Olympics: Being There – Tennis (Rd 3)

Tennis, Wimbledon

One of the numerous selling points of the bid many of us backed for London to host these Games was the existing iconic sporting venues in the Capital, with infrastructure already in place and a history and tradition the Olympic Movement would like to associate itself with. The Tennis at Wimbledon delivers all of that, as well as what seems to be the All England Club’s way of doing things.

Replicating the experience of getting to venues elsewhere in the Games the 20 minute walk, first uphill and then downhill, from Wimbledon Station, is well signposted, with volunteers frequently dotted along the route trying to engage with customers as well as perhaps keeping an eye on the gated houses they are standing outside in the final stretch to the venue; after the row of estate agents in the village advertising small properties for rent at £6k per calendar month it is a definitely a different part of London for visitors to see and an interesting contrast for those who may have also seen the estates in Sommers Town on the sign-posted route from Euston to St Pancras, if they were getting the Javelin to the Olympic Park.

Again, by following the timing advice, the queues at security are virtually non-existent, even though the soldiers at this venue seemed to be embarking on body searches after electric scanning. Once past that an early benefit of Wimbledon’s open complex gives us a chance to see Roger Federer, Venus Williams and Novak Djokovic all warm-up respectively on separate practice courts, within the space of minutes. A treat for fans, volunteers and soldiers, all of whom took the chance to watch and photograph some of the greatest players of the game at very close quarters. Federer, as he does in match-play, moved effortlessly around the baseline; Williams went through a stretching routine which showed an excellent muscle tone in tight fitting white training gear, before naturally timing strokes from the back of the court while automatically grunting each time.

With the plusses of All England come the minuses, and it is presumably their rules that mean play on the two main show courts wouldn’t start until midday. Tickets for both Centre Court and Court One were the ones that were advertised for sale on the London 2012 website, so it is not clear where ground passes for the other courts were obtained, but as the draw went into the third round, it was a busy day, with big names scheduled on both show courts as well as the outside courts.

Tickets for Wimbledon, as with most events at the London Olympics, were hard to come by. Unsuccessful on the first ballot like the majority of applicants, I was lucky enough to see a tweet from the BBC Sports Correspondent James Pearce, weeks before the Games started, alerting his followers that more tickets had been released after being returned from other federations. I quickly picked up a pair of relatively cheap Centre Court tickets, that would be excellent value for a full-day’s play that would now be guaranteed with the roof.

Looking at the Order of Play the night before, the opening match on Court 18, between the Serbian Ana Ivanovic and the former World Number One and multiple Grand Slam Champion, Kim Clijsters looked an attractive option to see before play on Centre started. Before 11am I managed to get a couple of seats by the side of the court, three rows from the front at an already very busy Court 18, Wimbledon’s fourth largest court, ahead of an 11.30am. By the time the players came to warm-up it was packed despite the looming grey clouds; after an extensive warm-up the first rain drops started to fall and play was halted just before it began.

Entering Centre Court the roof was still being closed and the covers on ahead of the first match that was surprising scheduled on Centre, Serena Williams against Vera Zvonerava. The Ivanovic/Clijsters looked more appealing, as did the contest between Maria Sharapova and Sabine Lisicki which was due on Court One later in the afternoon. Williams, looked stylish in her USA tracksuit jacket before she started, and confident and in control when play got under way. Zvonerava didn’t seem to be ready – it took her five games to take her jumper off while Williams was already powering her way to victory with a strong serve and forceful strokes in the few short rallies there were. Zvonerava finally showed some aggression in the second set, but with the treatment of her racket rather than her play and she was defeated 6-1, 6-0 in a predictably one-sided game.

Despite the forecast of intermittent showers until mid-afternoon, someone made the decision to open the roof ahead of the second game on Centre, a match between Djokovic and the Australian Lleyton Hewitt, who won Wimbledon ten years ago. On paper it looked the best match scheduled for Centre that day and it lived up to its billing, in the end. First there was the bizarre spectacle of players having to go off in what was already a competitive second game as the rain came down. With the roof having opened before they came on, the players and the crowd were understandably frustrated, and it meant since Serena Williams won her match point, there was only one completed game played in over an hour, as the Wimbledon Officials waited for the shower to pass.

Even more frustrating in the break of play was the waste of the screen in centre court. While news was coming through on smartphones that we had won our first Gold Medal on Day 5 in the Rowing, boring All England Club videos were shown instead, with the odd wacky presenter trying to generate atmosphere. Later, as most of us were trying to find out about Bradley Wiggins through variable 3G coverage in Centre Court, between matches there was a wasted opportunity to really lift the crowd, and as at Wembley on Sunday, when a Rebecca Addlington medal winning race could have been shown at half-time, the access to the great event this tournament is just a part of, wasn’t used.

