From the moment tarpaulin city awoke in SW19 yesterday the queues started to form. By 10.30 the serried ranks in the field were so packed that new arrivals at the Southfields tube station were told to spin on their heels. Organisers had nominated a capacity crowd of 27,000 and they were all accounted for in the crocodile.
A stop and search programme that stopped just short of pulling on the plastic gloves kept the populus baying at the gate for much of the time and afforded proceedings inside a rather unnatural flavour. You could have heard a serve being dropped on the Centre Court well into the afternoon, such was the absence of atmosphere.
You could tell something was wrong when the military figure that guards the press entrance was Awol. This was a man who has someone shine the shine on his boots, a soldier whose fortnight's work is to get as many hacks as possible into the glasshouse. And he wasn't here. Perhaps he had seen the order of play. Javier Sanchez and Yevgeny Kafelnikov are both nice chaps who do not question line calls and who are almost certainly kind to their dogs, but they do not, between them, provide a volcano of charisma. Throughout their match a corona of empty seats around the top of the arena was not visited.
Even more worrying was the rapid deterioration of the playing surface. There are already large chocolate blotches on the baseline and service lines of the premier theatre and come finals day it may resemble a clay court.
There was no such problem on No 1, where Mary Pierce, whose chemise had had its bottom three inches unravelled, provided a more compelling figure. Unlike Wimbledon's weather, la Pierce is never dull and we had the full melange as she kicked balls around, effected expansive stretching exercises and swatted flies as she prepared to serve. She is not far off being crackers.
Mary put a lie to the belief that the seventh game of a set is the most important by winning the opener 6-0, but then things started to go wrong. It is Pierce's bad luck that she seems to get as much detritus in her eyes during play as the rest of the competitors put together. She alleviates this problem with the use of drops and after she had reeled off the first seven games it appeared someone had slipped ammonia into the bottle. Her eyesight later recovered.
The appearance of the few spectators watching Naoko Sawamatsu and Tamarine Tanasugarn suggested Court 17 had already been handed back to the Orient, while on the adjacent Court 16 (which was also approximately the number of the crowd), Judith Wiesner (the former Judith Polzl) was locked in lonely combat with Epsom's Lorna Woodroffe (who was soon to be the former Wimbledon participant).
This was not, in all honesty, the interactive Wimbledon Sunday of 1991 (the unremittingly depressing weather saw to that), but it did warm up even if the conditions did not. Monica Seles, about whom beastly observations have been made in some quarters regarding the dimensions of her abdomen, started it with a fightback against Kristina Brandi. She was congratulated so kindly, Monica developed moisture in her eyes. "It was very different, the crowd were much more into the match out there," she said. "They were very spontaneous today."
John McEnroe came into the crowd with a microphone, as he had done the previous day, when he wore one of those reject baseball caps that have had their peak mistakenly sewn on the back. He was also wearing a neat suit and ear-ring, creating the impression that a skateboarder's head had been surgically welded on to a stockbroker's body.
By now, the people were in place and waiting for their leader. Tim Henman arrived to a standing ovation, Mexican wave and terrace chanting. It was like an asylum just before medics arrive with the trolley of tablets and syrups. There will be some observers of yesterday's match who will have the phrase "come on Tim" beating in their minds for months to come.
Henman took his audience through the emotional gamut, but ultimately they forgave him. Our player could have shot Bambi's mother and got away with it yesterday, but at 6.16 on People's Sunday the only missiles sent into a crowd twinkling with flashguns were the great man's sweatbands.Reuse content