Game, set and strawberries in SW19

An English garden in London SW19 threw open its gates to the world yesterday to begin its annual summer party. In these green and pleasant surroundings, warm beer and cricket - for some the signature of Englishness - is banished in favour of strawberries and cream and Pimm's.

The surprise first round defeat of the crowd's favourite, Andre Agassi, ruffled the genteel atmosphere for a moment but otherwise attention was where it has always been on day one - on overpriced but luxurious eating and drinking.

At the River Restaurant in the Savoy Hotel yesterday, you could have spent pounds 7.50 on a bowl of strawberries-and-cream as you looked over the sunlit Thames. At the SW19 garden party, 10 strawberries would set you back a mere pounds 1.80. A bit more than last year but when you fork out pounds 47 on a bottle of Bollinger, 18p a strawberry must be cheap, relatively.

Ensuring all things change while all things appear to remain the same, is hard work for the organisers of SW19's annual summer bash.

In 1933 gentlemen playing on the summer party's Centre Court were allowed to wear shorts for the first time. In 1980 electronic service line monitors were introduced. And yesterday the most dangerous job in sport was phased out at Wimbledon. The net court judges, who long ago should have been issued with full body amour to survive the likes of Pete Sampras's serves, were yesterday made redundant by another electronic device.

The revolution was quiet. On the show courts there was nothing to be heard of the bleeps that so infuriated Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe. McEnroe is not playing, so SW19's churches will be empty of praying umpires.

In two weeks' time, at the summer party, where tradition is everything, the bulldozers will be brought in to level a piece of sporting history; Number One court will be demolished. And like a phoenix it will reappear next year as the new, improved, super-stadium Number One court.

The English have a flair for mourning the loss of tradition. Perhaps if there is loss at Wembley tomorrow, the nation will be moved to wearing black arm-bands. But at Wimbledon yesterday it was a German who began the official mourning for number one court. Boris Becker, past winner and this year's number two seed, said: "It is a sign of the times. Bigger stadiums. But I like the atmosphere in court one. It had flair, character and style, but unfortunately, times change.

The organisers of the garden party refuse to accept anything will change. "The garden party atmosphere will remain - this is tennis in an English garden," is the official line.

Last year 384,882 people came to the party. The new court, 20 per cent smaller than the current Centre Court capacity, only threatens to enhance SW19's traditions.

In the members' enclosure, no one was really worried yesterday. "If you strip off the phoney traditions we have here, what do you think you'd find underneath?" asked one member. Before you have time to answer, another member has replied: "Why, the real traditions, of course. By the way, who is on Number One court today?"

Commentary, page 13

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