Friday, 4th July 2008 – Men’s Quarter Finals
I had a great day at the tennis yesterday (though I should state upfront that I’ve never tried taking tennis photos properly before – apart from about two 24-exposure rolls back in the late 1980s when I was lucky enough to see Boris Becker play – and we were in seats at the very back of Centre Court in Staircase 48, row ZF)!
It started on Tuesday night. I’d got wind of the fact that the All England Lawn Tennis Club had a block of 700 tickets underneath the new roof on Centre Court that they were releasing for sale every night at 20.30 for the following day’s play at Wimbledon. So, on Tuesday evening at 20.29 I settled down with the laptop and three minutes later was in possession of a pair of Centre Court tickets for Wednesday’s play with two out of four of the Gentlemen’s Singles Quarterfinals (as they are properly termed) at Wimbledon… The fact that these two matches involved arguably the two greatest players of the day didn’t exactly put me off the idea of forking out £75 for a ticket. In addition, it gave me a chance to watch Mario Ancic in action as well, so that didn’t hurt. Andy Murray doesn’t enthuse me at all, but I’d put up with him in return for a chance to watch Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Anyway, that sorted all that remained was to text Andrea and tell her we had the tickets, and then arrange to rendezvous somewhere sensible. She said she’d get the day’s supplies, so I ran round in circles for a while packing my camera kit, and eventually fell into bed.
Wednesday started well (if you ignore having to park on the 8th floor of the multi-storey pay-and-display car park at Milton Keynes Central Station, walk to the 1st floor to actually buy a ticket to display, walk back up to the 8th floor to display it and then walk back down to the ground floor to get to the station), with a large vanilla flavoured coffee at Milton Keynes station while I waited for the 09.26 train which would apparently get me to Euston a little after 10. I sat there armed with the last of my coffee, and texted Andrea to sort out meeting at Embankment tube station, which was convenient for both of us. We got off at Southfields station, looked at the traffic jam heading up towards the All England Club, and rejected both the taxi share scheme (£2.50 per person) or the shuttle bus service on the grounds that legs would get us there faster. We were right.
Once through the gates (having shown both the tickets and some photo ID to prove I was the person named on the ticket, and having had to rapidly drink the cartons of papaya juice we’d been handed on the way up to prevent an outbreak of “ambush” advertising – given how far back we were it seemed unlikely that anyone would spot a carton about 6 inches by 2 by 2 but there you go – commercialism and sponsorship, the curse of modern sport). Once in we decided to take a wander rather than going straight to our seats, and so settled in by Court No. 3 to watch at least a few minutes of a gentlemen’s invitation doubles featuring Pat Cash. I like the invitation category – it basically means over-35s, and most of these guys still play very well but don’t take it at all seriously in between play, so it can be highly amusing/entertaining. In a way it was a shame to walk away after 15 minutes, especially as Cash was just getting into his stride, acting the fool with his headband routine, accusing one of the line-judges of being his opponent’s Mum when she said his serve was out, and generally being a fool while playing beautifully.
However, we had places to be and it was time to head over to staircase 48, up 94 steps on the outside of Center Court. Apparently there is a lift, though it’s not easy to find. Anyway, we figured we’d leave that to those who really needed it. It was a long way up and I suspect we both probably wondered if we’d made the right decision about halfway up!
As we settled into our seats the rain that had been threatening (and threatened in the weather forecast) arrived and there was a rush to cover the court. An announcement suggested that there would be no play before 4pm, unless things improved, in which case play would start as soon as possible. We opted to stay put at the back and start lunch (Pret a Manger’s sandwiches, strawberries, fresh fruit, a lovely white Zinfandel, and plenty of water). And it wasn’t long before our patience was rewarded. Around 1.00 the sky got considerably lighter and the court workers all turned up and removed the covers and began to set everything up for the first match.
Word clearly gets around fast because by the time Roger Federer and Mario Ancic walked out there, most of the empty seats were occupied and the place was heaving.
