Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Wimbledon! or What does Andy Murray Have to do to get a Statue... or Even a Sign?

It has long been a dream of mine to go to Wimbledon; ideally I would go as a player, but that's a fantasy, not something that's going to happen. More realistically, I would go when The Championships are on-- though it's actually quite difficult to get tickets (as I'll explain).  So, I settled, at least for now, for visiting the All England Club in the "off season", post-tournament and post-Olympics.  When the big events aren't in progress, there are tours of the grounds which offer a different view than the one ESPN provides during broadcasts.

It's really quite quiet-- there's no one around.  Granted, I went in November, so it's not prime tennis season, but it was really quite empty.  This despite the fact that we were told at the beginning of our tour that we could take pictures of anything we wanted EXCEPT members of the club, playing or walking around.  This, to me, suggested that there would be players in white wandering the grounds.  I never saw any-- famous or otherwise.  But, this may be because the club members aren't actually allowed to play on the courts used in the tournament (which seems like a lot of wasted, unused space, but it does explain why those courts always look so pristine on camera). Those courts are only used during the two weeks of the Championships.  The members have other courts-- 22 grass, if I remember correctly, as well as some hard, some "American" clay (which I assume means Har-Tru), and a few indoor hard courts.

Arriving to Wimbledon for the tour, you enter through gate four which is closest to the Wimbledon Museum and Shops, which makes sense.  It's also the gate closest to Centre Court.

 This day might be the closest I'll ever be to the lawns of Centre Court, but I was so excited to even see an entry to it, I took a picture with the sign, as did my dad, who went with me.

Our tour started by the statute of Fred Perry, of course.

I would guess that Andy Murray's Olympic Gold at Wimbeldon will eventually earn him a statue as well, but that's no statue there yet. In fact, the hill where spectators sit during The Championships to watch the big screens for Centre Court and Court One (it looks totally different without lots of people and a big screen in front of it)

which TV commentators have taken to calling Murray Mound is still labeled Henman Hill on signs around the grounds.  And, the tour guide referred to it as Henman Hill.  I'm not sure what Murray has to do to get the All England Club to recognize his accomplishments... I know Henman made it to three semis, and Murray only has one final, but he did win the Olympic gold in singles and the mixed doubles silver.  As I learned on the tour, Wimbledon is big on tradition so it may just be that the hill is ingrained for them as Henman Hill, never to change.  Or, it may be that since Tim Henman is still involved with the club in youth initiatives and since he's associated with the tennis camps the club is still using his name.  But, in terms of being honored for winning, Murray is getting a bit shafted.

The first stop on the tour is actually a walk past the turnstiles where spectators enter during The Championships (and, I'm guessing, the Olympics). During The Championships, there are a few ways to get in-- the two major ways are to get tickets through the lottery or to queue on the day of matches and try to get grounds tickets.  The lottery is a strange system; basically, you have to submit a form (I've actually done this once-- I was trying to get tickets for last summer) to the All England Club asking for tickets and this form has to be in by December. From the pool of forms submitted (which I gather is quite a lot), names are picked and tickets are offered for purchase.  However, you can't pick the day, you can't pick your seats and you can't pick your court.  The offer that is made to you is for two tickets on a specified date, in specifies seats for Centre Court or Courts 1 or 2.  You either choose to purchase the tickets offered to you or pass on them altogether.  There is no way to pick tickets or ensure a date unless you want to buy tickets as part of a full package that includes airfare and hotel (so, this option really only works for those outside the London area--those who would need to travel).  And, these packages are incredibly expensive. Or, you can take your chances, show up at Wimbledon, queue, and hope there are enough tickets for you to get in. If you get on of these tickets, you can go anywhere on the grounds except Centre Court, Court1 or Court 2, which in the first week still means you would get to see quite a lot of good tennis with big name guys.

The other way to get tickets is to buy a debenture.  This well ensure you tickets for every day of the tournament for five years at a time-- for the quite reasonable price of about 16,000 pounds for Court One of a little less than 30,000 pounds for Centre Court. Or, as Wimbledon's website puts it:

"Current issue of 2,500 debentures covering 2011-2015 Championships, each priced at £27,750, is made up of a nominal value of £2,000, premium £22,000 and VAT £3,750."

That's per seat. If you want a friend to be able to go with you, you'll need a second near 30,000 pound debenture for that.
Most of the funding for Wimbledon, for things like court improvements, building (like the retractable roof over Centre Court) comes from these Debentures.  It's sort of like being a stakeholder in Wimbledon.  And, in 1989, a "white market" was established for these ticket holders, so they can sell their tickets on their own, and for as much as they want. (The Club has a set price for those gotten through lottery or queue, but Debenture tickets can be sold for any price-- and apparently are sold for quite a bit of money.)  Debentures can also be sold as a whole package-- so, for example, you could decide after two years that you no longer wanted yours and sell the remaining three years as a whole.  They can also be renewed every five years, indefinitely.  Because everyone has a spare 30 or 60 thousand pounds lying around every few years...

This actually quite in keeping with the tradition of the tournament however.  It was originally started as a fundraiser to fix this:

That's a pony roller-- you can see how it was hooked up in the photo from the sign (though apparently there were a couple years when it was pulled by men, not by horse. I don't know how they hooked the men to it.).

