by Jeff Siti - 06/28/2005
Wimbledon got under way on Monday, June 20 this year, which as you know fell exactly six weeks before the first Monday in August. True, the scheduling seems curious, but The Championships commence on that day each year. And by July 3 the fields of 128 players will be inched down to one, who will hoist the famous Wimbledon trophy and pocket a £630,000.00 check.
The tournament has come a long way since it's inauguration in 1877, which was attended by only a few hundred spectators. It's become the most prestigious event in professional tennis, composed of players from over 60 countries, viewed by millions of fans worldwide and distinct in that it is the only remaining Grand Slam still played on grass.
The Wimbledon stadium is called the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC), which is the fabled, forty-two acre tennis club that stages The Championships each year. Only 15 minutes from the center of London, the club's expansive stature, attractions, and public accessibility make it one of the most impressive venues in the world.
The AELTC was originally founded in 1868 as a private croquet club in Wimbledon, England, but quickly turned its focus to tennis, holding its first tournament only nine years later. The Club relocated in 1922 and has remained in that location on Church Road, Wimbledon to this day. Now, over 80 years later, the Wimbledon stadium is immense and plans are in place for additions and renovations to be made throughout 2009. It currently includes nineteen grass courts, five red shale, three continental clay, one American clay, five indoor courts, over twenty practice courts and one non-regulation croquet field for good measure.
These facilities are open to club members year round, which at fewer than 400 makes it one of the most selective in the world. The membership process is almost as grueling as the tournament and takes a bit longer than two weeks. Up until 2000 it sometimes held tournaments besides The Championships but instances were rare. The most recent events outside Wimbledon were the Wightman Cup in 1972 and the Davis Cup in 2000.
Each year the Wimbledon stadium opens its gates to an estimated 450,000 fans and watching tennis isn't the only thing available to keep them occupied. Besides the matches, the grounds also include three restaurants, a museum including memorabilia dating as far back as 1555, an extensive research library which is open to the public (closed during Championships), art and costume galleries, and innumerable cafes, concession stands, private lounges and pubs. And if you thought streaking baseball fans were thirsty, an estimated 100,000 pints of beer (nothing compared to the 300,000 cups of tea) are served over the two-week event, which makes you wonder how things are kept so quiet. There is also a bank, a pharmacy, medical stations, shops and a huge television screen relaying info and current matches located in Aorangi Terrace.
Because there has always been such a high number of entries, the club had to instate a qualifying round all the way back in 1925, which is held a week before the tournament at the Bank of England Sports Ground. These rounds are for players that aren't automatically entered based on rank, with sixteen men and twelve women eligible to qualify. History has not been very kind to players that have had to fight for the right to play, however. No qualifier has ever made it past the Semi-Finals, but several have made names for themselves. In 1977, an 18-year-old John McEnroe advanced all the way to the Men's Singles Semi-Final round only to be beaten by Jimmy Connors. In 1999 Alexandra Stevenson from the US also reached the Semis, but was beaten by '99 champion Lindsay Davenport. And Vladimir Voltchkov was defeated by Pete Sampras in 2000. Sampras went on the win the tournament.
The schedule for The Championships include men's and women's singles and doubles, mixed doubles, boy's and girl's singles and doubles, Veterans' Invitational doubles and gentleman's wheelchair doubles. If you were wondering why so many players want a spot in the tournament, perhaps it's the fact that the total prize money is over £10 million. The grounds open at 10:30 a.m. for the first eight days of competition, 11 a.m. the rest of the way, and games take up most of the courts for the entire day.
Tickets are very affordable, ranging from £24 to £79, and you get much more than live matches. And if you have bad seats it isn't like you're stuck in the 700 level of the now imploded Veterans Stadium, there's much more to do than waste your time in the cheap seats. The Wimbledon experience is unique for the sport in its history and tradition. Not to mention the attractions, which are just as interesting, if not more so, than some of the actual tennis, and the fans that attend are granted an all-access pass.