The Death’s-head of Wimbledon, Part 4

The Friendly Outlaws

Leon Neal/AFP/GettyImages Roger Federer

The Death’s-head of Wimbledon, Part 5

The triumph of Federer and the end of everything else

Prior installments: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

I have seen tennis played on the greenest lawns I have ever seen anywhere. I have watched ivy ruffle in multiple types of gentle, tickling breezes. I have eaten (by my quick count) 24 helpings of totally overrated and not-worth-your-money strawberries and cream. I have been rained on lightly (2,648 times) and very hard (once). I have gazed on banks of cloud so monumentally dramatic they should have been topped by the horses from the Brandenburg Gate. I have checked my e-mail under an arcade roofed by baskets of purple flowers. I have apologized to cameramen of every size, creed, race, and nationality for turning a corner and nearly crashing into their cameras. I have sat with the crowd on Henman Hill and joined the fans cheering themselves cheering themselves cheering themselves on TV.

I have watched 19-year-old boys unself-consciously drink champagne for breakfast. I have been seated in the same stadium as royalty and Jeremy Piven. I have seen herringbone, gingham, camel’s-hair, crepe de chine, Prince of Wales check, nubuck, tortoiseshell, and so many pairs of Ray-Ban Wayfarers that I have forgotten what human eyes look like. I have heard Dixieland jazz being enthusiastically approximated by an English tennis-club cocktail-bar quintet. I have sat five yards away from some of the world’s greatest tennis players minutes after they emerged from the shower. I have watched Novak Djokovic joke around with the Serbian press in Serbian. I have made eye contact with Maria Sharapova, and she did not burst into flames.

They played a final at Wimbledon. Did you catch it? Roger Federer beat Andy Murray. It was beautiful.

I wound up watching the match from a different Centre Court commentary booth,1 an ESPN box that had been used to call matches earlier in the tournament but was now lying idle. This was a sort of ghost booth of unused printers and headsets and obscure sound equipment and loose bundles of cabling and packets of cards each with a sponsor promo printed in big type: We welcome you to the Championships at Wimbledon, presented by Rolex. Let’s take a look at the gentlemen’s draw, brought to you by Mercedes-Benz. Time now for our IBM Courtcast. A couple of other writer types and camera guys showed up later, but when I got there the only living being in the place was Pam, a funny, plump, Scottish “assistant sound person” who told me gleefully, “Jes’ clear a pew for yourself an’ have a seat. There’s no one commentatin’ from in here today. We can cheer as much as we like!”

“You sound like you’re here to cheer for Federer,” I deadpanned.

“Am not. It’s lucky for you I left my Scottish flag at home. I almost brought it!”

Outside the window there was the steep downward slope of the crowd and then the green, green court: brown blotches scrawled into the baselines, spindly umpire’s chair with its heavy rubber tires, honor guard of ball kids, the whole thing looking weirdly fragile, as always.

I’m assuming you’ll already have seen Breakfast at Wimbledon (Presented by U.S. Trust, Promo No. 25), and so you’ll already know the main stories and narratives of the match. How Andy Murray was bidding to be the first British winner of the men’s singles title in 76 years. How Roger Federer was playing for his seventh Wimbledon title, his 17th major overall, and the no. 1 men’s ranking — which, having seen “Setting the Standard” (Brought to You by Cadillac, Promo No. 22), you’ll know he’d previously held for 285 weeks, leaving him one week short of Pete Sampras’s record 286. How Federer had startlingly beaten the then-world no. 1, Djokovic, in four sets in the semifinals. (I was there, gaping.) How the Wimbledon crowd, really the whole United Kingdom, had rallied around Murray. How Murray had hired the stone-faced tennis great Ivan Lendl to help him get over the hump. How Murray had made three previous Grand Slam tournament finals, including two against Federer, and never won a set.

And since you’ve seen “Tournament Update” (Brought to You by IBM, Promo No. 19), you’ll already know what happened: how Murray broke Federer in the first game of the first set, then went on to win that set, 6-4. How Federer overcame a shaky second serve (“Match Stats,” Brought to You by IBM, Promo No. 18) to take gradual control of the second set, breaking Murray on the last game to win 7-5 after a 20-shot rally finished off by a drop volley so lovely it made your breath catch in your chest. How a rain delay (“Around Wimbledon,” Brought to You by Mercedes-Benz, Promo No. 15) necessitated the closing of the Centre Court roof, a turn of events that probably helped Federer, a lethal indoor player who hasn’t lost under a roof since 2010 (“Power Performance,” Brought to You by U.S. Trust, Promo No. 20). How Federer made a series of staggering shots in the third and fourth sets while Murray repeatedly slipped, crashed, fell, and otherwise went to ground. How Murray’s serve deserted him. How Murray fought valiantly with the crowd behind him, but simply lost to a better player, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4. And how Federer got 17/7/1, and how records were shattered, etc.

