The Death’s-head of Wimbledon, Part 1

The Death’s-head of Wimbledon, Part 3

Clive Rose/Getty Images Rafael Nadal

The Death’s-head of Wimbledon, Part 2

Infiltrating the Apparatus only to watch Rafa lose

To read Part 1, click here.

Actually, I do believe that socialism is just another form of totalitarianism or fascism or any other form of violent autocracy. A distinctly 20th-century form of violent autocracy, I would add. And I say that although in fact I would also agree that capitalism is as cruel and exploitative as its critics say it is. No, mum, simply turn ’round, follow the curvature of the stadium, and you’ll see the queue for the champagne bar just there along the wall to the left. Now, the first basic tenet of economic theory… ”

The security guard was tall, weedy, and directly behind me, speed-lecturing all this at a younger, shorter, and clearly more impressionable security guard, who listened with a kind of fretful awe. We were walking just outside the ivy-shrouded hulk of Centre Court — a crashed spaceship long since claimed by nature — and there were people everywhere; he kept having to interrupt himself to give directions to girls in Ray-Bans and floppy straw hats. When not advocating armed revolt, he was remarkably polite. I knew he was a security guard because I glanced over my shoulder the first time he name-checked Anarchy, State, and Utopia. It was the morning of the second day of Wimbledon.

And the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club was, if you looked at it in a certain way, a kind of utopia unto itself. It had terrified and plotted to destroy me, but I had to admit that the place had its charms: the distant pock of tennis balls, the manicured shrubbery, the alcohol. The visual impression put forth by the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club was that of a sunny sea of rich people washing up against an archipelago of green islands: sockless dudes in cobalt or brick-pink flood pants and Sperry Top-Siders drifting slowly along the margins of dark-green stadium walls, green snack kiosks, green recycling bins. The grass of the grass courts was a fine bright algae green. The fluttering ivy was a dull regal green, as was the unmoving fake ivy in the background of the Wimbledon By Ralph Lauren display window. The lenses of the Ray-Ban Wayfarers worn by roughly 96 percent of the crowd were, presumably, GR15: gray-green.

Once you accept that visiting Wimbledon means passing inside a giant invisible skull and surrendering to its dream logic, the place opens up to you, I thought. I was safely shielded behind my Psychometry Turtles and feeling calmer than I had in days. It was impossible to escape the neural whir of the Apparatus: Here was a burly guy shouldering a video camera attached to a tripod, there was an even burlier guy trying to type on a laptop as he walked. At times a subsection of the crowd even separated and reconstituted itself as a part of the Apparatus — a sort of flying Fifth Column, if you will. When a big-name player would move past, surrounded by his entourage like a boxer on the way to the ring, you could see the image echoed on dozens of held-high cell phones. But you could let it wash over you, I thought.

I caught a couple of matches on Court 18 early, partly by choice, partly out of necessity. My credentials problem still hadn’t been worked out, and while there were a few semi-legitimate ways for me to gain access to the big courts, I was tired of dealing with the security force, especially now that I knew it was harboring revolutionaries. (What if they were all in it together? What if Wimbledon was the blinking red light bulb on their giant map of the world?) In the Media Centre, though, there was an out-of-the-way room that shared with Fox Sports and Al Jazeera and makeup for the TV studio next door, and I was allowed to hang out in there. The outer wall was an enormous pane of tinted glass just a few feet from the edge of 18.

So I watched Jarkko Nieminen upset 14th-seeded Feliciano Lopez from way up close. And it’s true what they say: Until you’ve seen really good players way up close, you have not fully appreciated tennis. The combination of Black Sabbath ferocity and Mozartian deftness with which these relatively unheralded and unknown players move on the court — well, it boggles. There was a rally in the fourth set, at 0-0 with Nieminen leading 5-4, and I don’t know how this thing would have come off on television, with its multiple drop shots and diving snap-forehands, but in person it left me sort of hopping on one foot and speaking languages I don’t know. 

The night before, I’d had a realization, one that left me feeling more like I understood what was happening, even though it was a realization that only concerned my own brain’s weird workings. The realization was that I had been especially bummed that England was trying to drive me insane and kill me because (sincerity Klaxon) England had meant something to my life. I grew up in Oklahoma, in a small town. I was close to my grandmother, my mom’s mom, who drowned, along with my grandfather, when I was 9. They had taken a little rowboat out on the lake near our town so my grandfather could set some fishing lines. Then we didn’t hear from them. The medical conclusion, really just a guess, after their bodies were found was that my grandfather had had a heart attack and fallen out of the boat, and that my grandmother, who was wearing a life preserver, had died trying to save him.

Anyway, my grandmother was an Anglophile, one of those past-master England-fanciers who used to spring up in the middle of the American nowhere. She watched Masterpiece Theatre on PBS, read All Creatures Great and Small, drank tea instead of coffee,1 loved floral china — any portable fragment of civilization she could bring to what had been, when she was younger, still practically the frontier. Not long before they died they took a trip to London and brought back a Burberry raincoat for her and separate photos of each of them standing beside the famous red telephone booths. This seemed like a huge, family-wide deal at the time. My grandfather gave me a handful of funny-looking coins, which I put in a Transformers lunchbox.

Like a lot of small-town kids, I’d guess, I spent huge chunks of my childhood fantasizing about other places. I was an avid collector of elsewheres, places where life would be more exciting, more beautiful, more adequate to my imagination. (Current small-town kids, spare yourselves the disappointment. It isn’t Rooster City, it’s been you all along.) From my grandmother, I suppose, I had taken the sense that England was a particularly magical place. There had been knights there, and swordfights, and Shakespeare, and it was where all the poets had lived, or at least the ones I thought I liked. I knew I couldn’t go to Middle-earth, but England was really there, and the thought of the things I could say there and see there, how my real self could emerge there — not the bundle of nerves and sarcasm I was carrying around like a sack — saw me through the occasional math class. 

