[SPORTING LIFE]

The past and future are partners at Wimbledon

Pat Cash of Australia got a lift from a priest when he waded into the crowd in a bid to get to the Players' Box to be with his entourage after he beat Ivan Lendl in the final in 1987.
Pat Cash of Australia got a lift from a priest when he waded into the crowd in a bid to get to the Players' Box to be with his entourage after he beat Ivan Lendl in the final in 1987.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

As endings go, my first Wimbledon was fairly dramatic for it concluded with a rebel, a royal, a cleric and a tearing of convention. It was 1987, the final over, the Duke of Kent awaited on court for the ritual of coronation. Everyone was supposed to dutifully wait whereupon the champion, Pat Cash, an athlete so rough-edged he looked chiselled out of a quarry, decided to run across the court and into the crowd.

He was on his way to the Players' Box to be with his entourage except Cash couldn't find a route through. Till a man told him to stand on top of him. "It was a priest," a stunned Cash told CNN. "He had the collar." But he listened, clambered onto the priest, onto the commentary box, and into his family's arms.

Only in the holy land can they turn a sacrilegious act into tradition. Soon the ascent of the Players' Box was routine: Rafael Nadal in 2008, Andy Murray in 2013. No one blinks a royal eye.

Club rules prevail

In 1987, sweaty ruffians like Jimmy Connors, who bent to no one, had to bow to the Royal Box, whose inhabitants were requested not to wear hats as they might block the view of those seated behind.

This is the charm of Wimbledon: In a timeless place, they somehow stay with the times. Behind the camouflage of ivy lies a modern heart. When I asked Mahesh Bhupathi, who has three Wimbledon doubles titles, if the locker rooms were top class, he replied: "The best for sure."

Tennis has altered, Wimbledon with it, and to look back is to recollect the lines of writer L. P. Hartley: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." In 1987 we sulked when rain ruined play and giggled as stars lost every argument with Cyclops. This line-calling machine beeped during faulty serves and once led John McEnroe to say: "I don't want to sound paranoid but that machine knows who I am."

Now HawkEye has ended Cyclops' ambitions and a real hawk named Rufus decides the future of errant pigeons. Now a new roof has come, a new No.1 court, new media facilities and yet there is nothing new to their enduring good taste. Only here do you not find the screaming hoarding and the avalanche of advertising. All sponsorship signage is subtle for Wimbledon kneels before no one, not even the lords of commerce.

Wimbledon is steeped in custom but has had to accept some have use-by dates. In 1987, sweaty ruffians like Jimmy Connors, who bent to no one, had to bow to the Royal Box, whose inhabitants were requested not to wear hats as they might block the view of those seated behind. At Wimbledon, nothing is overlooked. But bowing was an anachronistic act and later abandoned, as were those scoreboards on which the names of female players were prefaced by a "Miss" or "Mrs", which made it all sound like a quaint garden party not a serious contest.

No one, as of 1987, had streaked on those lawns but it happened in 1996 when Melissa Johnson opted to wear only an apron to the men's final. Defiance of the dress code is a Wimbledon staple, including Pat Stewart's 1961 decision to inscribe her phone number on her panties, but Wimbledon responded to the streaker with humour dryer than a London gin: "Whilst we do not wish to condone the practice, it did at least provide some light amusement for our loyal and patient supporters, who have had a trying time during the recent bad weather."'

Wimbledon, born in 1877, was the first slam and for many of us a first look at a slam. In my case it came via grainy black-and-white TV pictures of a fastidious Swede who didn't shave during Wimbledon called Bjorn Borg.

To visit in 1987 was to appreciate two things. First, the delightful conceit of a club which believed the legend of champions may be written elsewhere but could only be confirmed here. Second that tennis was best heard at Wimbledon. Here, more than elsewhere, the crowds grasped the meaning of silence and in this chapel-like hush was amplified the sound of the game.

This has not changed but Wimbledon's most intriguing refinement is to its very essence: the surface. It retains its exclusivity for unlike the US and Australian Opens it has not moved from grass but its personality has altered because the behaviour of the courts has.

In 1987 the ball slithered on slick grass and in the final point Cash finished Ivan Lendl with two forehand volleys. But he, the serve-volleyer, the slicer, the net rusher, is almost extinct. Now the courts are harder, the bounce kinder, allowing players to stake themselves to the baseline.

Michael Chang, in a recent interview to Sports Illustrated, said that "the normal bounce was below your knee on a regular ball" and now it "bounces unbelievably high and the courts are not so fast". Those who dare to serve and volley must recite Tennyson's The Charge of The Light Brigade on their way to the net.

To be clear, Wimbledon, once full of murmuring drop volleys and balletic lunges from players gliding forward, now lacks invention; to be fair, they had to change because when big servers like Sampras and Ivanisevic collided on old, fast grass, their points were like amputated conversations. Serve. Return. Volley. Finish.

But then this is Wimbledon's appeal, both preserver of past and embracer of future - but always at its own pace. Equal prize money to male and female champions? They were the last. The roof? They were the second. The steward carrying out the finalists' bags? They remain unique.

This year's champion may want to ascend to the Players' Box but since last year there is an established route to that summit, which does not apparently involve a scaling of the commentary box. One may celebrate, but with safety please.

Players might laugh at Wimbledon's practicality yet it is its history which overwhelms them. Last year, a defeated Federer shed a single, poignant tear and his victor Djokovic knelt and ate a piece of grass as if he was taking tennis communion.

Then in 1987, Cash said: "There was one thing I wanted to do in my career and I did it today." In 2014, Djokovic was his echo: "This is the best tournament in the world. The most valuable one." At Wimbledon so much changes and yet nothing does.

rohitb@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 28, 2015, with the headline 'The past and future are partners at Wimbledon'. Print Edition | Subscribe