Between 27th June and 10th July, 35,000 people will visit a small corner of South West London for the world’s oldest and most famous tennis tournament: Wimbledon. Considered the most prestigious of the Grand Slam tournaments, the All England Tennis Club first held its championship in 1877 and from its humble beginnings with just 200 spectators (who paid a shilling each to watch the games; that’s about £50 in today’s money) the tournament today is world-famous and crowds flock to it.
The British are very proud of Wimbledon but the tournament reveals another British characteristic: our love of an underdog and a yearly hope that someone British will actually win the competition. Before Andy Murray’s win in 2013, the last British singles men champion was Fred Perry in 1936 and the last British woman was Virginia Wade in 1977. This doesn’t stop the nation convincing itself each year that this year, there will definitely be a British winner (which of course, there usually isn’t). Before Murray’s victory, the last British hopeful was Tim Henman and at the start of the tournament, the British would look forward to a Henman victory (while secretly knowing that he had no real chance of winning) and every year would experience a satisfied disappointment when he was knocked out. It’s become something of a British tradition and the quicker Andy Murray stops being so successful, the quicker we can get back to being regularly disappointed!
Wimbledon is full of traditions, as you would expect from a tournament that is so old. It is the only Grand Slam tournament that has royal patronage and is still played on grass courts. Players must adhere to a strict dress code of white outfits (the ‘predominantly in white’ rule was introduced in 1963 and became ‘almost entirely in white’ in 1995). In fact, players must submit the clothes they will wear to the tournament for approval early in the year. (!)
Another famous tradition is to eat strawberries and cream at Wimbledon and spectators eat a lot of them! About 28,000 kilograms of Grade One Kent strawberries are eaten during the fortnight; that’s about 8615 servings consumed each day, all of them served with 7,000 litres of fresh cream.
One not-so-favourite tradition is that of rain stopping play and the British weather has often interrupted proceedings. For instance, the 2008 Men’s Final lasted a record-breaking seven hours because of the wet weather. That all changed, however the year after with the introduction of a new roof on Centre Court. As soon as the first drop of rain is felt, the roof is pulled over the court and play can continue which means we don’t get to see another British tradition in action: the sight of a soaking wet crowd singing songs together, waiting for the rain to clear. Nothing says ‘keeping calm and carrying on’ better than singing through the Wimbledon rain, a sight you’re guaranteed never to see in any of the other Grand Slams!
As befits the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament, the Wimbledon tennis balls are treated like royalty. 54,250 balls will be used throughout the tournament and all of them are stored at an exact 68 degrees Fahrenheit. New balls are introduced after the first seven games have been played and then every nine games, a new set of balls replace those old ones. Yellow balls were first introduced in 1986 (it was the multi-coloured 1980s after all) and these days all of the old tennis balls are given to wildlife trusts around the UK: with a hole put in them, they make the perfect home for the UK’s endangered harvest mice population.
There are also some traditions we don’t see: every day at 9am, Finnegan, a falcon, flies around the grounds for an hour to ensure that the local pigeon population doesn’t spoil the fun and mess the courts. Twenty-two lawn mowers and a team of 28 gardeners constantly ensure that the grass is kept to a precise 8mm in length and 6,000 people are hired each year to ensure the championship runs smoothly with the ball boys and ball girls coming from local schools who have been recommended by their head-teacher. Ball boys and girls must undergo a series of written and fitness tests before they are accepted.
In 1997, the organisers put a big screen on Aorangi Terrace, a grass hill within the grounds of Wimbledon, and a new tradition was born when people who didn’t have tickets for actual matches in the contest could sit and watch the action on the big screen. The hill quickly became known as Henman Hill and has become one of the most popular aspects of the contest. Today it is possible to buy a cheap £10 ticket and sit on the hill (these days called Murray Mound) and enjoy watching the matches and even though you’re not watching the matches from the side of the court, you can still feel like you’re part of the whole contest.
So, Wimbledon. It only lasts a fortnight but it is a fortnight packed with traditions and clues as to the psyche of the British nation. If you’re lucky enough to be in London when the competition is on, why not take a cheap ticket, join the crowds on Murray Mound, enjoy the atmosphere and eat as many strawberries and cream as you like?
Written by Lee Arnott
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