There was still room to move on Henman Hill yesterday, to step between the picnic tables and find a soggy patch of grass to sit on. But then, it was still only half-eleven in the morning. Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer were not due on court for another 90 minutes and, as for Andy Murray, who knew when his craggy features would be appearing on the big screen? Neither the long wait, nor the steady drizzle, dampened the enthusiasm of the crowds who steadily filled the grassy mound. Every variety of cagoule imaginable was on show, together with a colourful selection of umbrellas, especially the £25 green-and-purple Wimbledon ones, but, thankfully, there was no mud. This was not Glasto, or even the Isle of Wight; the Wimbledon turf had held together amid the last fortnight's rain. Those pessimistic spectators in wellies were overdressed.
Otherwise the Great British public knew the form and had come prepared. As well as the rainwear there were picnic rugs, champagne bottles, plastic glasses, and, by the look of it, the M&S food shop by Wimbledon station had been emptied. Given how difficult it would be to get to the bar or sandwich counter as the grassy terrace filled, such planning was wise.
Henman Hill has been in place since 1997 and has quickly become as much a part of the Great British Summer as Ladies' Day at Royal Ascot, the Lord's Test, and Met Office flood warnings. The capacity is roughly 3,500, with stewards denying access if and when it is perceived to be unsafe to allow more bodies on to the slope. That status was certainly close by the time Murray appeared to be taking a grip on his semi-final against Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, with the Hill resembling Bank Underground station in the morning rush hour.
The many foreign visitors could have been forgiven for thinking this was a nation of tennis fanatics, but the courts of Britain are not packed every weekend and many of these people are just there for the craic. Amid the crowd at 11.30am were two middle-aged women with tickets for Court One, which opened yesterday with the Williams sisters playing doubles. Rather than watch the two greatest female players of their generation they had decided to grab a space on the hill and wait for Murray.
Not that everyone with Centre Court tickets would know which Williams sister is which. When Murray walked on court he must have been dismayed by the number of empty seats as well-connected spectators enjoyed hospitality. Fortunately, the elongated interval required to open the roof meant the corporates were able to enjoy their fill of prawn sandwiches and reclaim their seats well before Murray had tied up the first set.
Something, though, was still missing, in the stadium and on the hill. It was tension. Big Wimbledon matches with British interest are supposed to be desperately tight affairs which leave you chewing nails, grasping at straws and peering through fingers. This was as nerve-racking as a rom-com as Murray established a two-set lead. Even Judy Murray, for whom these matches must be agonising, must have unconsciously relaxed.
Then came Tsonga's fightback and the cries of "C'mon Andy" became more and more anguished. The laughter that ensued when Tsonga crumpled after taking one in the unmentionables, and one wag shouted "new balls, please", had a desperate nervousness to it. Up on the hill they either looked to the right of the screen, and the spire of St Mary's Church, and prayed; or to the left, where the spire of the Shard could be seen above the city, and thought: "Whatever happens, this still beats an afternoon in the office."
Weather Very unsettled with showers or longer spells of rain, some heavy and thunder predicted.
TV 1pm-5.40pm, BBC One: 5.30pm-8pm, BBC Two.
Odds Federer 8-15, Murray 13-8.Reuse content