Wimbledon 97: New places, old familiar faces

Richard Edmondson sees a meeting of past and present in the impressive No 1 Court
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The Independent Online
It is a British peculiarity that they like new things to look old. They seek to live in houses with a Georgian facade stapled to the front, and they like to go to No 1 courts that are virtually identical.

The crust of the new No 1 at the All England Club is draughtsman's-sketch modern, all angles and plant pots. A person taken to the interior under blindfold would find it difficult to tell the difference from the old arena, however. A use has been found for those great vats of dark green paint left over from the last big job in SW19.

Underneath the playing area is a merchandising shop and food hall and, for those who need to help to get over the twinges of a close encounter, a chemist and bar offer a variety of tranquillisers. The whole effect is of an Arndale Centre with a lawn on the roof.

Such an edifice obviously requires an appropriate launch, and so it was that a clutch of multiple Wimbledon winners were invited to yesterday's opening ceremony. Billie-Jean King was there in a purple suit on loan from Babar the Elephant, Boris Becker appeared to have stepped down from the poster of Reservoir Dogs and then there was Supermac or Superbrat, depending on your tolerance levels.

John McEnroe, who has cut a presidential figure until recent days (OK, he's sported Abraham Lincoln-type facial hair) was back at the scene of his more celebrated crimes. There are grey, badger-like, flashes about the old warrior's temples these days, but an impish humour remains. The commemorative silver salver he received was sent up to his fingertips and then transported around the court in butler fashion.

Chris Evert was introduced as being as "American as apple pie", which rather ignored the fish and chip years when she was Mrs J M Lloyd.

In the stands, there was Jackie Stewart and, just in case things turned seriously inclement, Sir Cliff Richard. If the sky had even approached the blue severity of the Young One's jacket, play would not have been punctuated. As it was, there was weather that once gave Vivaldi the idea for a composition. Cold winds, blue skies, sunshine, great bunches of cumulo nimbus and rain followed each other in random succession.

The Duke of Kent measured the height of the net and then set about his momentous speech. "I now declare the No 1 court officially open," he opened and concluded. Those on the after-dinner speaking circuit are believed to have slept soundly last night.

The Duke was applauded, but then he was not alone. The Brits are a great nation of clappers and there was even a volley when the Royal Signals removed the covers. This seemed to answer the long-pondered riddle of what the studio audience of Noel's House Party does during the week.

In the new amphitheatre was the old stew of humanity, the polite club members, the exhibitionists (in this case four gentlemen wearing orange fluorescent police helmets) and the schoolgirls programmed to trill "Come on, Tim" every 45 seconds. For yes, the man who was chosen to christen the new turf was the golden boy himself, Timothy Henman.

Our hero emerged with the tongues wagging both in the crowd and his tennis shoes. He may now be 22 and slightly bulkier than this time 12 months ago, but his body seems unwilling to cross the Rubicon into adulthood. Henman remains everyone's brother or son for each day he appears at Wimbledon.

It was left to another to hit the first ball in the new stadium, however. Amir Ghoneim of Egypt holds the cachet of having hit the last ball on the old court and it may be he rather fancied the idea. He served the concluding double fault of a Davis Cup tie. Yesterday, Daniel Nestor of Canada hit the first ball.

There were several spaces in the second tier during the knock-up, but these seats had been left empty by Cassandra and her friends. They knew that as the practice neared completion the skies would deposit. By the time the players returned, the prophets had taken their places and there was hardly a vacant spot in the 11,000-seater auditorium.

The entire emotional tide was with Henman. For him, it must have been like taking part in school sports day and having everyone else's parents cheer you on as well. Team England triumphed in the end, but it took a cuticle-threatening first set to kick start the victory.

As the match matured, there was a palpable sense of disquiet among the crowd, the sort of feeling they have been dispensing about their male tennis players for a lot longer than Henman has inhabited planet earth. Into the tie-break, there was a tone of great anxiety in the collective larynx.

David Felgate, our man's coach, watched these proceedings with elbows on knees, muttering to himself and twitching. It was a good job he was not down there for us on the greensward, as he would have needed masking tape just to keep the racket in his hand.

A forehand return down the line later, Felgate was able to exhale at 13-11. The first set had been won, but it had threatened to give Christiaan Barnard an awful lot of work.