In order to get to Wimbledon, you take a District line train all the way out to Southfields tube station and then walk for a while.
Newbies get this wrong (hand up) and go to Wimbledon station instead. On a hot day, that’s a hike you won’t forget.
Southfields isn’t a big station. It’s hardly even a station. It’s an outdoor platform and a single flight of stairs. At certain points during the tournament, you might have as many as 20,000 people going through there in an hour. It’s a real feat of logistics.
Once you get into the horde heading to the station, your brain tends to turn off. It’s not like you have much choice at that point.
So you’re standing at the stoplight directly across from the station entrance one day in a throng of people. You glance right and see a woman in a cashmere caftan beside you. This is odd. The Wimbledon attendee’s uniform is an ankle-length sundress patterned like your grandmother’s curtains and a pair of Chuck Taylors.
The woman in the caftan – which looks both too warm and too expensive – is trying to corral a child. She looks vaguely familiar. A second child is holding a man’s hand beside her. The man is in a matchy-matchy tracksuit. Again, not the right clothes for this place. He’s got his back to you, but there’s something familiar about him, too. Maybe it’s the hair.
He turns slightly to the left into profile and you realize it’s Novak Djokovic.
So here we are, several hundred tennis fans coming from the tennis huddled alongside the soon-to-be Wimbledon champion. And does anyone else recognize him? Of course not.
Djokovic crosses the street with you. You pause to make sure you haven’t gotten this wrong. Nope, it’s absolutely him. He and his family stop at the map outside the station. He puts a finger on it and, like any other tourist, begins to trace the route to his destination. This super-famous kajillionaire is evidently about to take the subway to God knows where.
A small tabloid tempest erupted last week over Serena Williams. She missed a Centre Court celebration of former champions despite remaining in London after her first-round elimination. It was suggested she did so in a fit of pique because the All England Club took away the five courtesy Range Rovers at her disposal once she was knocked out.
Instead of taking one of his five Range Rovers, Djokovic is getting ready to risk the District line at rush hour. That is the magic of Wimbledon.
The best of sports events are enormous on TV and small in person. No place in the world does this better than Wimbledon.
This is not to say the scale is small or that your flat screen improves the aesthetics. Wimbledon live is twice as good as Wimbledon in two dimensions. Everything is just so, every detail perfect, every interaction top-class. Aside from Augusta National, no place I’ve ever been has so overdelivered on its televisual promise.
What’s small is the atmosphere.
At Wimbledon, you’ll be bopping along in a crowd and, oh hey, there’s Petra Kvitova walking to practice. She’s maybe got a retainer with her to help with the bags and one security guy clearing a path. But if you say something to her, she will hear you and she will say something back.
People are more likely to ask for pictures (they paid enough to get in here), and players are more likely to say yes (no one wants to be that guy). That they’re dressed head-to-toe in white makes them visible from acres away.
Aside from Centre Court, there are no secret passageways to anywhere. If you’ve got a match on Court 12, you have to cut through the crowd to get there. It’s a long walk and a big crowd.
Once you get there, the players’ entrance isn’t some VIP set-up. It’s one guy pulling back a curtain and, boom, you’re on the court. The people sitting courtside go through the same curtain.
You wouldn’t call a place this opulent democratic. It’s as plutocratic as it gets. The real stars of Wimbledon are the members and their guests in the Royal Box.
But Wimbledon retains the spirit of another age, before the full commodification of celebrity had been achieved. It is one of those unusual places where the distance between the performer and the viewer has human dimensions. The two of you can look at each other without awe necessarily getting in the way.
Maybe that’s why the Wimbledon crowd is so empowered to make its feelings known. At every match, there’s always some donut who won’t stop yelling – and a thousand more dignified people shushing him.
This isn’t a hockey game. There is no dancercize soundtrack during timeouts. When you yell, the players and everyone else can hear what you’re saying.
The “700 drinks” woman made famous by Nick Kyrgios in the final told a local rag she was just “trying to encourage him.” This is how things go wrong.
Also, it may be the booze. There is a strange sort of bacchanalian gentility at play here that strikes you as very British. On Sunday, as I was going through the metal detectors at 10 a.m., a security guy picked a half-full glass of Pimm’s out of an abandoned tray and said, “A drink. Someone forgot their drink.” A woman in an ankle-length sundress and Chuck Taylors hurried back to retrieve it.
They hold the tournament for tennis. But out on the grounds, the point is conviviality. At times, the tennis seems like nothing more than an excuse for a party.
It costs a bundle, and you cannot acquire tickets beforehand for love nor money. But if you take the District line down to Southfields and line up and take your chances, who knows? You may get lucky. And then lucky again on the way back home.