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Sporting Life

Quiet, please: A grassy summer ritual is about to begin

An American poet once wrote that rituals matter to us because they bind us to our traditions and tie us to our histories. In the third week of June, we perfectly understand what he meant. June is manicured lawns, wicker chairs in the royal box and scratchy film of a bearded Swede on his tired knees; June is Boston ivy on Centre Court, no music at changeovers and English precision. We may not know how fast Andy Murray moves but it takes 30 seconds for 16 people to cover a court when it rains. A tournament suffocated with custom has long been our summer ritual.

For all the uncertainty we wish from sport, it is also constancy we crave and Wimbledon is our annual provider of it. In 50 years, players may arrive in driver-less cars at the Doherty Gates but they will still be politely reminded that "white (clothes) does not include off white or cream". Now and then, as Tatiana Golovin did with red knickers in 2007, a rebellion will be mounted. Wimbledon will smile with thin lips.

Wimbledon is smug, of course, and yet we return for history just happens there. It's where Pete Sampras overtook Roy Emerson for the most Grand Slam titles and Roger Federer went past Sampras. When Rod Laver said goodbye to the grounds even the nuggety Australian was "misty-eyed". On these lawns, athletes seem to appreciate history and also their place: Wimbledon's muscular history reminds them that no athlete dare be bigger than a game. They will teach you about Kipling, feed you a strawberry and send you on your way.

Centre Court has been streaked on, struck by lightning and bombed during World War II, but Wimbledon remains our most tranquil sporting habit. Somehow, at these premises, sport seems less loud, less garish, less trivial. Only here will this firm advice be offered to patrons: "Never applaud a net cord or double fault." This is more cathedral than coliseum, if you please. Of course if the club ever turns too pompous we can remind them of Gussie Moran's lace-trimmed undergarments in 1949 which so infuriated them that they accused her of "bringing vulgarity and sin into tennis". As John McEnroe might say: Seriously?

Athletes, of course, are bound tightly by ritual for they need some semblance of order in their lives: Once they get on court, life can get out of control. "Everything is about routine," says Mahesh Bhupathi, who has competed at Wimbledon over 20 times, won a men's doubles title and two mixed doubles trophies. "Even how you open your locker. What shower stall you use. How you place your clothes. Every year for me it was the same. T-shirts at the right. Three pairs of shoes on the left. Clothes to wear after the match in the middle. Then you keep doing it. Every day. Same thing."

And so on it goes all fortnight, fans sighing at dripping skies, eating Dutchees (a sort of English hot dog) and wondering why there's still no play on middle Sundays. Everywhere ritual is unpacked and embraced like the grass-court shoes with pimples on their soles.

The moment the French Open ends, the best players, says Bhupathi, have cases of Slazenger balls - used at Wimbledon since 1902 - delivered to their practice courts. These balls are heavier and athletes automatically, and ritualistically, recalibrate their games. From feel will come precision and if Wimbledon grass gets a daily haircut to 8mm then that is precisely the distance from the line that Novak Djokovic is aiming.

In ancient times, piano wire was once used as gutting which is only fitting for players attend to their rackets as if they were musical instruments. Bhupathi carried six rackets, strung at multiple tensions, for as Wimbledon's fickle weather descends - hot conditions, for instance, means faster-moving balls - then athletes must as swiftly adapt their games.

At tournament's end, 40 miles of string - Wimbledon's website is a library of such trivia - will be used by players whose fastidiousness is otherworldly. In a 2014 New Yorker story on stringing and racket customising it was noted that Sampras was so sensitive that "if the leather grip on a racquet handle shrank by a millimetre, he could feel the difference".

And so on it goes all fortnight, fans sighing at dripping skies, eating Dutchees (a sort of English hot dog) and wondering why there's still no play on middle Sundays. Everywhere ritual is unpacked and embraced like the grass-court shoes with pimples on their soles. In older times, the footwork required on slippery grass after weeks of sliding clay was akin to attempting another dance form. Now the courts are slower and higher-bouncing and the lithe ghosts of ancient net rushers must sneer at those who only argue from the baseline.

In the cruellest of ironies, Wimbledon's most athletically stylish ritual - to follow a serve with a volley - is now its most ignored. It is why, in some desperation, we look to a 34-year-old with creaky body and moth-eaten game to occasionally demonstrate the sort of tennis we thought these lawns were laid for. One year it was calculated that there were 54 million grass plants on Centre Court. Roger Federer, among the last of the all-court adventurers, at least tries to tread on every one of them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 26, 2016, with the headline 'Quiet, please: A grassy summer ritual is about to begin'. Print Edition | Subscribe