Serena Williams’ tiny Navy blue tennis skirt flutters in the wind, rising dangerously high.
A fan whistles. The entire crowd giggles.
She doesn’t flinch. Then she serves the ball hard, deep and straight down the middle. It looks like an ace, though it is later ruled out. The crowd, put in its place, responds with an appreciative ooh.
This is tennis at Wimbledon. It’s a setting so intimate a crowd of 15,000 can share an inside joke, yet so Romanesque that Williams and Russia’s Maria Sharapova, whom she beat 6-0, 6-1 for the 2012 Olympic women’s tennis singles gold medal Saturday afternoon, can only be described as gladiatorial.
The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Club was the crown in my list of must-visit Olympic venues. I’m not tennis fanatic, but there are some sporting venues that, if given the chance, one needs to go out of her way to see. They are the ones with history, esteem and intrigue. Wimbledon has it all.
In fact, the man in line behind me as I prepared to go through the full airport-security scan required of anyone visiting an Olympic venue – but which he said is unheard of at The Championships — offered that Wimbledon was the best presented, best orchestrated sporting event he’d ever been to. To go with his British accent he was wearing a Team GB polo shirt and an Olympic credential, but that didn’t mean he was an expert.
He did, however, know what he was talking about.
From the outside, the venue isn’t particularly special. A giant green Wenlock, the Olympic mascot, made from succulents stood out as the most striking feature. Walk inside Centre Court, though, and you feel like you’re walking into Shakespeare’s Globe or an open-air sister of the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. It’s almost as cozy as a dinner party, with nary a bad seat in the house.
Yet that’s not the first thing I noticed after waiting for what seemed like forever for a point to be scored so the ushers would to let us up the steps to our seat. Williams’ ripped physique commanded my attention the moment I walked through my gate. Already on court, she had her hair banded up in a mane and prowled the backline like a lioness, in her navy, white and red tank and tennis skirt. Her taut muscles were ready to spring and her enraged glare was trained on Sharapova, who more closely resembled an obstinate antelope.
“She’s playing incredibly confident tennis, ever since she won Wimbledon,” Sharapova later said. “Even against the wind today, her shots were very powerful.”
It wasn’t until I settled into my seat that I noticed the sounds: Sharapova’s signature shriek, the “Huh!” call of the ref when a hit went long, the soft thump of a racquet-dribbled ball and the scuff of a shoe as Williams served. And there was the lack of sound, the startlingly quiet hush that settled over the crowd before each serve. Even libraries don’t get this quiet.
The crowd had a role in this drama, and every member played it well. So attentive were they to their roles and the action in front of them that few people ate or drank during the performance, except for the occasional glass of pseudo-Pimms.
Speaking of which, this was not the Wimbledon that appears lush and green on TV every summer. Purple banners bearing Olympic rings covered the venue, including over the Centre Court sign and the large Rolex clock, because neither are official sponsors of the Games. Even Pimms, the vodka-like drink associated with The Championships, has been removed, only to be replaced by a very similar, non-branded version called No. 1 Cup. A far as I could tell, though, the strawberries and cream didn’t bear the logos of McDonald’s or Coca-Cola.
That didn’t take anything away from my experience, which Williams made even better with her historic win. The five-time and reigning Wimbledon champion added her first singles Olympic gold.
“I have singles, doubles, actually everything there is to win in tennis,” she later said. “Where do I go from here?”
Even when the American flag slowly fluttered to the floor after it came untacked while being raised during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner in honor of Williams, I had to gasp and then chuckle.
It was just another piece of history for this place, and I got to be a part of it, along with about 15,000 of my new friends