It only lasts a short while before the frenzy of Wimbledon takes over, but the last two or three days of practice at the All England Club are like no others during the entire year.
Players are happily tuning up on the practice courts at Aorangi Park or on the main match courts at the All England Club, no one has yet lost a match and almost everyone is in a sunny, optimistic frame of mind.
This is all magnified by the pastoral presence of the grass courts. Basically only played on for five weeks a year, they have a much softer, more welcoming feel than clay or hard courts.
At other times of the year, you won’t find players taking a break from practice to loll around on the grass as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are doing above.
Wimbledon is located in a leafy, green London suburb that has a village feel, and all the verdant foliage around the All England Club almost suggests a country setting. The picture below is of the Aorangi practice courts, located at the top of the grounds just beyond Henman Hill where hundreds of spectators recline during the tournament to watch matches on the giant screen.
On the few days leading up to The Championships, as they still are rather grandly referred to by some in England, access to the grounds is limited to players and their support groups, workers, club officials, media types and various stragglers who make their way onto the grounds.
It’s a short saunter to and from the practice courts to the men’s and women’s locker rooms along the pathway above known as St. Mary’s Walk – that’s Andy Murray with his racquet bag pictured here.
Unlike any other time of the year in tennis, you can actually smell the court surface – the immaculate lawns giving off a scent of freshly-cut grass.
The players moving around the grounds, or congregating as they do up at Aorangi Park before and after practice – i.e. the French group at the top here that includes Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon – are usually in a good and decidedly social moods.
All the top players have their teams around them and there’s a ritual of the players and the coaches shaking hands at the end of each practice session – as can be seen here last year with Milos Raonic and Boris Becker and Novak Djokovic and Ivan Ljubicic.
Aorangi Park, adjacent the All England Club, was originally purchased in 1967, and leased to the New Zealand Sports and Social Club. The All England Club repossessed the land in 1982 but it kept its original Maori name Aorangi, which means “Cloud in the Sky.”
The dress code is fairly lax on the 22 Aorangi practice courts but the white rule applies for players using any of the actual Club courts, the ones used for the tournament.
An example of that was last year on the Saturday before Wimbledon began when Raonic and Vasek Pospisil (far side above) practiced on Court 12 dressed in proper white attire.
The picture here, with David Ferrer in foreground on Court 4 with Spanish compatriot Pablo Andujar, shows a reverse angle of the main outside courts looking out toward No. 2 Court stadium in the background.
Players have varying degrees of intensity in their final few practice sessions. Some just hit the ball back and forth at a comfortable pace to get their feel and timing on grass, others go at it with a match-like intensity. A year ago on Court 18, the famous Isner-Mahut court, Genie Bouchard and Victoria Azarenka (above) went full-out for one set, won 6-3 by the Belarussian. But it just goes to show how practice results aren’t that significant – a few days later Azarenka went out in the second round while Bouchard made it all the way to the final.
Competitors at Wimbledon wear the “dimpled” footwear, as illustrated in the picture above of one of Daniel Nestor’s shoes.
It was interesting a few years ago to hear a coach say that players should only wear the shoes with those nubs on them when they’re actually on the grass courts. He was making the point that, if players walk to the courts in those shoes on pavement or concrete, the dimples will sort of be squashed every time they take a step, rendering them flatter and not as useful for traction on the grass.
That grass, 8 mm rye grass, is Wimbledon’s distinctive feature – and a way of harking back to the courts on the nearby Worple Road grounds where the first Wimbledon was held in 1877.
There have only been eight ‘Head Groundsmen’ since 1888 and they, along with 16 permanent members of the grounds staff, are in charge of preserving the integrity of the hallowed Wimbledon lawns.
Robert Twynam was head groundsman from 1967 to 1976. He was a white-haired, colourful character who had a folksy way of referring to the All England Club courts. He once described how they were cared for as follows: “we give them mowing and rolling every day, and a drink of water in the evening if need be.”
Nowadays there are inflatable covers on the courts, which allows them to breathe at night (see above on the Saturday before Wimbledon 2014 began) or when they are protected from rain. That moon peaking through the clouds over a nocturnal All England Club court is just one of the many magical sights to be seen at the most famous tennis grounds in the world.
Bouchard: Back on the beam?
“Commitment (volonté) was the word that coach Sam Sumyk emphasized when he made a visit to see Genie Bouchard when she trailed 5-4 in the first set of her opening match against Alison Riske at the WTA grass-court event in Eastbourne on Tuesday.
Up to that point it had been a bit of a patchy match from both players – with Bouchard definitely being the aggressor. She ended up with 17 winners and 17 unforced errors for the set. Riske was more modest with six winners and nine unforced errors.
“You’ve got to stay aggressive,” Sumyk said to Bouchard in French during his only visit during her one hour and 40-minute 7-6(5), 6-3 victory. “You’ve got to be committed right to the finish. Take your chances, keep your feet moving and keep moving forward.”
His final words were, “Here we go, be brave.”
Bouchard, overcoming a few hiccups that brought back memories of recent missteps, hung tough and eventually won the tiebreak that decided the first set despite seeing Riske rally from a 5-3 deficit to level at 5-all.
The second set was more like vintage Bouchard – she played aggressively and Riske was the one taking the heavy body-blow ground strokes. The final tally on winners and unforced errors was 32/26 for Bouchard and 14/19 for Riske. Since dropping their first encounter at the 2010 Rogers Cup in Montreal, Bouchard has now registered four consecutive wins over the 24-year-old American, who’s ranked No. 42.
In the third round on Wednesday, Bouchard will play No. 31 Belinda Bencic. Currently ranked No. 12, Bouchard has not played 18-year-old Bencic.
About her struggles of late – 10 losses in 11 matches heading into Tuesday’s match with Riske – Bouchard said, “I’ve definitely had my ups and downs. I’ve learned a lot about tennis, myself and life. The important thing is that I love playing tennis and that’s the priority.”
Rolling the Wimbledon dice
Here are the odds from Ladbrokes, the legal British betting firm, for this year’s men’s and women’s singles at Wimbledon. There doesn’t appear to be a very high regard for 2014 men’s semifinalist Milos Raonic or women’s runner-up Genie Bouchard.
Djokovic 5/4 S. Williams 7/4
Murray 11/4 Kvitova 7/2
Federer 6/1 Sharapova 9/1
Nadal 12/1 Azarenka 12/1
Wawrinka 12/1 Halep 16/1
Dimitrov 33/1 Safarova 20/1
Raonic 33/1 Kerber 25/1
Nishikori 33/1 Pliskova 28/1
Berdych 33/1 Keys 33/1
Tsonga 33/1 Wozniacki 33/1
Kyrgios 50/1 A. Radwanska 40/1
Cilic 50/1 Stephens 40/1