No 1 for all the hits
Wimbledon's second most famous court will stage its final dramas in the next fortnight. Laurie Pignon salutes a cherished battleground
Wednesday 19 June 1996
These changes to Wimbledon came slowly, almost imperceptibly, but at the end of this year's Championships, the original Court No 1 will be obsolete. Eventually, the bulldozers will move in and in one mechanical swoop will reduce Court No 1 to a pile of anonymous rubble, to be dumped who-knows-where. Memories are not so easily demolished.
Although it did not have a Royal Box and was destined to be a semi-detached poor relation to the mansion next door, Court No 1 had a life and an atmosphere of its own. Seldom did a day's play pass that the great cheers of its loyal devotees did not echo around the Centre Court, and make 12,000 people think that they were in the wrong place.
They often were, and never more so than in the first Championships after the war in 1946. The frustration must have been excruciating as they sat in their seats and listened to the rapturous applause from the place next door. For it was on Court No 1 that the sad-faced Jaroslav Drobny, whose native Czechoslovakia was only just free from occupation, was beating the clean-cut US Marine Jack Kramer.
The American had conceded only five games on his way to the fourth round, was the No 2 seed and the public favourite to take the title at his first attempt. After one of the most thrilling matches played on any court, Drobny won by 2-6, 17-15, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. The drama was not confined to the power produced from Drobny's left arm, for at the change of ends it was obvious that Kramer was in serious trouble.
He was suffering from an injured hand. What started with small blisters had developed into a raw wound by the end of the 32-game second set. There were no chairs on court, no two-minute rest periods in those days, so at each opportunity Kramer snatched a few forbidden seconds to try to soften the path with sticking plasters. Afterwards he made no excuses and merely said that the best man on the day had won.
In my demob suit, and green pork-pie hat with a red feather, this was my first Wimbledon as a Fleet Street junior reporter, and I had been consigned to Court No 1.
Seeing "things" were happening, I left my press seat and got myself a place behind the umpire's chair, where I could see Kramer's plight and almost feel his pain. I wrote my story full of blood, guts, colour and quotes. I was proud of what was to be my first big Wimbledon byline, but when I showed my copy to my sports editor, who had been on the Centre Court, he said: "Sonny, this is too good for you," and with a few minor changes it appeared in the paper next morning under his name. Kramer and I learned a lot that day.
In the quiet hours when the music is soft and the whisky mellow, memories, so many memories, of the doomed court where our youthful summers drifted into old age come flooding back. There was the laughter when Connors and Nastase appeared in the doubles with umbrellas when it threatened to rain; and there was McEnroe. How the Court hated him in 1981. People thought then that he should have been disqualified, some still do. He screamed at the umpire: "You are the pits." He insulted the referee, and he yelled at the crowd: "I am so disgusting you shouldn't watch. Everybody leave." This was a first-round match against nice guy Tom Gullikson. Instead of packing his bags, as he should have done, he won the Championship so preventing Bjorn Borg winning a record six in a row.
Eleven years later, when McEnroe had won the singles title three times and the doubles twice, all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune were forgotten and Court No 1 was in love with him again. It was a roaring, boisterous, bellowing love when with Michael Stich he returned on the third Monday to finish his doubles final.
When play had stopped at 9.22pm on Sunday night, the score stood at 13- 13 in the final set after four and a half hours of play. Although the match could have ended in a few minutes, many McEnroe fans queued all night for the finish. When their final resumed against Jim Grabb and Richey Reneberg, the court was full to its 7,500 capacity, with everyone getting in free of charge.
Ten more games were played in 34 minutes before McEnroe and Stich won 5-7, 7-6, 3-6, 7-6, 19-17. The total of 83 games in five hours, one minute was a record for a Wimbledon doubles final. In response to the crowd, McEnroe and Stich repeated their lap of honour, and the biggest cheer came when John offered the trophy to his son, who was at courtside with his mother, Tatum O'Neal. A moment poignant for a couple who were soon to part.
Boris Becker's memories of Court No 1 in 1987 are "nicht so schon", and it was probably his own fault. At 19, he had twice won the Championship and he was up against Peter Doohan, a little-fancied Australian whom he had defeated with ease at Queen's Club a couple of weeks previously.
Doohan didn't fancy his chances, either. He was staying at the local YMCA and had booked his flight out of England, but, like all good Aussies, he loved a fight when the stakes were high. Rain had delayed this second round match until Friday afternoon. At first, Becker seemed to be a victim of his own arrogance, which hardly endeared him to the crowd, who hungered for a big upset. And they got it, for the fiery, acrobatic German was beaten 7-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, and the roar of the crowd echoed around an envious Centre Court. Afterwards, a still angry Becker told the world's press: "Of course I am disappointed, but I didn't lose a war. There is no one dead; it was just a tennis match."