Later, like everybody else, I discovered Monty Python and Douglas Adams and realized that England was the last place to look to escape either nerves or sarcasm. But some part of that feeling — an island with castles — must have stuck.2 At least enough for me to be hit medium-hard by the fact that I’d gotten off the airplane and immediately gone down in a whirlpool of double-decker buses.3

Well, things were looking up. But I still hadn’t been to Centre Court, and I needed to ninja-conjure a way in, fast. I’d had a lead on a TV commentary booth no one was using, don’t ask how I got it,4 and late in the day the Apparatus finally came through: I got the passcode to the inner door off the gangway high up in the stadium. (Dream logic. Don’t question it, I thought.) I memorized it, swallowed the secret message it arrived in, and scrambled up there, Psychometry Turtles in place. To get where I was going you have to climb the outer stadium steps all the way to the top, way up in the parapets, then dodge lost or bathroom-seeking fans down a long hallway full of semi-soundproof rooms reserved for TV announcers. The one I was looking for was a couple of doors down from where the main ESPN commentators call the games.

The passcode worked. The door opened. I got my first, glassed-in view of the most famous court in tennis.

There was Andy Murray, destroying Nikolay Davydenko. The window looked down over the crowd right under the line of the roof — unobstructed view, high up, at a slight angle from the classic TV shot aligned with the royal box. Perfect. If Centre Court was a skull, these were the eyes. There were a bunch of fidgety 1980s-looking electronic hookups and two TV monitors in my booth. Because of the way the roof and the shadow of the roof lined up, the court looked like the glowing far end of a tunnel, a bright rectangle at the bottom of a long dark slope made of the backs of people’s heads.

There was one other guy in here, a couple of booths down, a forlorn-sounding Croatian commentator who was calling the match by himself.

And so far, fingers crossed, my passcode has kept working. I’ve been able to see everything on Centre Court for the last couple of days, mostly a progression of forgettable early-round matches that have still been pretty mesmerizing to me. I watched Federer glide past Fognini; watched Murray put down Davydenko and then struggle with the 6-foot-10 God of Serves, Ivo Karlovic; watched Clijsters beat Hlavackova; and I watched Serena Williams (oh my God) take apart Melinda Czink. I have taken my shoes off. I have made myself at home. I have gone to the Carphone Warehouse5 on High Street, where Mohammad helped me find a SIM card that worked. I have figured out how to get the Wimbledon press-booth TV monitors to play soccer games. In the muffled distance, at all times, there has been a quiet drone of Croatian commentary, sometimes German commentary or Dutch commentary instead.

The weird thing is that although I’m lodged in the deep heart’s core of the Apparatus — a TV commentary booth! — I have a much weaker sense of THE TOURNAMENT as a totality than I do when I’m watching on TV. I barely know what’s happened on Courts 2 and 3, or what the big story lines are.6 It just feels like I’m in a place, which is interesting. How often are you entirely, even mostly, where you are? Periodically tennis players come out and play tennis in the place, and I like it when this happens. Information is undoubtedly raging all around me, but most of it passes me by. In the commentary booth, I would have to be the source of the information, and I’m (hoo boy) not commentating.

I’ve gotten fascinated, up there, by the military rigor and apparently inexhaustible numbers of the ballboys and ballgirls. Watching them change shifts is like watching a North Korean ballet. I think they may be a sleeper paramilitary force, built to stop the security guards come the revolution. I’m 99 percent sure they will win.

I saw Nadal lose. It was extraordinary, even given that Rafa is sometimes weaker in the early rounds of Wimbledon than the late ones (because the grass hasn’t slowed down yet). He came out looking so energetic and purposeful that I compared watching him to the first time I saw broadband Internet. I mean, Rafa  was coiled. He looked like a hunting tiger when he went to get a towel; when he was serving, he looked like something that hunts a tiger. But Rosol just would not spook, even after losing the first-set tiebreak 9-11, even after letting Rafa back in the match by dropping the fourth 2-6. I’ve gotten so used to Rafa being knocked back and then drawing on that deep inner lava flow that makes him who he is and then sneer-serving his way to total razing victory that it simply never occurred to me, even during the stress of most of the fifth set, that he would lose. But Rosol, ranked 100th or so in the world, playing in the main event at Wimbledon for the first time, coming off five straight years of first-round Wimbledon qualifying-tournament losses … Rosol just would. Not. Spook.

The serves kept cracking. Sometimes you catch a break. At one point, I think in the third set, Rafa sprinted at the net after a serve, and Rosol’s return wrong-footed him, and he fell awkwardly, with his legs splayed in unpleasant directions, and took a long time getting up. He went back (slowly) to the baseline, then tried to do a little bob-and-weave to get his juices flowing, only right after he started he stopped and just stood there with his head down. It was the first time I could remember seeing Rafa look like raw determination was failing him.

On principle, I switched my Wimbledon TV monitor to the Germany-Italy Euro 2012 semifinal. I glanced at it every now and again. The fans outside my little hiding place kept peering in through the glass to see the score. But we all kept going back to the tennis match in front of us. I’m a Nadal fan, don’t get me wrong, but it was amazing to see Rosol, this guy out of nowhere, going toe to toe with the most implacable machine in tennis. And the best thing about a great live sporting event is that when it’s happening, there’s no place better — I mean there’s no place you’d rather be.

Filed Under: Art, Events, General topics, Recap, TV, Wimbledon

Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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