There followed a 17 minute demolition job by Federer of Ancic and the first set was over. Although perhaps dissection is a better word, in that it has much more delicate and deliberate connotations. I’ve watched Federer on TV, but that really doesn’t give you a clear picture of the sheer class of play he’s capable of. It’s utterly beautiful to watch, although Ancic didn’t seem too keen on it. For all the talk that Federer may be past his best, I didn’t see any sign of it. His play was incredible, a thing of beauty and I have no idea how anyone can make a tennis ball do the things they do once he hits them. It seems to me to defy the laws of physics at the very least. To use a motor racing comparison, watching him is like watching the tennis world’s equivalent of Michael Schumacher. He makes it look so very, very easy, as if he has no idea why no one else can do what he does. The only time it looked as if Ancic stood a chance was after a second rain break had given him an opportunity to leave the court and go and try and get his focus back (and to get what seemed to be a less than 100% leg working properly again).
When they came back on court, a little after 4pm, we were treated to a recovery from Ancic, but it wasn’t enough. A low flying ball had him hitting the floor in self-defence, with everyone looking a little worried.
It was nothing serious, and he soon bounced back, but he really didn’t have an answer to his opponent. In less than 60 minutes it was all over. Federer appeared not to have broken sweat, hadn’t even warmed up, it seemed, though at least he’d removed his cardigan early on. He didn’t look from where we were sitting to have exerted himself in the least, even when serving.
Ancic, on the other hand, had had to have his leg re-strapped by the trainer, and had changed shirts at least once and his head was down as he sat on the chairs at the side, a picture of despondency.
And that was Federer through to the semi-finals.
They didn’t hang about between matches either. We ate the rest of our lunch as the court was readied, and Rafa Nadal and Andy Murray arrived on court.
The crowd was – to our relief – far less partisan than they might have been (my views on jingoism are pretty well known to anyone who knows me so I won’t start on about it here), and we settled in for what turned out to be a thorough demolition job. Nadal was playing out of his skin, so much so that no matter what Murray tried it made no difference. He was outclassed and outgunned by his opponent, and balls that had no right to come back because they’d been struck so hard, just came back at him with added vicious spin. It was fascinating; whatever Murray tried didn’t work. He tried whacking the thing away – it came back. He tried drop shots – they came back. He tried volleys – they reappeared with interest. He even tried 130 mph serves – guess what? They came back at him too. He tried to be clever, but Nadal was cleverer.
Mind you, I cannot imagine how frustrating it must be to stand on the other side of the net from Nadal, a man who has the most amazing collection of nervous tics I’ve seen on a tennis court in a very long time. It starts when he runs – no bounces – onto the court, and gets worse. The serve process is mind-boggling. It starts with taking three balls, staring intently at them, deciding one of them really won’t do, and jettisoning it. The remaining balls appear to be sorted according to no particular plan, one to the pocket and one to use. After that, he adjusts his underwear by pulling on the back seam of his shorts, bounces the ball a good half dozen or more times, adjusts his hair on both sides of his face, bounces the ball a couple more times, adjusts his headband, pats the hair down on the top of his head, stops bouncing the ball, rocks backwards and forwards on his heels two or three times, and the finally, finally, leaps up and serves the damn ball.
After all of that, the actual serve must come as a relief to his opponent. That’s the full rigmarole. You get variants thereof, needless to say, or we’d all still be there now waiting for the match to finish… Oh, and then there’s the towel (this has to be handed to one of the ballboys or girls, and is used between every point, regardless of how much effort has been used – and if it’s his serve, then the ballboy or girl then takes the towel and places two tennis balls on Nadal’s racquet.
It’s all rather bizarre, frankly, as is the precision placing of the water bottles, and the order he takes them in. OCD anyone? Or gamesmanship? Or somewhere between the two…
Anyway, the match contained some good tennis, but the end result was never really in doubt. As the Wimbledon pigeons reappeared and started looking for somewhere to roost, the Murray fans became quieter and quieter, and the shadows lengthened across the court. By a little after 8pm it was all over, and there would be no further play on Centre Court.
The photographers’ box – which looked hellish – emptied out and the spectators slowly made their way out. We stopped off on a couple of the outside courts and looked at some of the Juniors’ games still going on, but it was time to head for home.
We stopped in at the Wimbledon Shop and Andrea made some purchases, then we wandered back down the hill to Southfields, and I just made it to Euston in time to get the 10.06 train back to Milton Keynes, getting home half an hour late after the train was shifted to the slow track due to engineering works, a fact they didn’t bother to mention until a 33 minute train ride was lengthened by 25 minutes. There was a very upset Swiss guy on the train who was obviously deeply offended by the concept of trains that don’t run on time. “Welcome to British public transport!” was all I could find to say to him.