The previous experience I had with Wimbledon was the Crazy Gang, when my father knew one of the directors at the original football club, before they moved to Milton Keynes. They were a lot more direct than the route which took us to Centre Court today.
Last night I got a message from a colleague (Jim Macleerie, the one who persuaded me that running the Silverstone Half-Marathon was a good idea) telling me that some customers had dropped out of the corporate entertainment we were hosting for the Ladies semi-finals at Wimbledon so would I like to go instead, to which, of course, I said yes. After I had agreed to the idea he then told me I needed to pick up the tickets from Stratford Upon Avon, because they had been sent out to the customer, although he did add that as there were two tickets I could bring a guest. It would have been rude of me not to ask Debbie, and she was clearly very keen on the idea, so off I went to Stratford Upon Avon at 5 o’clock on Thursday morning to collect the tickets. I should drive into the office at this time more often because the M1 was practically clear, and I should definitely go to Stratford Upon Avon again because it looked lovely. The address was easy to find and the tickets were in an envelope behind a flowerpot, as promised, and with the sneaky beaky stuff done for the morning I had only to pop into the office to prepare some contracts ready for signing and was then on the M1 again heading back to St Albans and the train into London. Over 200 miles in the car and the time had barely passed 9 o’clock.
The trains from St Albans are excellent when they are running correctly, and thankfully they were running correctly this morning, so we were quickly into St Pancras International and stayed on from there until Blackfriars. A quick change on to the District Line and we did not have long to wait for a Wimbledon train. The early morning start and the movement of the train clearly began having an effect on me as I began to nod and then doze off. The problem was that as I did that, I gently swayed over to my right, against the shoulder of an American lady, who very graciously accepted my apology as I jumped awake. Yesterday had been her first time at Wimbledon and now she was back for another day, and obviously excited at the prospect. How unfortunate that she had had to put up with me falling asleep on her as a starter ! We got off at Southfields, to find that the platform had been covered in a green carpet, which matched up very well with the purple adverts from a well-known delivery company. That was all very nice to see, but if we had read the instructions more carefully we would have seen that staying on for one more stop to Wimbledon Park made a lot more sense, and would have brought us out 500m from the Wimbledon Park Golf Club, where we were meeting for lunch. Instead, we walked down the main street away from the station, down roads whose names did not appear on the location map we had, until we got to a car park gate and asked for directions. We were directed to another car park gate. I got the impression from that gate that it would not be difficult to bluff your way into the outside part of the corporate entertainment, but even though we now appeared to be in the grounds of the Golf Club there was still some confusion as to where we needed to go to get to the Wimbledon Lakeview Restaurant. The course and grounds looked well presented as we walked over them, but by now we were in serious danger of being very late for dinner. We were finally directed to another part of the grounds from where a golf buggy would take us to the Club House, and as we walked towards the buggies I noticed Lyndsay, another colleague, walking ahead of us, so I knew it was not going to be too bad a gathering from work.
It was my first time riding in a golf buggy and the journey was not as I had expected it to be. We were facing the way we had come and there was a sign staring up at us which read Falling Off Could Result In Severe Injury Or Death, which was hardly reassuring. We roared along and I could feel just how easy it could be to fall out, and especially if it was to go over uneven ground, so it did make a fun way to get from one side of the Golf Club to the other. We got to the Club House and were shown upstairs to the Park Suite and the tables taken by my company, and I saw Jim so I knew which one we were to be sitting at. We had arrived late, but the serving had not yet started, so Debbie enjoyed a glass of champagne and I drank some water, before they brought the food, which was Smart by Angela Hartnett, beginning with the starter of Lyonaisse salad, described as frisse, bacon and poached egg. It was quite inventive to look at and tasted delicious. The talk around the table was entertaining between courses, but I was a little bit worried about the time ticking away and seeing the live coverage on the television screen next to us did nothing to ease my fears that we were going to be late getting to the main event. The main course of roasted Creddy Carver chicken breast with grilled courgettes and hazelnuts was swiftly brought to us, with the chicken having a lovely taste, and not a hint of dryness, and I particularly enjoyed the flavours of the courgette and hazelnuts. We plunged straight on into the dessert, vanilla parfait with almond crunch and marinated dates, which was nice but not to my particular taste, and then decided to skip the cheese course as the players were coming out to begin their warm up. We set off to the golf buggies, were cut up by the one beside us at the Club House, and trundled our way over to the other side again, from there to cross the road to bring us to the entrance to the All England Club.
