Ticket Touts and lager louts, tiebreakers and penalty kicks. Tennis and soccer went at it last week in two soundalike London precincts: Wimbledon and Wembley. In the end, all England, including members of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, was energized by the soccer. So blurred became the lines between leisure-class and working-class Londoners that footy-mad tennis umpires all but called out the scores in Cockneyspeak. Thirty-love, Guv.
Wimbledon and Wembley. They were host to The Championships and the European Championship, respectively, and the winner of this turf war was decisive. "The soccer was so popular," Pete Sampras conceded last Saturday, "that it seems like Wimbledon has taken a backseat this year."
In the front seat, fiddling with the radio, was England's soccer team, which steamed into week 1 of Wimbledon with a pack of fags and a pint of lager. By Sunday, Euro '96, which the host nation briefly dominated, had left its Doc Martens boot prints all over the upholstery of the All England Club's tournament.
Tennis officials at first found this development to be "veddy fraffle," very frightful indeed. Luke Jensen of the U.S. rang a rep-tied Wimbledon don to inquire if he and his brother, Murphy, could wear short-sleeved England football jerseys during their doubles match on June 26, when England played Germany in the Euro '96 semifinals. "They are white," said Jensen of the jerseys. "But before I could finish the sentence, the guy cut me off and just said no. They nuked us as soon as we mentioned football."
Nine miles and four letters separate Wimbledon from Wembley, but the demographic distance has always been infinite. Elegant placards on the wrought-iron gates of the All England Club purr BABES IN ARMS ARE FREE; tattered posters at the Wembley turnstiles bark NO KNIVES. Tennis fans literally don't say boo; footy fans (at least the German ones) chanted "Moo," the better to wind up their mad-cow-diseased host nation. "Wimbledon," said Tony Gale, a professional footballer taking in some of the action at Wembley. "Bit stuffy, izzit?"
Well...no. That's the thing: As the week wore on, not only did déclassé soccer invade the All England Club but an unprecedented number of commoners hung about. For starters, the field got commoner by the day. Third seed Andre Agassi, fifth seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov, sixth seed Michael Chang and eighth seed Jim Courier all crashed in the first round. Women's second seed Monica Seles was bounced in the second round, while men's No. 2 Boris Becker defaulted in the third after he mishit a forehand and partly tore a tendon in his right wrist. He sought treatment—including a plaster cast that will keep him out of tennis for at least six weeks—from the physician for the German fussball team, of which Becker is all but an honorary member.
"No, it is fine," Becker said when his white-haired Wimbledon minder tried to steer press questions away from soccer. "I am a much bigger football fan than I am a tennis fan."
Anyway, Becker's exit put his opponent, 223rd-ranked Neville Godwin of South Africa, in the round of 16 following a first week in which a record 10 seeded players were eliminated. If you'd told Godwin before the tournament that he would be on the brink of the quarterfinals alongside such luminaries as T. Johansson, P. Rafter and A. Radulescu, he would have said, "You are going crazy."
And you are. All of England was barmy all June, with football on the brain. Even Sampras was watching England on the telly when he wasn't blowing through the top half of the draw. "It's growing on me," the archetypal Yank sports fan said of the soccer. "England-Holland, every five minutes there was a score." Indeed, England hammered the Dutch 4-1 on June 18. Becker, for his part, looked forward to seeing England-Germany but only on TV, for the world's most recognizable German sussed out that he shouldn't appear in person at Wembley. "Especially," said Becker, "if Germany wins." The London tabloids had been given to fits of LET'S BLITZ FRITZ and ACHTUNG! SURRENDER.
British novelist David Lodge last year published Therapy, about a depressed 58-year-old Englishman who fears that his life and the life of his nation have been in decline since the summer of 1966, when England beat West Germany 4-2 to win the World Cup at Wembley. Queen Elizabeth II handed the Jules Rimet trophy to England's golden-locked captain, Bobby Moore, who is forever young in the famous photographs from that day, three lions on the crest of his strawberry-red shirt.