x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Well worth the racket

Sarah Bridge reminisces about growing up near the All England Club in Wimbledon.

Strawberries and cream on Centre Court at the All England Club, home of the Wimbledon Championships.
Strawberries and cream on Centre Court at the All England Club, home of the Wimbledon Championships.

For most of the year, the uppermost part of the leafy London suburb with the SW19 postcode is a beautifully calm and peaceful place to explore. There are smart cafes and restaurants, a smattering of interesting clothes shops, historic coaching houses, a large and sprawling common with several ponds, a picturesque windmill and a station where trains will whisk you into the heart of London in less than 20 minutes.

But for two weeks of every year, the bucolic calm is shattered as every day thousands of people arrive up the hill from the station by bus, taxi or on foot, with just one thing on their minds: tennis. For this is Wimbledon village, home of the All England Lawn ­Tennis and Croquet Club, where each year the world's top tennis players and thousands of fans ­gather to see who will be proclaimed Wimbledon Champion and master of the grass court game.

Even for those SW19 inhabitants not interested in tennis, the signs that Wimbledon fortnight has ­begun are hard to miss: restaurants erect huge marquees in their gardens to cope with the crowds, special "Wimbledon tennis" menus are created, shops and cafes sport names like "Hand and Racquet", "Matches" and "Volleys" and even the fast food restaurants hang tennis racquets and balls in their windows to show their enthusiasm for the games which are being battled out just down the road. Growing up in Wimbledon always felt like a very special privilege. There was firstly the ­kudos of being able to say, whenever you were abroad on holiday, that you lived in Wimbledon, rather than saying London as residents of anonymous suburbs would have to do - Wimbledon was a place known all over the world, it seemed.

Then there was the sense of being part of history. Wimbledon tennis only moved to its current location in 1922; the Championships actually began life in 1877 down the hill in a field off Worple Road, nowadays the location of my school's playing fields where every Wednesday ­afternoon I would play hockey and, in the summertime, tennis. A plaque near the changing rooms marked the historic significance of the site and as a child it was always fun, if slightly misleading, to claim that you often played tennis in Wimbledon.

As soon as we were old enough, my friends and I made a beeline for the grounds straight after school. If you waited outside the gates, people who were leaving for the day would pass on their tickets to you: at 4pm on a balmy June evening you could reasonably expect to see three hours of play and if you were really lucky, you might be given tickets to No. 1 or even Centre Court. Even if you just scored a ticket to the grounds it was well worth it. There were, as now, 17 outside courts which I happily wandered around, catching glimpses of the stars of tomorrow, including a young Boris Becker. The atmosphere of Wimbledon is unlike any other sporting arena. The crowd is polite and civilised, calm in the inevitable queues, and sharing a love for the game as well as all the Wimbledon traditions: strawberries and cream and the occasional rain shower. Large scoreboards outside the main two courts keep the outside folk updated on every single point. Often, a huge crowd would gather during a particularly crucial moment in play to watch the scores tick over. Not being able to see a thing, they would feel every point being played, guided by the audible "oohs" and "ahs" of the crowd ­inside and the thunderous applause after each point which would be matched by the waiting fans once the scoreboard had shown who had triumphed.

One night, carried away by the ­atmosphere, I stayed late with a friend, exploring all the places where the public were not normally allowed. To our surprise we found ourselves inside Centre Court and even dared to stroll on the hallowed turf. A security guard and a ferocious-looking dog soon materialised out of the gloaming and ­escorted us firmly but politely, off the premises. I couldn't be kept away for long though, and worked as a waitress in one of many restaurants at Wimbledon, serving lobster to corporate hospitality guests and hulling strawberries between sittings. My friends were all working there too; as dishwashers, scorers, even compiling statistics on each lob, serve and volley for the official records. After two weeks of gruelling days and long hours we would collapse in a heap and look forward to the following year.

However, visitors to Wimbledon who rush from their hotels to the tennis court and back again are missing out. There is much more to Wimbledon than the tennis: the sprawling acres of Wimbledon Common - where the world's furriest ecowarriers, the Wombles, live - are a perfect antidote to the city, while local stables hire out horses for riding along the miles of bridle paths. Away from the tournament, the All England tennis museum is a must for any fan, and the shops and restaurants of Wimbledon Village would be the boast of much bigger towns.

Wimbledon is divided into two parts: the Village, at the top of ­Wimbledon Hill, which is ­decidedly more upmarket, and the main town of Wimbledon at the bottom of the hill, where the main High Street shops and station is located, as well as the tennis players' favourite restaurant, San Lorzeno, where they replenish their energy levels each night with huge bowls of pasta. Yes, here is much more ­Wimbledon than tennis, but for two weeks in June, nothing else exists except for the perfectly manicured grass courts and there is no point in fighting it.