I wish we had had more time to look around, but instead we moved quickly to find our way into Centre Court, and specifically to gangway 209. Play had already started, so we had to wait in line until a suitable break (which is a somewhat appropriate choice of word, given how the match was going), and as the queue moved forward we found ourselves stopped right at the front, after a couple who had pushed in front of us had been allowed through. Shame on them. This did bring home to me the fact that the empty seats we see on the television at sporting events may not only be because those being corporately entertained have little interest in the sport. Here we were, wanting to get in, and delayed because of the earlier timings and now because of the necessity to wait. We waited patiently, with the noise from inside the stadium giving some idea of the atmosphere which awaited us, and the noise from the corridors behind us seemingly getting ever louder. And then we were in, to see the score was already 4-1 to Marion Bartoli of France, the number 15 seed, and to find that our seats were in an excellent position, being in row G of the second level and directly opposite the umpire.
They afforded an excellent view of what remained of the match, and from the moment we took our seats it looked like there would not be too much more of it. Having seen her previous match on television, I expected more from Kirsten Flipkens, the number 20 seed from Belgium, but she looked lost against the power of Bartoli. What we did find fascinating was the constant movement from Bartoli inbetween points as she replayed or rehearsed shots. It was remarkable that she kept the pressure up the whole time, unless, somehow, she managed to find that relaxing. The sun was mostly behind the clouds at this time, and it was simply a pleasure to sit there and enjoy something of a masterclass from Bartoli – and we were not alone in enjoying it, because Sir Cliff Richard was in the Royal Box !
He seemed not to clap shots from either player, presumably to retain his impartiality. Bartoli won the first set 6-1, not long after we had taken our seats, and while Flipkens had a slightly better second set, losing it 6-2, the result was never in any doubt. I was certainly left with the thought that despite her ranking Bartoli would give either of the other semi-finalists a good battle in the final.
We did not have to wait too long for the next match, between Agnieszka Radwanska, the number 4 seed from Poland, and Sabine Lisicki, the number 24 seed from Germany, now something of the darling of these Championships after defeating Serena Williams in the fourth round. There was a gap between their seedings, but I expected this to be a close match. Having said that, I had expected the previous match to have also been close, and see how that turned out. Anyway, the sun really came out during this one, the clouds gently making way to leave the sun burning straight down on to us, but that merely served to illuminate the brilliance being shown on the court. Lisicki certainly settled down the quicker (which is quite ironice given what happened in the Final) and as Radwanska came out for her second service game (the third game of the match) I confidently predicted that Lisicki would break her. She did not, but she came close, it seemed just a matter of time until she did, and sure enough it happened in the seventh game and Lisicki went on to win the first set 6-4. I now expected her to push on and win the second set and the match with some ease, and that looked to be the case as she broke in the very first game of the second set, but then she was broken in return in the following game. Radwanska then held her next service game and broke Lisicki again, before being broken herself, and the crowd were loving every second of it as it went first one way and then the other. Slowly but surely Radwanska was coming out on top in this set and she broke Lisicki again before winning the set 6-2, and now it looked like the momentum was with her and she would push through the third set to complete a remarkable turn around, and especially as she broke the first Lisicki service game in this final set. That sounds a lot like my intro to the second set…and so it proved as somehow Lisicki managed to drag herself back into the set, back into the match, moving from being 3-0 down to being 5-4 up and serving for the match. This match almost demanded that she should then have her serve broken, and so, to the absolute delight of the crowd, the match continued, and with it being the deciding set there would be no tie-break. The tension was palpable in every game beyond 6-6 until Lisicki conjured up a break to go ahead 8-7 and then managed to hold her serve to win the match 6-4 2-6 9-7. She collapsed to the ground, before getting up to bow to each side of the Centre Court, to loud cheers and applause. It had been an enthralling contest, and marvellous entertainment, but to be honest, Lisicki should have won it sooner and more easily than that, and the telling statistic for me were her 46 unforced errors to Radwanska’s 10. Radwanska left the court very quickly while Lisicki stayed on for some time signing everything that was thrust in her direction.
So I thought that would lead to a very evenly matched Final, with Lisicki possibly the favourite, but Bartoli won it very easily 6-1 6-4, with Lisicki sadly freezing on the day.
The second match finished around 5 o’clock, which meant we had to make a quick exit to try to get Debbie back to her bassoon rehearsal in Welwyn Garden City for half past 7. So we did not get to go back to the Wimbledon Lakeview Restaurant for the cheese course, or the finger sandwiches, or the strawberries and cream, or the scones with jam and clotted cream. We did have the experience of following the woman who had tucked her dress into the back of her knickers, though, and Debbie felt it was the right thing to do to catch her up and tell her before she got out on to the main road. We walked back to Southfields tube station in the sun, and from there it was an easy journey home, and we did get to the rehearsal with minutes to spare. It had been a lovely first day for us at Wimbledon and one we want to repeat next year.
You can see my photos from the day here.