There were not too many tears shed for Becker, but I must admit there was a hint of a Puccini drama when Chrissy Evert was beaten 6-1, 7-6 by Kathy Jordan in the third round. It was the first time in 11 Wimbledons that she failed to reach the semi-finals. The sun did not shine on Court No 1 that day and her unexpected exit made the place seem a little duller and a little greyer. The year was 1983.
Chrissy is not a Mimi and not quite a Musetta. Watching from the sideline, and at times almost close enough to touch her, I felt as if I were in a world of bad dreams. I had seen her lose before, but this time she was a thin ghost of the player normally feared by her contemporaries. She looked pale and frail, yet offered no word of excuse, only praise for Miss Jordan. Afterwards, we discovered that she had been ill during the night and a doctor had to be called out at 2am.
Even before the South African Billie Tapscott shocked Wimbledon in 1927 by appearing on court minus stockings, fashion has always been a feature of lawn tennis, and the most glamorous of all events was the now defunct Wightman Cup. This annual match between the British and American women was played on Court No 1 from 1946 to 1972.
Andrew Lloyd Webber could have written a musical about it, Monet could have painted it in three shades of light and Shelley would have certainly composed an ode about it, for the great West Open Stand which over the years grew taller and taller was festooned with colour and was a wondrous sight to behold.
There were rows upon rows of girls in summer uniform dresses; some schools in pink, others in blue, or green, or yellow or lilac. There were panama hats galore, and a few battered boaters beside, but all wore regulation white socks and "sensible" shoes.
They may have looked like a wall of innocent flowers reaching up to that tent of blue, but once they were out of reach of their games mistresses, and play began, decorum was replaced by such a cacophony of screams of delight that local residents might have thought that pig-sticking had come to SW19. Their enthusiasm was so infectious that those in the posh seats joined in and felt young again.
Baron de Coubertin's aristocratic and now completely ignored Olympic creed of it being more important to take part than to win might have been penned for the British teams, for during all those summers on Court No 1, they were only successful in the Wightman Cup on three occasions. Then the atmosphere was such that I am surprised we didn't all drown in our own euphoria.
Never more so than in 1958, when we broke the spell of 28 years of failure and the girl who made it possible was Christine Truman, who won all three of her matches. Her staggering victory over Althea Gibson after dropping the first set was one of the greatest women's matches played on the court. Christine was 17 and Miss Gibson the reigning Wimbledon champion. She was the first black champion: powerful, athletic, she played every stroke as if the pride of her African heritage depended upon it. In contrast, Christine, the sweetheart of British tennis, was never quite sure what the score was and kept bashing her mighty forehand willy-nilly. The innocence of Christine was all too much for the American.
Two years later, Britain again defeated the United States, 4-3. This time Ann Haydon, who as Mrs Jones was to become Wimbledon Champion nine years later, and Angela Mortimer (the 1961 Champion) were in the winning line-up. By Jove! We could play the game in those golden days. The last successful year on Court No 1 was 1968, when Virginia Wade (the 1977 Centenary Champion) cast aside all her theatrical uncertainties and produced a masterly display of controlled arrogance which, when in full flight, made her one of the most enthralling and at times exasperating players to watch.
At 1-3 on the start of the second day's play, Britain's chances seemed hopeless. Miss Wade made it 2-3 with her second singles and 3-3 with her doubles with Winnie Shaw. Then came the final dramatic crunch: the Truman sisters, Christine and Nell, against Stephanie DeFina and Kathy Harter. There has never been a match like it nor will there be one like it again. Winners were hit off the wood, outrageous mis-hits clipped the lines, and rallies were so hectic that they might have been playing on hot coals.
At one vital and hilarious point, I dropped and broke my expensive calabash pipe, and in the excitement a man in the far stand had a heart attack and died. Someone was heard to remark: "He might have waited until the change of ends." It was getting dark and damp during that final agonising game during which our dear Christine twice fell flat on the court. The normally solid American girls were bewildered by it all; and the crowd bewitched.
Unlike fading photographs, memories become brighter with age, and I would not swap mine for a fistful of tomorrows. Goodbye, old friend, I hope that your elegant replacement, minus free standing, brings as much pleasure as old Court No l, a place of so many youthful dreams that bulldozers cannot destroy.
Laurie Pignon reported from Wimbledon for the first time 50 years ago and has not missed a Championship since.
Picture: John McEnroe (left) and Michael Stich celebrate after their epic victory over Richey Reneberg and Jim Grabb in the 1992 Wimbledon men's doubles final after five hours and one minute's play spread over two days on No 1 Court Photograph: David Ashdown
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