WIMBLEDON, England-- Toward the end of the first day of play on the Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, in the leafy borough of Wimbledon, where the gardens groan with hollyhocks and buddleia, broom and roses, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the No. 7 seed from Russia, was about to receive service from Mark Philippoussis, when he spotted a small, tan-colored field mouse tiptoeing about in the corner of the court.
Professional tennis players have many things to distract them: their love lives, the state of their bank accounts, their rankings and, above all, their egos. Field mice are usually not one of them.
But this is the land of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and the tailor of Gloucester, so Kafelnikov greeted the appearance of a mouse on Centre Court with the same bemused indulgence that foreign players treat Wimbledon's other eccentricities -- its unpredictable grass and mercurial weather, its baffling line calls and obscure codes of manners. He walked over to the mouse and, politely waving his racket, shooed it away. Still, the incident clearly unnerved him, for a few hours later he was packing his bags, having been knocked out, in four sets, by the bullet-serving Australian. For its part, the field mouse disappeared down its hole, and has not been seen again.
It is not the first time that nature has intervened at Wimbledon. Some years ago, a pigeon got into Centre Court and play had to be suspended as the bird flapped around the stands. Another year, a pied wagtail landed on the grass and began hopping about, setting off Cyclops each time it stepped on the lines. And this year, as it nearly always does, the weather has played as important a role in the outcome of the first week's matches as the mental preparedness of the players or their first serve percentage.
The rain in Spain may stay mainly on the plain. In England, it falls on SW19 -- right where Wimbledon is located. Indeed, a whole section of "The Wimbledon Compendium," by Alan Little, is devoted to the weather at Wimbledon since the tournament moved to its present location in 1922.
It makes depressing reading: "The first meeting at the Church Road ground was plagued by rain each day" begins the entry for 1922. "Much of the fortnight was dogged by wind and rain" (1939). "One of the wettest first weeks ever" (1958). "A cold miserable meeting" (1963). There are occasional memories of fine weather -- 1964 is lauded as "a fortnight of warm and sunny weather" -- and even the occasional back-to-back run of sunshine: 1983's "wonderful weather" is followed by "superb weather" for 1984. But only four years -- 1931, 1976, 1993 and 1995 -- receive the supreme accolade, italicized for emphasis: "No rain during meeting."
As the District Line train pulled into Southfields tube station, the mercury was barely into the 50s. (One more eccentricity is that you do not get out at the station named Wimbledon, or even Wimbledon Park, if you want to go to the tennis tournament of that name, but at Southfields.) People were dressed in anoraks and pullovers. Everyone had an umbrella. And though the rain had not actually started to fall by the time I reached Court 2, where Goran Ivanesevic was two sets up against the Czech, Daniel Vacek, the sky looked like the horizon in one of William Turner's more tempestuous seascapes.
With his full beard and purple bandanna, Ivanesevic looked more than ever like a member of some obscure, Balkan guerrilla group that survives in the woods by skinning rabbits and holding up travelers at gunpoint. His tennis looked very sharp. Ace after ace came blistering over the grass, to land with a thud against the tarpaulins at the back of the court or be swatted away, like wasps at a picnic, by the stout-calved lady line judges who stared down the chalk, their leaf-patterned, shirtwaist dresses -- "English boarding-school, circa 1933" is how a colleague from The Daily Mail described the style -- billowing in the breeze.
I had watched only three games when a chill wind began to blow, and the first raindrops began to fall. Moments later, play was suspended and that familiar Wimbledon ritual, the rolling out of the tarpaulins, began. Slinging his bags over his shoulder, Ivanesevic sprinted off the court, presumably to go and skin a few more rabbits. I headed out onto the South Concourse, which had already turned into a sea of umbrellas that jostled and snagged against each other.
Among the waterlogged crowd, I spotted the mother of Venus and Serena Williams. The week before, she had accidentally fallen down the stairs at her rented Wimbledon house and broken her ankle, so she was being propelled around the courts in a wheelchair. Though she had the hood of her anorak up, it could not hide the fact that she was completely miserable and hating every minute of her time in damp, chilly England. By Wednesday, her daughters would be even more miserable, Serena going out to Virginia Ruano Pascual, of Spain; and Venus dissolving into a cauldron of boiling teenage emotions as she was bumped off Centre Court by Jana Novotna -- thus robbing an eager London crowd of the chance of hearing not one, but two sets of beads rattling simultaneously.
Coping with rain delays is one of the toughest challenges that Wimbledon poses for the players. Bjorn Borg used to play cards and backgammon in the locker room. Pete Sampras, whose second-round match against Thomas Enquist this year turned into a three-day roller-coaster ride, whiled away the time watching golf on TV. Players have even been known to read a book, though the locker rooms are not exactly famous for their literary conversations. An exception to the general philistinism was Boris Becker. During a rain delay one year, he sat in the stands on the Centre Court reading a novel by Camus. The ground staff evidently has its own strategies for passing the time. One year, when the tent was removed from Centre Court, officials found an empty bottle of champagne and a used condom.
