Please let me accompany you to the gallows...

Call it Wimbledon's long march. Ronald Atkin meets the All England man who escorts the stars to their date with destiny

Every player, man or woman, scheduled to play on the world's most famous tennis court must tramp along winding corridors with bag over shoulder, through the Royal Box assembly lobby and other members' rooms, down the stairs into the main hall, where the trophies they are bidding for gleam in locked glass cases, back up more stairs underneath the Rudyard Kipling quote about triumph and disaster, through a pair of opaque glass doors and then, finally, through another double door painted in the club's dark green. No wonder the nervous ones are almost gibbering by the time the journey is over.

Every few yards are guarded by erect military personnel, brasses glinting, shirtsleeves ironed, caps pulled firmly down over face. This is the part of the trip which spooked Rafael Nadal when he did it for the first time last week, all those soldiers, sailors and airmen scrutinising his every step.

The players are escorted, of course. A security man leads the way, while their minder, the chap whose job it is on behalf of the All England Club to deliver the stars to their destiny, is Steve Adams, tall, silver-haired and impeccably turned out, the epitome of the club he represents and of which he has been a member for 35 years.

That the minder's job is coveted is evidenced by the fact that only two people have done it since the war: Peter Morgan from 1947 until his retirement in 1995, and Adams ever since. "It is great fun," said the former owner of a High Wycombe sporting-goods business. "I always wanted to play at Wimbledon but was never quite good enough, so it was jolly nice to be able to get to know the players.

"They are a lovely crop of people, a reflection of life. Five per cent of them are a bit difficult, think they are bigger than the game, but the majority are wonderful. Competitive, obviously, and single-minded, but extremely nice.

"I have to say, not just because he is the current champion, but the fellow who has impressed me most is Roger Federer. He is only 23 but has an aura about him. He's not just a great player but an extraordinary man. He is an outstanding sportsman, a credit to the game, and will do tennis an enormous amount of good.

"Last Saturday, as he was leaving Centre Court after his match, the sports-personality guests in the Royal Box were being introduced to the crowd. Nine out of 10 players would have beetled back to the locker room, but he asked me what was happening and when I told him he said, 'I would love to meet those people'. I told him to have a shower and I would arrange it. He wanted to meet our oarsmen, Redgrave, Pinsent and Cracknell, and of course Sean Connery.

"Pete Sampras also impressed me. I started doing this job around the same time as his first win, so I had a lot of Sampras over the next seven or eight years. He was a wonderful player, probably the best, but he was a loner, always found a room where he could be on his own, whereas Federer loves to stand in the middle of a changing room and hold court. Not in an arrogant sort of way, but he is just a big personality."

Adams finds the analogy with a walk to the gallows apt in some cases. "Sometimes you get a youngster who has never been out on Centre Court, never played in front of 15,000 people. It does concentrate the mind. Venus Williams is a very good example. She is a lovely person, but when she is going on court she looks as if she is headed for the gallows. She has that sort of fixed stare, head down, total concentration, total focus."

Lots can happen on that long walk to the court. Once, Adams lost a player, Marat Safin, en route. "I think it might have been Marat's first Wimbledon. I was pushing him to get ready and he was complaining to his coach about it. Anyway, we set off and when I got to the doors to Centre Court I had only one player with me, Safin had disappeared and no one knew what had happened to him. There used to be a toilet near the Royal Box, used by the president, the Duke of Kent, and known as the Duke's Loo. Safin had ducked in there.

"We need a security man to lead the players because the corridor is narrow and winding and there is often a huge jam if the club members are coming out from lunch to go on Centre. One member, a retired admiral, was once filling the corridor with his back to us. As a former military man, he quickly stood aside when asked to do so, but felt he ought to say something. Being of the old order, he said to the players, 'Good fortune to you both'. It was almost Nelsonian."

Adams describes his brief as "getting the players out on time wearing white". Conformity to the dress regulations used to be a problem at one time. "There are all kinds of rules. I was given a template to measure their logos, which were not allowed to be more than two inches square. If they were, they were taken off and a seamstress had to sew the shirt up again.

"Another trick was that some players would wear a white top and when they took it off there was some huge logo on the back of the shirt. Now they are brilliant, they completely accept it, actually seem to like it."

And at the end of their long walk, many players still want to know why they don't have to bow or curtsy any more. "They actually enjoyed that, they considered it part of Wimbledon."


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