In a previous life as a sports journalist, I used to cover Wimbledon. I had no particular interest in tennis, and certainly no specialist knowledge, but I was sent along to SW19 to mop up some of the curious, off-the-beaten-track stories that Wimbledon has always thrown up.
I'd get down there in the morning to receive the tennis correspondent's briefing. It would follow roughly the same pattern: he'd cover Centre Court, his deputy would be at No 1 Court, and the news man would report on the Brits who were knocked out that day (this was long before the advent of Andy Murray). He'd then turn to me and say something like: “Simon, there's a really interesting over-35 doubles match on Court 14. Might make a nice piece.” And the truth was, it nearly always did.
I covered Wimbledon for quite a few years and, like the British players of old, only rarely made it on to Centre Court. Nevertheless, I got to see, close up, some legendary figures of the game, and was fortunate to see Chris Evert - on whom I'd always had something of a crush - grace the famous lawns for the last time.
Reporting on tennis is a particular skill, which involves spending as much time in the interview room as it does on court. That is because there is not much to say about the run of play. He served into the backhand court, and then volleyed the return to win the point. Repeat that about a hundred times and that's pretty well the whole story as far as the action is concerned. It's not until the reporters get to the press conference that they find out exactly what went on out there. The wind was troublesome. I had difficulty picking out his second serve. I was really pleased with the forehand volley on break point in the second set. My knee stood up pretty well. I really feel I'm getting closer (copyright A Murray).
In fact, I contend that it's possible to cover Wimbledon without seeing a single point being played out. Golf is much the same in this respect. In fact, in big golf tournaments, it's a positive disadvantage to be out watching the action rather than in the press tent surveying the leader board and listening to the after-round interviews. There's a story about a legendary golf writer who, stuck in the press tent at St Andrews for four days, fed a diet of press releases and dispatches from the front, turned to one of his colleagues and said: “This is all great, but it's not like being there, is it?”
For all the cynicism of a hardened sports hack, however, the thing about Wimbledon is that there is still something magical about simply being there. Unlike other big events of the summer - Royal Ascot, for instance - it hasn't been coarsened by corporate interests and the peculiarly British obsession for accompanying large amounts of sport with even larger amounts of alcohol. Wimbledon is slicker, a bit more ostentatious and more commercialised than it used to be, but it still retains a level of intimacy and old-fashioned quirkiness that no amount of female grunting can ruin.