The received wisdom this year is that in '94, Wimbledon is a bore. 'Wimblebores' could well have been the slogan on the poster by the road from the airport, instead of Pete Sampras hitting a hand grenade with his racket, in aid of Nike, or was it Adidas?
Advertising notwithstanding, says the driver, Sampras is a yawn. Almost everyone else I encounter, as I arrive in London, agrees: the guys are tennis machines. The women are dull dogs, except for maybe Steffi, and by the time I make it to Wimbledon at the end of the first week, Graf's already out, other seeds spilling fast - Stich, Edberg, Courier - the count rising like that of the pollen in London.
Predictably, the sports writers are obsessed with why the game is worse; how Nick Bollettieri, the American coach, turns kids into terminators (Bollettieri in his wraparound sunglasses, does resemble a walk-on from Goodfellas); how the ladies of the All England Club should have given young Mary Pierce a stiff cup of tea and a talking-to, and sent her out to play the game, abusive dad or not - like the good old days.
The old days when, I seem to recall, people loathed McEnroe's language, goaded the 'ladies' for grunting and considered Ilie Nastase ill-mannered when he lay on the court and did the Dying Fly dance. (You want excitement? Try the Over 45s tournament where, astonishingly, Nasty himself is playing.)
As for the flak that the currently saintly Martina used to catch, this was hardly stuff for polite society. What comes around goes around. Actually, boring was when amateurs played very, very slowly, usually in the rain.
At last, I arrive. Wimbledon] The real thing. The day is brilliant. The sun shines. The place is seething with life, kids in T-shirts, natives in panama hats. Chic Americans in Donna Karan linen crowd through the main gates. Australian tourists in polyester pose for snaps in front of the statue of Fred Perry, revered patron saint of Wimbledon, who was, of course, considered next door to a boor when the Lawn Tennis Association could barely credit a winner with 'the wrong accent earning the right to wear the right tie'.
This is probably stuff that every British kid takes in with the Marmite. But, new to me, I'm elated to discover that Perry was out to win big, and did in 1936, and so went to America and became a superstar, even testing for a part in Fred Astaire's Top Hat.
The crowds swirl towards the courts, the food stalls, through acres of roses and neon-blue hydrangeas, sunlight on kissing couples in shorts, and besotted fans scoffing strawberries from styrofoam bowls. On the impossibly green lawn lies a man in a turban, snoozing in the sun, Walkman plugged into his ears, an empty tub of Hagen-Dazs chocolate-chip ice cream on his belly.
Here is the museum with Rod Laver's broken racket. There the cottage hospital. I didn't know Wimbledon had a bank and camera-hire and chemist shops, a post office, radio station and newsagent. A whole village. And everyone smiling, even the security guards; only the officious officials from the club itself seem to sniff a rarer air.
In the private marquees, corporate clients suck up champagne and 12 tons of salmon. In the food village, the rest of us munch hot dogs and fish and chips, so if the restaurant stinks of aspirant snobbery (the manageress purses fuchsia lips dismissively), who cares?
Everywhere, this cosmopolitan crowd is ecstatic. Jamming into the courts, they ogle players, compare tactics, exchange amazingly astute deconstructions of the style of individual play, or just admire the musculature of the boys, all gorging on programmes, thick as bibles, which include tasty facts such as the 'maiden names of lady competitors'.
This is the theme park at its best - players in white, pensioners in red, royals in hats, like actors from the local rep. But Wimbledon is business. Since it first granted licences in 1979, it has made a surplus of pounds 100m from debentures, corporate entertaining, marketing, licensing. There is Wimbledon jewellery, belts, sunglasses and 'beautiful traditional wickerware and teak branded furniture', much admired by the Japanese.
As with all things in the English theme park, it's a risky business: you have to market that which pretends to know no marketing; you must apply stainless-steel professionalism to that which pretends to be almost amateur. Such as the royals.
At Wimbledon, you must convince everyone that this is tennis in a garden with ladies and gentlemen at play, while raking in enough dough to pay the men's singles winner pounds 345,000. It takes native genius, and Wimbledon has it. So I - a foreigner on her first, fabulous, decidedly unboring visit - can't help but wonder why they can't make more tennis players?
'Come on in,' call the folks at NBC, at their little campsite, complete with green lawn and satellite. Wandering through the maze of courts, catching snatches of tennis, I find myself lost in the television encampment, which seems bigger than the British base in the Gulf war.
Can we take a photograph? 'Go crazy,' shouts a large young man in broadest American. 'Isn't this great? I come every year.'
On a message board is a hand-written announcement about Mr Jim Pierce. 'Should not be allowed to enter. If spotted, should be reported.' Jim Pierce? Then I get it: Mary's father. Wimbledon's most wanted. 'Have a great day,' shouts the NBC technician.
The BBC refuses us entry. Perhaps they are eating caviar sandwiches behind that forbidding faade. Get lost] is the general demeanour at the BBC.
But the press headquarters bustles with seasoned, cynical, leathery sports guys. So what if young Kafelnikov (they call him Kalashnikov) serves at 207kmph, tennis this year is . . . boring.
At the entrance to the Centre Court, I search the crowd for celebrities. Is Brooke (Shields) here for Agassi, replacing Barbra (Streisand) who was his supporter last year? What about Robin Givens, allegedly very good friends with Lori NcNeil, who wiped out Graf? A frail woman in Chanel, a fan heading for the Centre Court in a wheelchair, whispers her delight at it all. 'I never miss it,' she says.
Centre Court. At last. 2.36pm. Edberg v. Carlsen. This is not boring. This is the heart of the world for a few days, this little green stadium. It is, as everyone always says, surprisingly small. Proximity makes it thrilling. The players on the court, the crowds, the fleshy young women roasting in the sun, rows of white canvas hats and panamas, the royals, the sunlight spinning off hands clapping in unison, all as if 1914 had not quite happened.
'Look at those buns,' someone says staring at Edberg's shorts.
It is 90F but the lineswomen wear frocks and tights and high heels. In green and purple, the ball girls and boys do their ritual gymnastic - crouch, run, retreat, roll the yellow ball.
'Come on Stefan]'
Friday is very hot. More seeds go. The crowd, keen for the antics of old, ooh and ah when Boris Becker falls on the ground. Currently, Becker is what passes for charismatic at Wimbledon, although he has allegedly changed his schedule to spend more 'time with his family'. Jeremy Bates says Becker's an inspiration, and at the end of the first week, the great white hope shows up on television with his baby.
Me, I'm happy the two black Americans, Lori McNeil and Bryan Shelton, have come through, though I do think the Americans behind me should stop making remarks about Jesse Owens and the Germans.
'Andre, Andre, you're real class / Andre, Andre, show us your ass.' 'Look at that chest]'
It's Friday and he's back: Agassi, the hairy anti-bore. The sky is a sinister oyster colour. Agassi and Aaron Krickstein are locked in combat. Of course, I'm rooting for Agassi, but I have a secret yearning to see Krickstein win. The television announcer notes: 'His grandfather was a rabbi.' So was mine. Which is as close as I'm ever going to get to this tribe. I can see the headline, 'Rabbi's grandson slays 'em at Wimbledon'.
Still, just as the skies open up, Agassi snatches the match point. Krickstein's grandpa may have been clergy, but clearly, in the year of the Wimblebores, Andre Agassi is running for God.
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