This Side of the Pond – July 3

Not to imply that I go a bit loopy for sports during the summer months, but there is a second international event that I should like to recommend for your viewing pleasure. I’ve always enjoyed Wimbledon but, now that England has been unceremoniously booted out of the World Cup, it’s tickling an itch where the footballers failed.

For me, Wimbledon brings with it the scent of cut grass and the taste of fresh strawberries and cream. It’s the magic of summer boiled down into a competition that, this time, England has a reasonable chance of winning.

On the other hand, patriotism often gives way during tennis matches to sheer admiration for individual players. I grew up cheering for Andre Agassi and Monica Seles, both of whom were from this side of the pond. More recently, Venus and Serena Williams have been by far the most entertaining women on the court.

Back home, our greatest hope is Andy Murray, who has actually managed to win the odd match or two. After a drought that lasted for 70-odd years, he has brought the United Kingdom back to the top of the league and is the current Wimbledon – and Olympic – champion.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Andy Murray is that he is utterly unflappable. No matter how hard the press tries to push him into expressing some sort of sentiment, he remains as cantankerous as they come. And while this does celebrate the time-honored practice of the stiff upper lip, it’s too much to bear for even some of the Brits, who were relieved to see him burst into tears when he won his first Wimbledon title.

Watching interviewers try desperately to break through his shell is the most entertaining part of Murray’s matches, of course. One U.S. journalist became so frustrated that they questioned whether winning a Grand Slam title meant anything to him at all, to which he replied, “I’m very, very happy on the inside. I’m sorry if I’m not showing it how you want me to.” It’s a victory if Murray cracks a smile and a career-making moment if a member of the press can use an adjective that implies an emotion.

As a Scottish writer by the name of Ally Fogg put it, however, it baffles Murray’s countrymen when people call him dour. “He’s from central Scotland,” said Fogg. “We consider him dangerously flamboyant, talkative and over-emotional.”

You may also notice that, until he began to display a bit of world-class talent, Murray was generally referred to as “Scottish.” Now that he’s winning, he’s suddenly turned into “our Brit.” And fortunately for everyone, his inability to gush does not always overshadow his talent.

Murray has reignited our tennis passions after the disappointment that was Tim Henman, who never did quite manage to pull off a win. He was, however, the first UK player to reach the semi-finals since the 1970s, so we may have had higher than reasonable hopes for the poor soul. He wasn’t a bad tennis player, just not a Wimbledon winner.

This is the most pleased that anyone has ever been about a strawberry.
This is the most pleased that anyone has ever been about a strawberry.

Just outside the Wimbledon stadium is a hillside from which you can just about see what’s going on, which was dubbed “Henman Hill” during our great hope’s heyday. Those who don’t want to invest in a ridiculously overpriced courtside ticket can sit there throughout the tournament, on beach towels with picnic baskets, shouting at the players while enterprising salespeople peddle strawberries for the cost of an arm and a leg.

I have never personally sat on Henman Hill, although I did see it in passing as I swanned through the gates of the hallowed Wimbledon stadium. Thanks to the generosity of a client at a previous job, I and my team were treated to an afternoon on Centre Court.

This didn’t happen during the finals, but I did get to see both Serena Williams and Rafa Nadal play in the year that both of them went on to win – most gratifying, as you can imagine. And I can confirm from experience that Williams has the most magnificent thighs I have ever seen on a human being and Nadal does, indeed, whip his shirt off at the slightest provocation.

We were also taken to the posh people’s tent, where a famous French chef was cooking lunch. Tiers of sandwiches and sweet delicacies were brought out in endless courses, along with the inevitable strawberries and the kind of high-class entrée that focuses more on presentation than quantity.

All of this was accompanied by glasses of champagne and Pimm’s – the latter of which is another of England’s summertime traditions. It’s a gin-based cocktail mixed with sparkling lemonade that tastes a little like a fruity, spiced iced tea and comes with slices of cucumber, apples, fruits and sprigs of mint or borage. As complicated as that ingredient list sounds, there’s no tipple more refreshing in a heatwave.

In the blazing sunshine, we wandered among the courts and commented that they’re a lot smaller and closer together than they seem to be on the television. Despite the anticipation that every guest was feeling, there was a polite and respectful hush throughout the stadium and all of us spoke in near whispers. Our meanderings were meanwhile surveyed by members of every armed force in the nation, all of whom are invited to form the guard.

Watching the tennis from my sofa is not quite the same experience as sitting courtside in the sunshine, but at least there’s more to do when it rains. So in celebration of a sporting event in which both of our nations are likely to meet with success, I will raise my bowl of strawberries and wish the best of luck to both of the Williams sisters, the stern-faced Andy Murray and Rafa Nadal’s soon-to-be-discarded shirt.