So — since I’m hardly out to bore you by recounting stuff you already know — what I want to tell you about is the sound of the tennis balls. The monitors in the box were all turned to an ESPN feed that was not on the broadcast-standard five-second delay, and since no one was commentatin’ from in here today, the volume was turned up. The crowd outside our window, cheering for Murray, overwhelmed the monitors’ speakers. But during the points, the pock, pock of the ball being struck was just about too faint to penetrate the glass. So I watched the Wimbledon final live while hearing it through TV speakers. (The Sound of Wimbledon, brought to you by THE APPARATUS.) I tried to plot out exactly what was happening to the sound after it left the players’ rackets and before I heard it, seemingly in real time — how many miles of cabling it ran through, how far out in space, etc. — but Federer kept hitting massive-topspin volleys that exploded right in the corners, and I lost track.

And the other thing I wanted to tell you about was Pam. Pam and I were in different booths (why not, when we had so much room?), so I could hear her but not see her, and let me tell you: Pam was not kidding about cheering as much as we liked. Her characteristic cheer, whenever Murray won a point, was this sort of raucous, piratical “yrrrrrrahhh!,” as though she’d just clean-and-jerked, say, 400 pounds successfully. I was rooting for Federer, who’s my favorite tennis player ever, but rooting for Federer tends to be an exercise in, like, 19th-century sensibility; it’s a quiet, abstract, inwardly transported sort of state. Pam was pounding the table and roaring “Andy!!” and urging “C’mon, Muzzah!!” and, when he started losing, saying stuff like, “He’s done sew well. I’m prewd of him. Just, what can you do when Federer’s playing like that?”

I liked Pam so extremely much, and her responses were so emphatic, that it was hard not to get carried away. When Murray gave his tearful speech after accepting the silver runner’s-up plate … well, again, I couldn’t see Pam. But there were some pretty wrenched-sounding squeaks from her booth, and I’m pretty sure those were Pam sobbing.

The winter after my grandparents drowned, it seemed too bleak to do Christmas at home without them, so we all, my mom’s extended family and us, packed up and went to Disney World, a trip that seems so much crazier now when I reflect that my sister and I were the only kids in the group. (When I was 9 it seemed to make total sense that childless aunts and uncles in their 30s would book it to the Magic Kingdom whenever they got the chance.) Anyway, it was a great trip, one of those childhood getaways that feels like a reprieve from some big, dark thing that you can’t name or even exactly think about. When we went to Epcot, I remember, I was fixated on the idea of going to this restaurant, the Rose & Crown, I think it was called (it’s probably still there; I can’t bring myself to Google it), which had nothing going for it except that it was English, an English pub, and what I thought an “English pub” was I have no idea, but it probably involved, I’m guessing, Merlin. I was 9, you know? It didn’t even occur to me that my urge to go to this costumey pub had anything to do with my grandmother’s feeling for England.

Well, before we could eat we of course had to ride the rides, I mean the Epcot rides, which at that point were (and maybe still are) right on the continuum between “film credits” and “grocery shopping” in terms of entertainment value. Also in terms of aesthetics, come to think of it. I have the vaguest memory of inching through Spaceship Earth in the slowest ride-car of all time, watching what looked like department-store mannequins go through the motions of making toast on the moon, or whatever. “Harnessing the power of Science” — dry authoritative smoker’s newsreel baritone — “it will one day be possible for our mothers and wives to iron a pair of trousers in just five-eighths of the time.” There was a room in which, I think, they were growing plants upside-down? Even today I feel like an hour in that place would leave me pretty excited to leave for a burger restaurant.

Anyway, the theme of all this tedium was THE INFORMATION AGE. Newsreel baritone: “Having passed through the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Steam Age, Age of Vacuum Tubes, and Space Age” (I don’t know, but I kind of remember the exhibit plumping for its own unique historiography), “the March of Progress now leads Man into the INFORMATION AGE, when data itself shall be both currency and building block for a new century of human achievement.” The idea, I guess, was that with our limitless supplies of rocket ships and fossil fuels, we were passing into a new world full of Matrix code and spaceless communication and telepathy and math. And that this would somehow — I really remember this being the focus — improve the dishwashing process in ways you simply couldn’t yet fathom.

