FROM THE STOOL

WIMBLEDON 2001 - WHY THE SUN HAS SET FOREVER ON THE BRITISH EMPIRE

Prince Charles declared last week his intention to add back "Great" to Britain. My very recent observation indicates an uphill battle of epic proportion. The U.S., a former colony, established its position as the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth less than 200 years after sending the Red Coats home.

While we continue to speak their language and share a similar approach to the rule of law and individual rights, Americans are the most results oriented people on earth, the British value form and process over substance every time. Mary and I just attended the last six days of Wimbledon 2001 which illustrates clearly the difference between the British approach and all others.

Wimbledon is the Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup of tennis. The All England Club, the venue since its inception. Centre Court Wimbledon, the most famous court in the world. The only major event still played on grass. One hundred and twenty-four players compete in the gentlemen's and ladies singles, and championships are awarded in men's and women's doubles, mixed doubles, over thirty-five men's, women's and mixed doubles, and junior singles for both boys and girls.

The club houses two large stadiums (centre court and court one), seventeen outside courts, a museum, a number of retail stores, restaurants, and a huge outdoor TV screen which shows stadium matches to the unticketed masses.

Wimbledon is located in a small suburb of London. The enormous number of players, fans, journalist, and support staff brings the town each year to its knees.

July weather is notoriously unpredictable with major temperature changes and intermittent rain a given. A minute of drizzle renders a grass court unplayable. Notwithstanding there are no covered courts, retractable roofs, no lights to enable extending play when the weather is good, and a complete unwillingness to schedule any play before 1:00 p.m., finals before 2:00 p.m.

Court One and Centre Court tickets are among the hardest to obtain and costliest in all of sport. Tickets are sold separately for each day through World Sports, the officially sanctioned agency of the All England Club, which then deals with affiliated Grand Slam Tour Groups throughout the world. Packages can include hotel accommodations and courtside hospitality tents.

What they don't mention is their approach to rain delays and cancellations. Last week one of the men's semi-finals between hometown hero Tim Henman and eventual winner Goran Ivanisevic took three days to complete. Half the match on Friday, called because of darkness, thirty-five minutes on Saturday, called because of rain (weather was excellent before 1:00 p.m.) and completed on Sunday.

This necessitated moving the ladies finals from Saturday to Sunday and the men's from Sunday to Monday. All people holding astronomically expensive Centre Court Sunday tickets for the gentlemen's finals forfeited any right of rain check, first refusal, or refund with the only option to get into the line which started forming early Saturday morning, pitch a tent, and fight for one of the ten thousand seats which went on sale Monday morning.

I suspect that the Club members, debenture holders, and the Royal box crowd were unaffected. Perhaps the blatant double dipping is necessary to offset the loss of primetime live TV coverage around the world.

While the atmosphere which surrounds the tournament is charming, with the absence of corporate suites, billboard advertising, overhead blimps and banner dragging planes no amount of strawberries and cream, fresh baked scones, or Pimm's No. 1, compensates for their archaic approach to running the tournament.

Sometime in the late Fifties it was determined to put chairs, two for each player, courtside to provide a place to sit down during the brief prescribed rest periods. Only at Wimbledon are the chairs placed back to back on each side of the umpire stand in spite of the fact that all players, except Venus Williams, sit facing the court. Before play begins, chairs are rearranged. Only the All England Club would fail to notice this after 50 years.

The lines men and women, while beautifully dressed, are surprisingly inept. Few, if any, look like tennis players, most old and overweight. Very bad calls abound. I have finally come to believe that John McEnroe may have had some justification for his boorish behavior during the years he competed for the Crown.

Andre Agassi lost his semi-final match to Pat Rafter suffering one of the worst line calls in Wimbledon history while serving for the match during a closely contested fifth set. The umpire failed to overrule an "in" call on a Rafter hit ball clearly six inches out, very likely costing Agassi the match. After gathering himself he apparently, under his breath, expressed his deepest thoughts. Just as Rafter prepared to serve, a lines lady behind Agassi stopped play, walked over to the umpire and reported an audible verbal obscenity that apparently no one heard but this defender of the hallowed All England Club. The umpire issued an audible verbal obscenity warning. Andre never recovered and lost the match.

The ultimate anachronism, from my perspective, is the memory of Goran, the Croatian madman, after bellowing a victory roar, ripping off his shirt and throwing it into the crowd (frowned upon heavily by the All England Club) standing bare chested on his rearranged chair celebrating his victory, only a second later to stand meekly and bow to some assembled royalty in a fashion as totally out of step for a Western democracy in 2001 as the wigs still worn by their barristers. There may not always be an England.