People's Day brings out the Lady Penelopes

Eye witness: They're rattling their jewellery for Henman in SW19
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The Independent Online

It was, after all, billed as People's Saturday. And what a mass of people there were - hot people, bothered people, anxious people, arguing people, but most of all, clean - nay scrubbed - smiling and drifting people.

Some people were hardly there at all: fat people, poor people, scruffy people, people over 75, people encumbered by prams. There were also - apart from the sporadic grunts coming from within the many closed-off arenas of close combat - no loud people.

Wimbledon's tennis complex is one of those places where studious management and meticulous organisation have ceased to be a means to an end. It is an end in itself. For one of the world's great forums of sporting combat, it is less Gladiator than garden centre.

The thousands who massed there yesterday to see Henman and Agassi falter or triumph in a sea of sweat and gristle, did so with the dream-like detachment of weekend shoppers mulling over where they'd find the begonias. It was the numb drift of the shopping mall.

"And the man in the green blazer is ... er... Cliff Richard.'' The continuous commentary, piped around the site, rendered gossip and rumour redundant. You want to know what was going on on Centre Court? Don't talk. Just listen.

And what a lot of listening the people of People's Saturday did. They listened to the security staff asking them for ID, they listened to the Securicor staff asking them not to litter or not to cool their feet - "You can't do that!" - in the faux babbling brook that ran down the grassy knoll dubbed "Henman Hill".

As this legendary protuberance was covered entirely in a mass of midriff-baring womankind gathered to ooh and aah over Britain's great hope, Mount Tim might have been a more appropriate moniker. De rigueur among women tennis fans yesterday was the Lady Penelope look - sunglasses propped high on head and suspiciously authentic tan. Also popular were high-fashion desert combat fatigues - essential wear for the notoriously rugged and hostile terrain of SW19 - and jewellery. Lots of it.

As the afternoon progressed, the sky cleared and the tennis receded even further from the social agenda. Heat levelled the walkers into reclining statues, staring up at the blue sky. The Glastonbury festival is this weekend's alfresco social date for the boys and girls who do. Wimbledon is this weekend's event for boys and girls who don't.

Henman arrived on the Centre Court to cheers and whoops that, for the first time in the day, were even louder outside the court than they were inside.

Teatime and the end of the Agassi match had seen Mount Tim turn from a prime sunbathing site into something far more serious. The Union Jacks had come out and clusters of blokes in baseball caps stood staring anxiously at the giant screen, clutching pints and even ignoring the women around them.

The women ignored the men and ignored each other. There was only one focal point - big screen Tim. The hill was alive. The People had arrived.

At first the hush was palpable, even unbearable, broken only by ripples of conscious applause, and the burly booming of the ladies and gentlemen of Securicor, imposing a strict one-way system on the Mount. No stopping, no sitting on steps, keep moving or join the transfixed mass on the slopes.

The crowd had aged too, faces of another 20 or 30 years now mixing with the Euro-youth. And then, after 20 or so minutes of play, the shouts of "Go on Tim" began, then the chanting - an unmistakable and now virtually obligatory teen and twenties female chorus of "Raaa Tim, go on Henman, whoorr!" and then silence. And then another roar. The crowd was ahead of the commentary. "Four games in a row for Henman. Very nice, thank you." But the cheering throng had got the point seconds earlier.

Over at the Used Championship Balls stall, a large queue waited patiently, as all people wait patiently at Wimbledon, to pay £2.50 for three old balls that might have been touched by the famous.

"Do you know how long I've been on duty?!' moaned one tennis ball girl to another. "FOUR HOURS WITHOUT A BREAK!"

Server and served, everyone played their part beautifully. The only wildcard was what was taking place on either of the net.

But that, as they say, was mere detail. Henman's victory almost on the dot of 8pm, brought wild applause that echoed from hillside to Centre Court and back. And then for most, a chance to lie back, close eyes at last, and breathe again.