The greatest challenge Wimbledon poses, however, is the grass itself. Most players, particularly at the beginning of their careers, hate it. But as Andre Agassi learned many years ago, you either humble yourself to the grass, or the grass will humble you. For prima donnas like Marcello Rios, the idea of humbling yourself to anything is, of course, anathema. So, like many underachievers before him, he blamed his failure at Wimbledon this year on the green stuff. "Grass is for cows," he said, as he was bounced out of the tournament in 1997. This year, he declared that grass produces "boring" tennis.
In so doing, Rios not only confirmed his reputation as the most arrogant player on the tour, he also showed himself to be dumb. Because if there is one thing that the grass of Wimbledon does not produce, it is boring tennis. That distinction goes to red clay, where the balls swell, and become heavy, and where the tennis becomes a war of attrition with two players pounding the ball from the back of the court with heavy topspin, back and forth, back and forth, until one of them makes a mistake.
Grass, by contrast, is the fastest, most mercurial and most challenging surface there is. The ball does not so much bounce as it shoots, rarely rising much above the knee (clay courters are used to hitting the ball at shoulder height) and losing little of its speed. Many players simply cannot cope with the pace (not to mention the occasional uneven bounce) or the particular exigencies that it requires. Even the way one's foot lands on grass -- a light dab, rather than the full-weight landing and sliding as one does on clay -- is different.
Above all, the grass forces players off the baseline and to the net. The back of the court, particularly in the second week, when the grass starts to get cut up, spells death. Consequently, serve and volley is the name of the game here: getting to the ball before it bounces, not afterward. This is why all the great Wimbledon champions of the past, such as McEnroe, Navratilova and Laver (Borg being the sole exception) have been natural serve and volleyers. Baseline sluggers like Agassi or Courier -- or Rios -- generally fare badly.
Wimbledon has seen and heard it all: the racket throwers and spoilsports, the bad losers and crybabies. But deep in his heart, every player knows that this is The Big One; that if he wants to be considered one of the greats, he will have to have his name etched onto the silver Challenge Cup, which, since 1877, has borne the name of every men's champion, or the Ladies' Singles Plate, also known as The Venus Rosewater Dish, which, since 1886, has been awarded to the women's champion. Wimbledon is the crucible of tennis, the place where the game was born and where the cumulative weight of its history and traditions are that much more imposing than anywhere else. Ultimately, there are only two tennis tournaments in the world: Wimbledon, and the rest.
As I arrived at Gate 1 on my second day at the All England Club, I found myself staring at a tall, majestic-looking Jamaican man in a gray top hat. He was collecting for charity, and as the crowd shuffled past him, people would drop a coin in the tin he held out for the victims of cancer. With his crinkly, white beard, fine features and sensual mouth, he looked like one of the ancient kings of Ethiopia.
"Is that a real beard?" I asked.
"Tug it and see," said the man, with a grin. So I did. It was. We laughed. Only in England ...
What impressed me most about the man was not his beard, though, but his magnificent, scarlet "mess" jacket, an ornamental jacket that officers used to wear to dinner in Kipling's day. It had gold braid on the shoulders, and a panel of black silk lined with brass buttons at the back.
Wimbledon highlights the British love of uniforms, insignia and military regalia of all kinds. Only here will you find yourself being shown to your seat by an elderly man hung with gold braid and medals, who looks as though he has just arrived back from the Crimean War. But as well as these volunteers from the so-called Corps of Commissioners, there are dozens of uniforms, both on and off the court: from the olive green blazers of the line judges, to the dark blue jackets and trousers of the London Fire Brigade (who puts out the fires while they do crowd control?), to the purple and green shirts of the ball boys and girls. Guarding the entrance to the Clubhouse were people in four different uniforms, including that of the Royal Air Force (gray jacket and trousers) and the army (khaki jacket and trousers).
As you would expect in England, a complex web of social distinctions operates at Wimbledon as well. At the top of the tree is, of course, royalty. There has been a royal connection ever since 1895, when the Crown Princess Stephanie of Austria and her beau, Prince Batthyany Strattman, came to watch the Gentleman's Doubles Challenge Round. Today, the President of the Club is H.R.H the Duke of Kent K.G, G.C.M.G, G.C.V.O, A.D.C., on the shoulder of whose gracious wife, the Duchess of Kent, Jana Novotna wept so touchingly. Past vice presidents have included Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian K. Burnett, G.C.B, D.F.C, A.F.C., R.A.F (ret'd), and the Marquis of Zetland.
