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A Club Like No Other
Frank Deford
June 21, 1982
Small wonder there's only one Wimbledon. After all, the tournament is run by the singular All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club
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June 21, 1982

A Club Like No Other

Small wonder there's only one Wimbledon. After all, the tournament is run by the singular All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club

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It's an absolutely gorgeous April morning in the village of Wimbledon, Borough of Merton. One can't help but hear Kipling whispering from behind every dewy leaf, "Give me back one day in England, for it's Spring in England now!" It's as gloriously green as ever Robin Hood himself knew it in Sherwood Forest. If the roses aren't yet budding, the jonquils are at their gilded last, cherry blossoms are at every eye, pansies and lilacs and tulips are blazing all about. Along Wimbledon Park Road, which becomes Church Road (although quite where is unclear), there is virtually no traffic, save for a three-wheeled milk truck making its deliveries, so it's easy to hear the birds chirp and the children shout and the blood race.

It must have been very much this way 60 years ago, when the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club settled on Church Road, moving a mile or so from its original site. Now Church Road is lined with fishhook lightposts and hard-angled apartment buildings that have grown up amid the Tudor row houses. However, on this April morn, as Church Road bends up to the gates of the All England, passing kaleidoscopic gardens in every yard, the air seems as fresh as one assumes it might have been in '22. And God's sky, which He has lent England for the day, without the clouds He usually charges, is as pristine as ever it could have been then, or even way back in 1868, when croquet enthusiasts founded the club. Not an American is in sight; neither can one smell money, nor hear so much as a mention of contracts or residuals, much less a whine or a bellicose word. Stranger still is the scene within the gates. You know what's in there in April?

Lawns.

You've always heard about lawn tennis. And, sure enough, take away the nets and the chalked lines and the players and the people in high chairs saying "forty-fifteen," and so on and so forth, and what you have left is lawns. They are magnificent, too, spreading out in emerald glory toward the old water tower and toward the steeple of St. Mary's, beyond, in Wimbledon town.

If you search hard, you'll also find a few members about. All told, the All England Club has 375 of them, 300 men and 75 of the other sex, but seldom, except during The Championships, are many of them on the premises. The All England is not a hangout. As Derek Hardwick, founder and first chairman of the Men's International Pro Tennis Council, says, "It's just not the sort of club you think of when you think of dubs." Hardwick has been a member of the All England for 18 years; before that he was on the waiting list for 26. Snap decisions at the All England are rare.

Twice a year the club has a party. One is on New Year's Eve. Either then or at Christmas. Members are vague on this, possibly because they haven't ever bothered attending. The other party, such as it is, is in the middle of May, when, usually, the weather finally permits the lawns to be turned into real courts. In addition to 18 grass courts, the club has nine hard courts and two indoor ones. Several of the grass courts are appropriated at that time in mid-May for a men's and women's doubles round robin, which is known, mysteriously, as an "American tournament." All we detectives know is that the American tournament involves "hidden handicaps." Let Yankee lexicographers and jingoists alike draw their own conclusions.

Whatever, the May and December gatherings pretty much comprise the formal social calendar of the All England Club. There are no Fifties parties, no Las Vegas nights. Angela Barrett, nee Mortimer, who won Wimbledon in 1961 and who has the rare distinction of being a member of the All England married to a member, offers this summary: "We do stick with tradition here; we haven't ever lowered our standards. For instance, this isn't a place you bring children. But should you, they're always quite well-behaved. The message gets through."

Alas, in this world, how long will British children continue to act as British children are expected to, and not like tennis stars, who act like everybody else, only more so? On this April day, news has arrived that the British have recaptured South Georgia Island and then, so very graciously, have entertained the vanquished Argentine commanders at dinner. But of greater future significance, London's Daily Telegraph has run a letter from FE. McDonnell of Cheltenham, headlined UNPLEASANT TENNIS:

"SIR—Your report on the British Junior Under-16 lawn tennis championships...commented that two of the boy semi-finalists 'were applauding each other's faults' and that 'eventually the referee said: "It's time I took action and intervened." '

"These young people are under 16. No penalty points? No disqualifications?...What a reflection on the tournament authorities that they were unable to squash a couple of 15-year-olds."

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