Olympics: Being There – Tennis (Rd 1)

Following Andy Murray’s Gold Medal yesterday, Joanne Sheppard reflects on her Olympic experience at Wimbledon, where she saw Murray start his campaign on Centre Court of Day 2 of London 2012.

Tennis, Wimbledon

Tennis used to be one of those sports that lots of people liked to mutter ‘shouldn’t be in the Olympics’. Naturally, now that Andy Murray has blown away the nation by winning gold, Britain’s opinion on this is likely to have changed – but it’s fair to say that since it was re-introduced to the games at Seoul in 1988, the Olympic tennis didn’t always enjoye the attention from the world’s elite players that it deserves. However, things have improved in recent years in terms of buy-in from top tennis stars, which is how I end up watching a day of first round Olympic tennis at Wimbledon that featured four top-five ranked players.

The All England Lawn Tennis Club is surely one of sport’s most iconic venues. The challenge for the Olympic organisers, then, was to stop the tennis from feeling like Wimbledon II: The Sequel and to give it a London 2012 atmosphere. Based on my experience, I’d say they succeeded. Wimbledon was still recognisably and excitingly Wimbledon – leafy, pleasant, quirky, quintessentially English – but the Olympic flag flew over the ivy-clad entrance to the famous Centre Court, the Fred Perry statue competed for visitors’ attention with a giant topiary Wenlock and the bright pink 2012 logo replaced Wimbledon’s sedate green-and-purple livery throughout. The Wimbledon Shop was closed for business, replaced by outlets selling Olympic souvenirs. ‘No,’ I heard one of the kiosk staff trying to explain to a gentleman from Brazil who wanted to buy a towel. ‘No Wimbledon things. Only Olympics.’ He made an exaggerated parting movement with his hands and raised his voice. ‘SEPARATE BRANDING.’ Even the traditional Wimbledon beverage, Pimm’s, had been re-named ‘No1 Fruit Cup’ in plain black lettering in the Heineken-sponsored bars. I bought one anyway, although I might have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t cost me £7.30.

Food and drink prices aside, I couldn’t question the value for money offered by my day at Wimbledon. The tickets were £30 apiece, came with a pre-paid all-zones Travelcard worth around a tenner, and were for a full day’s play – nearly nine hours, in our case – on Centre Court, as well as entitling us to wander round the outside courts at will. Admittedly, we’d have seen far less action if we’d had tickets for any other court, as after a morning of glorious sunshine, it rained heavily for much of the afternoon, but with its famed retractable roof, Centre Court was a bargain.

We arrived early, breezed through security checks performed by efficient, polite, charming uniformed soldiers, and spent a pleasant hour or two in the sunshine strolling around watching players practising and soaking up the Olympic atmosphere before play started. The big screens at Henman Hill were showing London 2012 action; various sporting delegations from around the world were milling about in matching tracksuit tops; the Olympic volunteers – who were astonishingly cheerful and patient – were happily showing people around and having their pictures taken with small children. It was at this point that I started to realise the spectators were perhaps not the typical Wimbledon crowd: my suspicions were alerted when I heard someone describe Fred Perry as ‘that bloke who made those shirts’. Later, when we were seated on Centre Court, it transpired that the man sitting behind us had very little grasp of the rules of tennis. This didn’t stop him explaining them confidently to his girlfriend, who in turn expressed her immense surprise that Andy Murray was Scottish.

Not that this matters. I’ve been a tennis fan since I was knee-high to Ivan Lendl, but if the Olympics makes people come to watch sports they’ve never really engaged with before, so much the better, and it perhaps gave the day’s action a more lively feel. Yes, there were empty seats – I’d say about one-sixth, largely in the most expensive courtside blocks, weren’t taken – but there was rapturous applause when not only the players walked out but also for the umpires, ball-kids and line judges, and the audience was certainly international. Enthusiastic shouts of ‘Jawohl!’ rang out when Germany’s Julia Goerges managed to oust Polish number two seed Agnieszka Radwanska; delighted Russians almost drowned out the spectacular grunts of Maria Sharapova as she comprehensively annihilated the unfortunate Israeli Shahar Peer. There was also large and entertainingly vocal Brazilian contingent supporting Thomasz Bellucci against France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in what proved to be the best match of the day, a close-fought battle full of the kind of dazzling elegance, artistry and flair I associate with tennis from a bygone age.

The British fans applauded pretty much everyone with enthusiasm, but the biggest cheers of the day were naturally reserved for Team GB’s own Andy Murray. I’ve been told by one or two people that the atmosphere didn’t come across on television, but I can certainly say that on Centre Court, especially for a first round match, it was fantastic. By this time, torrential downpours had necessitated the closing of the Centre Court roof, and I’d wondered whether this might be detrimental to the ambience, but far from it: the roar of the crowd that greeted every Murray winner and the chants of ‘ANDY! ANDY!’ as he turned out an impressive performance against Switzerland’s Stanislas Warwinka were simply magnified by the acoustics. Oddly, although much is made of the way the roof changes play for the competitors, as a member of the audience I didn’t feel it really made Centre Court feel like an indoor arena. Natural light filtered through, the temperature was pleasantly cool. I even heard several people in the crowd asking whether the roof was closed at all.

Prophetically, Andy Murray played brilliantly well in his first round match, so much so that I said to my boyfriend, ‘You know, if he keeps that up, he could win this whole thing.’ Given that my support is generally the kiss of death, this makes his subsequent gold medal victory even more outstanding, and I’m delighted I was there to see, at least, the first step on his path to victory.

As we strolled out of the gates of the All England Club, we were wished goodnight and a safe journey and a ‘Hope you enjoyed the tennis’ by the soldiers, standing smartly at ease, and pointed towards the Underground by volunteers, armed with giant foam hands which, while admittedly effective implements for sustained pointing, made them look as if they’d come straight from the audience of Noel’s House Party.

Apart from the presence of a few empty seats, I can’t fault the organisation of the Olympic tennis tournament. Transport was easy and convenient; entry to the venue quick and simple; tickets reasonably priced; things to do and see at Wimbledon plentiful – and above all, everyone staffing the venue, from the All England Club workers to the bar staff to the volunteers to the soldiers, was enthusiastic, efficient and helpful. It’s easy to be cynical about the Olympics and the commercial hoo-ha surrounding it, but my British Olympic experience at the most British of institutions couldn’t be faulted.

Joanne Sheppard

The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to preview for free and download for £4.27 from Amazon and Smashwords. It documents football at the highest level and the journey of travelling around Europe following a sport where money is now valued alongside trophies. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.