Below these acronym-heavy hitters come the 375 members of the All England Club and the 200 or so temporary members. These typically include VIPs from the world of sport, such as the chairman of the Olympic Committee, Juan Zamaranch, and icons of the British entertainment world like Sir Cliff Richard, the singer, who has become something of a Wimbledon mascot (Mick Jagger would never, ever be offered temporary membership). On days when play is rained off, Sir Cliff is wheeled out to keep the soggy fans happy.
Below them are the 2,100 Debenture Holders. Issuing debentures, which cost 9,900 pounds and entitle the holder to a reserved seat for five years, is one of the ways the All England Club generates revenue (the last debenture, for the years 1996-2000, raised 35 million pounds) for expansion and improvements.
When they are not watching tennis, Debenture Holders can use their own, exclusive lounge, on the north side of Centre Court. Opposite, on the south side of Centre Court, is the inner sanctum of the All England Club, the Members' Clubhouse, where, on the upstairs balcony, sprightly septuagenarians in Moss Bros. suits and ladies in hats savor their complimentary cream teas and a bird's-eye view of Courts 3 and 4. Below them, on the South Concourse, Joe and Joanna Public jostle their way along the South Concourse in search of Guinness or strawberries (and often both together) at what is still, quaintly, called The Tea Lawn, though there has not been a lawn here since 1985 when the grass was paved over.
The buzz on the afternoon I mingled with the crowd, pressed against the railings in front of the Clubhouse, was that either Will Smith or Prince Charles was about to come out. Korean tourists with Nikons mingled with shopgirls from Huddersfield. There were dowdy middle-aged women from the Home Counties with Marks and Spencer shopping bags, and Beautiful Young Things in Versace jeans. But there was no Will Smith, and no Prince Charlie. There was only a luxury taxi ("First Class to Wimbledon" said a sticker above the windshield), which pulled up in front of the Clubhouse. It waited for several minutes, then drove off again. The Italian girl in front of me excitedly said I had nearly seen Pete Sampras.
Later that afternoon, I made my way down to the practice courts in Aorangi Park, in the northeast corner of the complex. There are 14 of them in all, and in the morning, before play starts, the walkway along the back of the lower three courts is jammed with spectators as the likes of Monica Seles, Pete Sampras and Mark Philippoussis work out. In the afternoon the crowds thin out and you can watch from behind the fence, only a few feet behind the baseline. As I arrived, Mirjana Lucic, one of the current crop of teenage stars, was hitting with a young Hungarian girl who was getting ready for the Junior Tournament. They practiced serve and volley. Usually, they both ended up at the net, trading volleys at close range, the ball pinging back and forth at eye-popping speed.
Explaining that I was writing an article about Wimbledon, I asked Lucic, as she walked off the court, if she would mind chatting with me for a few minutes. With a chilly smile, the 15-year-old, no. 47 in the world, said, "I can't speak to anyone without asking my manager." Then she disappeared up the stairs to the Competitor's Pavilion. A few minutes later, a portly, middle-aged man with long, lank black hair and a broad, Slavic face, came down the steps in a white track suit top and shorts.
Lucic was not even born when this man played Connors and Borg on the Centre Court, and many of the brat pack would not even know his name or care who he was. But in his day he was not only one of the greatest players in the world, he was also its greatest entertainer, a man who made us weep with laughter as he cavorted about the grass, pulled faces or jumped into the stands.
"Mr. Nastase,"I said, extending my hand. "This is a great honor."
He eyed me quizzically.
"I am from the press ..."
"You're depressed ?" he said with a quick grin.
Ilye Nastase did not talk for long, but the difference between his attitude and Lucic's was like the difference between night and day. But then again, he comes from a more innocent era, a time when people played the game because that was just what they did, and loved to do: a time before entrepreneurs like Phil Knight and Rupert Murdoch began to feed off, and orchestrate, our love of sports (not because they love sports, but because they love our money). And though he was an extreme case, Ilye Nastase's happy-go-lucky attitude makes a telling contrast to the grim seriousness and obsessive image control that is squeezing the fun out of today's game. More than anything, it is the pressure of money. Soaring prizes (this year, the winner of the men's singles at Wimbledon will take home a cool 435,000 pounds) and the immense subsidiary earnings to be made from endorsements mean that there are big bucks at stake every time a player hits a ball. And that makes it hard to enjoy playing tennis.
After Nastase left, a group of young, male players came onto the practice courts. None of them was famous. All of them were amazingly good. And with no pressure on them, and, above all, no money to win or lose, they could play with happy abandon. For half an hour, they did, for real, what a bare-chested Pete Sampras, in that famous ad, is paid millions of dollars by Nike to pretend: that he is just a kid having fun bashing a ball about a court. They burped and roared. They hit balls against the fence or bounced them on their heads, like soccer players. They cussed and pulled faces. They tumbled about on the grass. As one of them missed a shot, he belted a ball 50 feet into the air. While it hung above Wimbledon, a yellow spot against a sea of clouds, they even did something you almost never see anyone do on the tour these days. They laughed.