Centre Court to face Pete Sampras, he was greeted with a cheer that nearly lifted the roof off.
To help you imagine the hunger the British have for a tennis champion of their own, imagine if, for 50 years, no American golfer had ever won the Masters. Since 1938, when Henry “Bunny” Austin reached the finals, British players have been little more than spectators at Wimbledon, a situation made even worse by the fact that it was at Wimbledon that the game was born. The last Brit to reach the semifinals at Wimbledon was Roger Taylor, 25 years ago.
Henman does not have the brute power of some players on the men’s tour — or, as they say in tennis parlance, he does not have a particular “weapon” — but what he lacks in muscle, he makes up in skill and strategy. He is also completely at home on grass, having played on it since he was 9 years old, and has the classic grass-court game. He gets into the net fast behind his serve. He has sharp reflexes. He can volley off his feet, and in the air, on both sides. He is also sporting in a way that the English like. During his match against Patrick Rafter earlier in the week, he conceded the final point of a game in the second set after Rafter’s serve had (wrongly) been called out by the linesman. Most players would have kept quiet (the Williams sisters would probably have punched the air), but Henman walked to his chair, giving the Australian the game.
The cheers for Henman were all the louder because, fueled by the tabloids, the British public had already begun to hang, draw and quarter the other Boy, the bad one, for his egregious behavior on the soccer field. The fact that Beckham, having fled the baying of Fleet Street’s tabloid hounds, was photographed exiting a Manhattan nightclub with Posh Spice two days after England’s defeat against Argentina (and the day before the Henman-Sampras match), only increased the country’s affection for the well-behaved Henman. Boy Beckham had let England down. Now, it was up to Tim to restore the nation’s honor.
It is a shame that Degas, who captured the colorful pageant of English horse racing at Epsom Downs, was not alive to paint the Centre Court that day. The sun had come out. The stands were a mass of pointillist dots of color. The stripes on the grass were as precise as the pattern on a silk scarf from Liberty’s. The light color of the grass was set off by a palette of other green tones, from the olive green blazers of the officials to the green and purple striped shirts of the ball boys, the moss green of the roof and the dark, hunter green shade of the stands.
Not surprisingly, a change in the weather signaled Henman’s demise. For most of the match, Centre Court had been bathed in sunshine. But shortly before 7 in the evening, as the power and consistency of Sampras’ game began to overwhelm Henman, the sun went in, the doughnut-shaped ring of sky above the court went dark, a cool, blustery wind came up and London once more slid under a thick crust of cloud. Moments later, it was all over. Henman had lost. But as with England’s World Cup players, there was honor in defeat. In truth, it is how we Brits prefer it. We respect winners like Sampras — but we do not love them.
On Sunday, at the men’s final, it was another loser who won the hearts of the crowd. And again, the World Cup, being played across the Channel in France, provided the subtext. The night before the Sampras-Goran Ivanisevic match, tiny Croatia, a nation for only seven years, had derailed the German soccer juggernaut with a stunning 3-0 upset in the semifinals. So as Ivanisevic, a son of Split and a Croatian patriot, walked onto Centre Court, the red and white checkerboard flag of the mini-Balkan state was everywhere.
Ivanisevic is the Arthur Rimbaud of the tour, an erratic genius who swings wildly between poetry and pathos. Sporting a purple bandanna, a full beard and flowing locks, he had stalked his way through the early rounds with a mixture of brute power and a gossamer touch at the net that few players can match. His epic, three-and-a-half-hour semifinal against Richard Krajicek — Ivanisevic eventually won the fifth set, 15-13 — was one of the tournament’s most memorable matches. And on Sunday, for a while, it looked as though the best player never to have won Wimbledon was going to have his day.
All in all, though, it was the women, not the men, who dominated this year’s Wimbledon. With “veterans” like Jana Novotna and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Monica Seles and Steffi Graf and a host of Wunderkinder like Martina Hingis, Kournikova, Mirjana Lucic and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, women’s tennis has rarely been so exciting. A sign of this was that, on the last Wednesday, two women’s matches, Hingis vs. Sanchez-Vicario and Novotna vs. Serena Williams, were scheduled on Centre Court. Normally, the women would play their quarterfinal matches on courts One and Two.
There were some marvelous games. Best of all was the semifinal between Jana Novotna, the prototypical grass-court player, and the Swiss Miss, Martina Hingis. Many young players (the Williams sisters come especially to mind) think with their muscles. Hingis is the best in the world because she is smart. With Novotna, she put on a display of grass-court tennis at its best (“sheer delight,” the BBC commentator enthused). The sixth and seventh games in the third set, in which both players matched each other, shot for shot, in long, chess-like rallies, were two of the finest games ever played on the Centre Court.
Women’s tennis has always had a sexual component. Suzanne Lenglen, the legendary French Flapper, drew huge crowds at Wimbledon in the ’20s with her diaphanous skirts and plunging necklines. And today, “knicker shots” — those mildly salacious, up-the-skirt pictures that reveal not only the color and type of underwear worn by the women players, but often rather more — are a regular part of the tabloids’ coverage of the tournament. No wonder, then, that as Kournikova withdrew from this year’s tournament, a howl of pain was heard on Fleet Street.
The BBC’s television coverage is slightly more discreet, but the cameramen never miss that moment when a girl’s skirt flies up as she serves or goes sprawling across the turf. Indeed, as I watched the Hingis and Novotna doubles final, I noticed that the camera on the other side of the court from the chairs where the players rest at changeovers is exactly at crotch level. Novotna and Hingis seemed to be aware of this, too, because both of them draped towels between their legs as they sat imbibing fluids.
Knicker shots, I also discovered, are extremely selective. Pictures of the underwear worn by nubile teen stars like Hingis or Kournikova are regularly beamed into British homes, but we rarely get to see up the skirts of players like Lindsay Davenport, or her doubles partner this year, the wacky Belarussian Natasha Zvereva. I think this is unjust. But thanks to the marketing strategies of Nike and coaches like Nick Bollettieri, sexual allure and women’s tennis have become fused as never before. Indeed, together, they have managed to create the illusion that to be a good tennis player, a woman does not just have to be a good athlete — she has to have blond hair, a figure like a Barbie doll and, of course, wear Nike. Above all, she should be a minor. Pedophilia is rampant.
So it was wonderful to see a women’s final that had about as much sex appeal as a box of dry biscuits. In her severe green and white shirt and old-fashioned pleated skirt, Novotna looked about as sexy as a hospital nurse. She did open the zip of her shirt a bit, but the chest it revealed was almost as flat as the plains of her native Bohemia. Her French opponent, Nathalie Tauziat, was every bit as un-Nike. Indeed, if she were not a tennis player, it would be easy to imagine her selling saucissons and tripes in a boucherie in her hometown, Bayonne. Both players looked more like schoolteachers than schoolgirls.