Well, I spent the afternoon wanting to get out of the Information Age and into whatever medieval-pastoral refuge I thought the English pub would be. (I think I enjoyed it, once we got there, although that was probably on the last day of the trip, when I was going to enjoy it no matter what.) I saw England, in a weird way, as the opposite of information. And of course the INFORMATION AGE turned out not to be boring at all; it turned out to be wickedly fascinating, just also searing and chaotic and exhausting, and with regular dishwashers. And I’ve of course known better than to think England was exempt from chaos or speed for a long time — I watch soccer, I’ve read Dickens — but looking at the TV coverage of Wimbledon, all hydrangeas and greenery and maybe the occasional red double-decker bus headed someplace totally obvious and correct, I realize that I came over here stupidly wanting to keep seeing England in those terms. As a kind of relief.

I keep thinking about the loneliness of tennis. You know what I mean? That sense that, like empires, tennis players have nothing to draw on but their own internal resources. It’s probably the same for, I don’t know, divers, boxers maybe — although divers aren’t facing a single opponent and boxers aren’t facing one from so isolatingly far away. Tennis players are their own little worlds. All I know is, and I’m sorry if this sounds gawkily romantic, when I look at the eyes of ex-great tennis players I tend to see something haunted, something one degree removed, that isn’t there when I look at old NBA stars or soccer greats. (Again: boxers, maybe.) Think about Agassi’s loyal, wounded stare, or Sampras’s look of constantly tolerating everything. McEnroe’s restlessness, Borg’s airtight veneer. Of all the greats, only Billie Jean King strikes me as naturally plugged-in and happy. I suspect that the lovers of great tennis players are acquainted with the sounds of bad dreams.

There’s an obvious explanation for this: Tennis is uniquely individually demanding, requires endless, punishing, inward-focused practice, places the player’s skill in an unforgiving spotlight (no teammates, at least in singles; no coaching, at least by the rules). Tennis literally maroons you out there. The players who excel are the ones who figure out how to survive when they’re marooned. And for the ones who figure that out, it’s never the same when they go back to society.

There’s another explanation, though, which has been occurring to me more and more insistently since I’ve been going to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. And that is that tennis is a profound form of sanity. That its beautiful geometries, its exchanges that draw observers in, offer a way of experiencing the physical world at a lucid distance from the anarchy of culture or identity (or whatever). That most of us never escape that anarchy, or escape it just for brief moments with the aid of music or sports or art or drugs (or whatever), which is why we crowd the edges of tennis tournaments, pile onto the hill, watch giant video monitors. Why we buy Wimbledon-branded oven mitts, why we need the Apparatus.

But if you’ve actually played at that level? I mean, what would that look like? Again, I’m sorry if this is romantic, but I can’t help but thinking that, to the best players, it must feel as if they’ve approached some cold, beautiful, peaceful, abstract plane that melted away from them at the instant they touched it, leaving them marooned for a second time, so to speak. (Don’t castaways often miss the islands they’ve been saved from?) How can anyone else understand the experience of reaching out toward that plane? In this sense I imagine that being a great tennis player feels like being an astronaut who’s come back from outer space.

Federer touched that plane on Sunday. It was more than just winning the title. That’s what I wanted to say.

But it’s so fragile, tennis! I mean, it’s so silly, basically. I have been a completely inadequate Wimbledon correspondent, and even I noticed when the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club’s P.A. announcer came on to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, your attention, please. There is a 30 percent chance that it is now raining.” The kidnapped hawk, the Centre Court roof, and Roger Federer all have fake Twitter accounts that are only intermittently as funny as the actual Wimbledon Twitter account, @Wimbledon, which I suspect has a better sense of humor about Wimbledon than does Jeremy Piven. I’ve hardly understood a single thing that’s happened since I’ve been here. Why, the other night I wandered into the actual English pub next to my hotel for a burger and a drink, and there was some sort of American-themed costume party going on — all sorts of Marilyns and Duff Men and Top Gun jet aces, that sort of thing — and I was wearing a shirt with the name of an obscure Italian soccer club on it, and I got pitying looks for not being comically American enough!

YOU HAVE NO IDEA, I wanted to scream, but it was only a blink from that moment to the dark-blue Sunday evening when I had left the All England Club for the last time, taken the 93 to South Wimbledon Station, and started walking toward my last bus stop in Wimbledon. And it just started pouring. I mean the sky just, like, unzipped. The sort of London rain that warps in vague gray curtains and hits the pavement so hard the pavement looks like it’s boiling. It was suddenly freezing cold. There was mist everywhere. The bus stop was a block away. Too late to get out my umbrella. I just ran, and I got drenched as I ran, got utterly drenched as I ran to catch my final bus in Wimbledon, past the green pub and the minicab stand and the darkened hairdressers’ and the Lebanese place and the sewing-machine shop whose window boasts about thousands of satisfied customers.

Filed Under: Art, Events, General topics, People, Roger Federer, Wimbledon

Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ runofplay