It’s one of the highlights of the United Kingdom’s sporting calendar but is just as well known for torrential rain and overpriced strawberries as it is for the tennis. Yes, the Championships of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, or Wimbledon as it is best known, is indeed up there with the most famous of UK icons.
Every year in June, a quiet suburb of South West London becomes the focus of the world’s media as the top tennis talent from around the globe comes to Wimbledon to slog it out on the slow, grass surface of one of the 19 tournament courts at the club for a total of £12.5 million in prize money.
The first championship was held in 1877 and consisted of men’s singles and nothing else. A crowd of 200 paid one shilling each to come and watch a field of 22 players battle it out with bat and ball until the last man standing was Spencer Gore, the first champion of Wimbledon.
Since then the tournament has grown to a total of 128 players who feature in each singles event, 64 pairs in each single-sex doubles event, and 48 pairs in mixed doubles while attendance over the 13 day schedule has sky-rocketed to a record 476,711 (in 2001).
And while numbers have gone up over the years so has the standard and size of facilities for both spectators and players with the Centre Court now boasting a retractable roof and 15,000 seats; Number 1 Court 11,000 seats; Number 2 Court 4,000 seats; all in a bid by the Club to maintain the generally held view that it is world’s most prestigious tennis tournament and one of the leading UK icons.
The tournament has also produced many famous faces over the years and not always for the right reasons. American bad boy John McEnroe’s on court rivalry with suicidal Swede Bjorn Borg were legend, but not nearly as much as his on court temper tantrums that would often result in him throwing racquets around and abusing umpires, leading to what became his catchphrase: “You cannot be serious!”
But while the tennis creates the main draw for the world’s rich and famous, it is the tournament’s ever so English character that has made it so unique.
Club rules state that players can only wear regulation white clothing, while they are politely referred to by umpires by the titles ‘Mr’ or ‘Miss’.
The BBC’s coverage of the tournament has also given it a special flavour with the Standard English of commentator Dan Maskell providing what many saw as the voice of tennis until his retirement in 1991. These days, viewers have to endure the inane ramblings of drippy British ex-tennis player Sue Barker.
To top it all off, behind the scenes the British upper classes quaff bucket loads of champagne, work their way through tonnes of strawberries and cream and ignore anyone with dark skin, a regional UK accent, or even worse, both.