WIMBLEDON, England — Well, I finally arrived at the world’s greatest tennis tournament and just in time, it seems. Things have gotten pretty weird around the old green yard. And I’m not even talking about Andre Agassi’s taking his clothes off. I’m not even talking about the British tabloid reporter who disguised himself as a bum — I swear this is true — and went knocking on the doors of the top tennis players’ houses.
REPORTER: Spare some change, sir?
IVAN LENDL: Get lost.
REPORTER: Can I quote you on that?
Now. This is not normal behavior, even for a Brit. But wait. It’s small potatoes compared with the really weird stuff that happened Sunday:
1) For the first time in history — due to countless rain delays — Wimbledon was forced to play matches on what has always been an off-day.
2) They actually allowed REGULAR PEOPLE inside the stadium. You know, like, PEOPLE WITHOUT BUTLERS.
3) They did the wave at Centre Court.
Hard to believe. But it all happened. It began Saturday night with thousands of regular people sleeping in the streets just to get the first-come, first-serve tickets made available for this special Sunday session. General admission? At Wimbledon? Whoa. Next thing you know, they’ll be serving hot pretzels.
“How long have you been waiting here?” I asked a pimple- faced teenager near the front of the line, which, at 10 a.m., stretched for more than a mile.
“Well, I got ‘ere 11 hours ago,” he said. “Me and my mates came down from Basildon. Slept in the street. Not bad at all. We ate some sandwiches. Sang some songs. Then, a few hours later, it started raining.”
“Ooh, tough break.”
“Not really. I needed a shower.”
This, as you might figure, was not your typical Wimbledon crowd. No stiff jaws. No ascots under their collars. These people wore sweatshirts, carried sleeping bags, chewed gum. I personally saw three guys in Oakland A’s jackets, at least a dozen in tie-dyed T-shirts, and one long-haired fellow in a leather coat that read: “CROAK LIKE A MOTHER.”
You wonder what the queen would make of that one. A queen’s wave? Not exactly Of course, the queen wasn’t there Sunday. Neither were any other regulars of the Royal Box. No dukes. No earls. No Duke of Earls. Heaven forbid they should break with tradition. Show up on the middle Sunday? Mix with common people? They were probably afraid of catching a disease.
Wait. Did I mention the wave? Yes. Once they burst through the gates, made a dash for Centre Court and filled up that venerable stadium with backpacks and Sony Walkmen, these rookie fans actually did the W wave. Up, down, up, down. “YAAHHHH!” The tennis players loved it. Before Sunday, the only wave at Wimbledon was when the Duchess of Kent swatted a fly.
The whole day was unique that way. Normally Wimbledon applause is polite and brief. On Sunday, it was loud. It was irreverent. “Like a football game,” John McEnroe said. Yeah. With the same respect for authority. Upon entering the front gate, the guards give you a sticker to wear on your shirt. I saw several fans slap them on their foreheads. SMACK! Hey, Ma, look at me.
When Gabriela Sabatini took the court, these fans whistled like construction workers. When Jimmy Connors came out, they roared as if Paul McCartney had taken the stage. Sure, it broke with tradition a little bit. . .
. Typical Day at Wimbledon:
FAN 1: Smashing good shot!
FAN 2: Indeed.
FAN 1: Shall we dine? Sunday at Wimbledon:
FAN 1: WOOF!
FAN 2: WOOF!
FAN 1: WOOF! WOOF! Players love the true tennis fans, too You know what? It was terrific. Like letting a pack of Cub Scouts loose inside the White House. When they weren’t playing around, they were snapping pictures. When they weren’t snapping pictures, they were chomping on homemade sandwiches. And when they weren’t eating, they were screaming their heads off, as if at a rock concert. When the games ended, I half-expected them to light matches.
“What did you think of the crowd?” came the question, over and over, as the players finished Sunday afternoon.
“It should be like that every year,” Sabatini said. “I thought it was great.”
“They were true tennis fans,” gushed Martina Navratilova. “They didn’t sit on their hands, they actually used them.”
“My kind of crowd,” Connors said. “Not the traditionalists who give you the old ‘jolly good.’ These fans were unbelievable! Where were they the last 20 years?”
Shut out, Jimmy. Stuck at home, watching on TV. Each year, nearly half of Wimbledon’s tickets go to club members, sponsors and royalty. The other half are distributed through a lottery system, with the prices fairly expensive, about 25 British pounds per day, which, of course, in American money, given today’s economic conditions, is about $3,428,377.68.
Ha! Just kidding. But I’m not kidding about this: I have been coming here for nearly a decade, and I never knew there were tennis fans like this in England. And if the folks running Wimbledon don’t figure a way to get more of them inside these green walls, they’re nuts.
Then again, this is a country where the next bum who rings your bell could be a reporter for the Daily Mirror.
I wouldn’t hold my breath. o