When play resumed Hewitt seemed to be recapturing some of his past form to take the opening set 6-4. In a three-set match, Hewitt had a real chance of an upset, but Djokovic, the best player in the world for the last eighteen months showed his class in a very tight set, despite Hewitt looking the better player earlier on, and he levelled things with a 7-5 win. Hewitt’s best chance had gone and Djokovic wrapped the final set-up 6-1, quietening the Australians in the crowd.

While that match looked like it would have the most quality of the day, it was the next match that was the most anticipated. Andy Murray, representing Great Britain in a home Olympics, had the large crowd behind him, as he faced the Cypriot, Marcus Bagdatis, with Union Flags coming out all round the stadium. Bagdatis broke Murray in the first game, and later in the first set after Murray had broken back to go a set-up, 6-4. The announcer had said the whole country was behind Murray, and while in the past he has polarized opinion with a sometimes negative approach both on and off the court in the Games he is part of Team GB rather than an another player in a game of individuals, and to most people’s relief he capitalized on Bagdatis errors that followed taking the final two sets 6-1, 6-4, to progress into the quarter-finals, and keep home medal hopes alive.

After that many people left Centre Court, with perhaps long journeys ahead of them or thoughts to get on another court. Even at its busiest it was never completely full, with a few pockets and rows of empty seats all day. There has been no questioning the demand for London 2012, but ticketing, right from the unfair first ballot, has been less than satisfactory and more evidence of that came later in the day. First, I stayed for the warm-up and opening games of the next match, Caroline Wozniacki versus Daniela Hantuchov, before then looking to get back onto Court 18 and support Team GB where Murray was scheduled to return to partner Laura Robson in their opening Mixed Doubles match.

Court 18 was not only fully packed inside, all the standing  vantage points from high above the court were busy too, as France, represented by Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and Michael Llodra, played Indian pair Leander Paes and Vishnu Varden. Both teams had vocal sets of supporters inside Court 18, chanting support throughout in an excellent atmosphere. The match was in the first set, with Tsonga apologising for long tactical discussion, and Paes spotting a change of balls not called by the referee, and the Murray/Robson appearance looked a while off.

While at the bar the scoreboard showed that the Sharapova v Lisicki match was still going on, Lisicki one-set-up. When I looked at the schedule of play the day before, it was the game I thought that should have been on centre, and the match I wanted to see the most. By now, after an already long day, there were thousands of empty seats in Court One, but, because we had Centre Court tickets we weren’t being allowed to take one of the many empty seats. The advise from the volunteers who weren’t allowing us in, was to ask people that were leaving, which only happened between change of ends. At the next change of ends we did that, got a couple of tickets, as news came through that Lisicki had broken Sharapova in the second set, and was two games away from victory, with more people leaving, assuming the game was over.

Not allowed to stand with the volunteers watching the game, we were then kept down with our tickets, as we waited for the next change of ends, if it got that far. It did, Sharapova had broken back in a long game and then held her serve to go 5-4 up in the second set. We were then allowed into the stands and picked a couple of prime seats of some of the many that were empty to see Sharapova break again and take the match into the final set. Despite losing her serve in the first game of the final set she overcame Lisicki, who had beaten her at Wimbledon this year.

We saw an excellent final hour of tennis, Sharapova producing a wonderful display, once finishing off a rally at the net with a left-handed volley, while showing the form that took her to World Number One earlier this year, as she completed a Career Grand Slam with her wonderful win in Paris. While she has struggled with her serve since her shoulder operation, this year has seen her play as well as she has since a return from that injury. She still plays with a relentless aggression, always looking to dominate with an ability to hit winners from both sides from the back of the court and an unrelenting energy that comes from a brilliant mental attitude and positive approach. Her tennis is a pleasure to watch.

Lisicki is also a talented player with a strong sense of self-belief who has prospered on grass. She wasn’t overwhelmed when Sharapova found her best form, as many might have been, and stuck in a competitive match that lasted just short of three hours. By the time the players left to standing ovations it was gone past 8pm and play on Court One was over for the day.

The length of the Men’s Doubles match between France and India meant Robson and Murray’s Mixed Doubles match had been postponed, and it wasn’t until after we were home, via a shuttle bus back to Wimbledon Station and a couple of trains to the right side of London, I found out a fifth match, with David Ferrer, had been taking place on Centre after Wozniacki made light work of Hantuchov.

Regardless, value wise, it would be hard to beat the quality of live sport for the cost of the ticket. For a ticket less than the price of many Premier League football matches there was numerous world class players in action. Play could have started earlier, there could have been more common sense used to maximise game time with use of the roof, other Olympics action should have been part of the day and of course ticketing should have meant that seats don’t remain empty all day, but it was another excellent day at London 2012.

MG

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