This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And this is The Score.
The Wimbledon champions will be determined this week-end and, although there's certainly a lot to say about the players in this year's draw, Wimbledon has etched such a unique history in the hall of sports that the place itself is worthy of a biography. Even the youngest players slow down and soften their speech when trying to describe the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon. 22-year-old Andy Roddick calls it a "very; special place" and states winning the title there carries the utmost of gravitas, even for an American who you would think values the U.S. Open title more. Maybe it's the deep history. The U.S. Open, in its current form, didn't start until 1968. Before that, the United States Nationals were played for men in Newport, Rhode Island, for women in Philadelphia, both at upper crust private clubs, all white wardrobe mandated... obscene language out of the question. That was a far different ambiance than the U.S. Open at the public Flushing Meadows courts where Jimmy Connors made obscene gestures routine and Andre Agassi ushered in shirts of every color in the rainbow.
Wimbledon has been played at the same All England Lawn Tennis Club since 1877. The tournament is called simply, and boldly, The Championships, as if to say no other championships in any other sport hold the clout as do the matches played these two summer weeks just outside London. Some English royalty, often the Duke or Duchess of Kent, attend every match at Center Court. And the royalty on hand come down to the court for the post-match ceremonies and conduct a little tete-a-tete whispering with both the winners and runners-up as the crowd p olitely sits and imagines what they're talking about. The first year Martina Navratilova won the singles title, the Duchess of Kent evidently whispered to her that it was a shame her parents in Czechoslovakia hadn't been able to cross the iron curtain and attend. And, sure enough, it was the Duchess of Kent who used her social and political clout the next year to make the arrangements for Martina's mother to be courtside when she won her second Wimbledon crown.
In 1994, when Martina walked off the court she virtually owned so many years, nine singles titles later, she wiped a tear from her eye and bent down to tug a handful of that precious grass as a lifelong keepsake. Martina couldn't have imagined then that she'd be back in her late '40's, gunning for yet more Wimbledon glory. At 48, she has moved through the draw this year and has a betting chance to win both the women's and mixed doubles.
As do most tennis players, Martina nearly worshipped Wimbledon and its mystique as a kid. Last summer at the Athens Olympic Games, some 60% of the U.S. Track & Field Team, in responding to a survey, had no idea who either Jesse Owens or Wilma Rudolph were--just as many young football and basketball stars know nothing about the pioneering heroes of their sports. But you'll find that quite a few young tennis players know at least some Wimbledon history. Quietly scampering across the grass there, as if cushioned and lifted in pursuit of skidding shots, the silence of the court surface serves as metaphor for the class of the place that has hosted the best players in the world for more than one hundred thirty years.
As a fan, I am far more drawn to tennis than any other sport. And the best job I ever had in sports television was conducting all the live, post-match interviews at the U.S. Open. But I've never entered any sporting venue and literally had my breath taken away as happened to me the first time I stepped through the tunnel at Center Court Wimbledon. The light is different there than at any other of the grand tennis performance courts. Softer. The sound is more of an echo than a broadcast. The taut English accent of the chair umpire brings the history, and the credibility, of the tournament to dramatic life. And, as they say, the grass does seem greener at Wimbledon.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And that's The Score.