This was first used at Wimbledon in 1872, when the site was actually at a different place, and was used until 1986 when it was finally retired. However, sometime early in its career, it broke and needed to be fixed. So, the club decided to have a tournament, ask for 10 pence for admission to watch the players compete, and used the money from that to raise the funds to fix the pony roller.  Really, the whole Championships tradition started with a need to make some money-- and that continues today, using the funds earned at the tournament as a fundraiser to keep the tournament running.  Membership itself doesn't bring in much-- I was surprised to find out that it only costs about 500 pounds a year to be a member of the club.  So, it's not cost prohibitive to join.  It's just that membership numbers are limited, so there's a pretty long waiting list to get in.

The first court to visit on the tour is Court Two-- on the way, you pass one of the outdoor courts (I want to say this is either 13 or 14) with the official Rolex Clock above it. (See how it doesn't quite look like a court without the nets or lines... it also makes the ground look like it's too small to be a full sized court, though I'm sure it is. At least the well manicured lines were visible.)

Court Two is a giant stadium, which is a little surprising. This is the only court which looked bigger in person than it does on TV.  Court Two is often referred to as the graveyard court-- it seems to have lots of potential to take down big-name players and I was under the impression that part of it was due to the dimensions, including the relative lack of space between the baseline and the back wall. But, it struck me as quite big with a lot more space than some of the other outer courts have.  So, I'm not sure what makes it tricky.

What I really wanted was to be able to walk on the courts-- and maybe bounce a ball a bit (if not hit one) just to see how the bounce was different.  But, very disappointingly, on the Wimbledon tour, you are not allowed to walk on the grass, touch the grass, or pull the grass out to take home with you (not that I would have done the third... but I really wanted to do the first two).  So, we looked at Court Two, which is in the process of having the grass regrown on it, so it's been seeded and there is a giant heat lamp spread across it to help facilitate the growing-- you can see it in the right of the picture (to the right of me-- I kept taking my pictures in individual stadiums just because I wanted to mark that I at least got close...).

The tour also includes Court One (where I didn't take photos, but look at the one above-- Court One would have looked exactly the same in a picture) and a stop by Court 18, where John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played their famous 3 day, 11+ hour match.  It too looks a lot smaller without the net up, especially from side to side.

From Court 18, you walk to the members and players areas, stopping off at the press area so you can pretend to give your own after match interview.  I decided I was giving an interview post-win, so I look happy.

There are areas which are devoted only to players during the actual tournament.  In fact, Wimbledon goes to quite a bit of trouble to keep the players away from both fans and actual All England Club members. There are dividers between the areas where members can eat (where simple ticket holders can't go) and the areas where players eat and this includes marking of walkways for players only.  Having been to other tennis tournaments, I've found it pretty standard to be allowed to ask  for autographs from and take pictures of players-- it turns out this is not allowed at Wimbledon. There are designated booths that are set up during the two weeks where players will sit and sign autographs and pose for pictures, but talking to them, asking for autographs, taking pictures, or basically interacting with them at all in non-designated areas is strictly prohibited for anyone.  The dining area and lounge designated for club members, however, does offer a nice view of the grounds.

The last stop is Centre Court.  To enter it, you walk through a hallway that has the winners boards posted-- it's the secondary set of winners boards, not the ones the players walk past immediately after winning on their way to loft the trophy in front of crowds. But, we were assured they look exactly like those primary ones.  That's the men's winners. 

And then, you're on Centre Court, which you'll notice looks remarkably like Court Two, with its own set of heat lamps. (Honestly, I don't know if I'm closer to the grounds here or in the picture in front of the tunnel that started this blog, but either way, I didn't get nearly as close to the grounds as I wanted. It made my Centre Court debut a bit disappointing.)

What you can't really tell in the picture is that the scoreboard, which is in the upper corner behind the heat lamp, is still set with the final score from this year's Federer/Murray Wimbledon match-- not the Olympic one which technically came later, but the match from The Championships (so, Federer's win, not Murray's Olympic one).  This surprised me since that meant they went to great lengths to put it back up after the Olympics.  Apparently, there were lots of great lengths gone to before and after-- everything was changed. For example, all the courts were labeled with the same numbers, but all the signs for them were changed to have the "official" font of the Olympics rather than the font used by the All England Club.  The Olympics used different scoreboards, different signs... in fact, different everything, including staff, except for the groundskeepers.  The All England Club refused to let another set of groundskeepers in to take care of the grass.  But everything else was different.

Centre Court is the end of the guided tour.  From there, to continue the Wimbledon experience, is the museum (and the giftshop, where everything is ridiculously overpriced).  The museum, however, is well done.  It includes historical exhibits that explain how the game, at least with its heritage as a lawn sport, developed from the intersection of real tennis, croquet, and badminton.  There are interesting displays like the lockers from the first men's locker room,

early racquet makers and stringing equipment,

the outfits some of the players wore, like the one Maria Sharapova was wearing when she won

photo opportunities like this one that make it look like you're part of the spectator crowd (featuring my dad staring at the exuberant couple)

and lots of racquets through the ages, along with lots of information about the development of the racquet. There is also a really great holographic "conversation" with John McEnroe.

 And, of course, it ends with the trophies, kept behind glass.

I couldn't walk on the lawns and I couldn't hold a trophy aloft (not even a fake one), so it wasn't quite the visit I wanted it to be. But, I can still say I walked the grounds of Wimbledon...

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