Footage of John McEnroe winning Wimbledon in 1981 reveals how, while tennis may have been transformed since then – serve and volley no longer dominates the game, and no finalist would be seen dead with a wooden racket – many things have remained unchanged in three decades. As in the 1980s, today there are, thankfully, still none of the adverts running around the court that are so familiar at football matches, despite the heavy pressure there must be to accept corporate sponsorship at courtside.
In 1981, when McEnroe defeated his deadly rival Bjorn Borg, among those admirers cheering him at Centre Court was the young bride-to-be Lady Diana Spencer, clapping adoringly from the Royal Box. Missing from this year’s tournament is the Duchess of Cambridge, who went on maternity leave just before it started, but there are still the royals and the nearly-royals – Pippa and Carole Middleton – taking their seats on the dark-green wicker chairs.
Members of the royal family love their tennis, of course – from Henry VIII’s establishment of “real tennis” to the support that the Duchess of Kent has given the All England Tennis Club over the years. (When I was growing up, I thought she was a tennis player herself, so familiar was her silver-blonde bob at Wimbledon finals.) It’s not surprising, or objectionable, to see royals in the Royal Box. But this prime viewing area is huge – 74 seats, in fact – so the All England Club makes up the numbers with tennis legends, corporate partners, members of the British armed forces and, I should add, newspaper executives. But, with each year there seem to be more and more celebrities than ever before to cheer on Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic.
Sir Bruce Forsyth is there every year. We all remember Sir Cliff Richard singing when the rain came down, before the roof was installed. This week we’ve had Vernon Kay, Tess Daly, Darcey Bussell, Kim Cattrall and, the royals’ favourite, Katharine Jenkins.
I can see the attraction of putting celebrities in the front row, as it makes for good pictures alongside the tennis players. I don’t object to seeing Mo Farah teaching Brucie how to do the Mobot in the break between matches. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if those 74 seats, and the accompanying hospitality, were also open to those who work for charities, community organisations or simply individuals who have achieved great things – “ordinary people” with extraordinary stories?
It would be easy enough to round up some worthy invitees – the list of those (non-celebrities) who have received honours in that year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours would be a good place to start. You’ve been given the royal seal of approval by Her Majesty, so here’s a ticket for Centre Court to go with your MBE.
Or what about Victoria Adom, the lollipop lady who was part of the Westminster Abbey celebratory service to mark 60 years since the Queen’s coronation? She wouldn’t have to wear her hi-vis jacket this time. How about some tennis-mad schoolchildren from deprived areas? Surely this is preferable to the roll-call of celebrities who, it has to be said, seem to leave their seats empty for long periods during the day?
The Queen herself hardly ever goes – just twice during her reign – supposedly because she doesn’t even like tennis. (She also, incidentally, doesn’t go to the opera much, so the Royal Box at the Royal Opera House is untroubled by royalty.) So the All England Club should open it up to her subjects. If we are funding a 5.2 per cent pay rise for Her Majesty, maybe the people can get something in return?
Since McEnroe’s day, the All England Club has become more progressive, in many ways. McEnroe was regarded with snooty disapproval from the Club because of his railing against line judges. Today his sort of behaviour would still not be tolerated, but a player would no longer be ostracised as McEnroe was until his recent rehabilitation through BBC commentary.
Many of the tickets for Centre Court are allocated through local tennis clubs across the country, giving aspiring youngsters the opportunity to see at close hand how the professionals do it. But more needs to be done to widen access to tennis on all levels. Judy Murray, Andy’s mother and Britain’s Fed Cup captain, recently complained that the Lawn Tennis Association was failing to introduce enough free public courts to give greater access to what is still a middle-class and elitist sport.
The LTA needs to act on her words, and quickly. Besides fulfilling its promise to boost free tennis courts, it could also devise a tennis competition for the best young players across the country to win seats in the Royal Box.
Beyond the exclusive area, the crowd at Centre Court represents the best of British impartiality. Despite the Union Jack hats and facepaint, those watching are generous to players from other countries. Germany’s Sabine Lisicki was cheered to the rails of the retractable roof when she beat Serena Williams on Monday.
The crowd loves giving an underdog a lift, and does so politely and generously. It would be wonderful if that sense of wanting to help people on their way up permeated to all areas of Centre Court – the Royal Box included.