If your sun-spotted hand has ever held a tennis racket, put this on the bucket list. Die-hards: Skip the miscellany and go straight to Saturday.
Brilliant advice from Debbie Mays, a former Londoner, who advised me to prepare for all kinds of weather, which I did. It was 60 degrees and rained a bit every day. Sometimes more than a bit, but I was well jacketed and never left the hotel without an umbrella in hand.
Transportation: District Line tube. Exit at Smithfields. Brilliant, again.
An overcast Thursday in London, July 6, 2012. Cast: Carole, dowager and memoirist. Susan, middle daughter and history professor. Victoria, youngest daughter and corporate businessperson. In absentia: Abigail, oldest daughter and college administrator, who at 7.75 months pregnant stayed in New Orleans, yet present in spirit.
I did experience a bit of a tinge when I paid the 70-plus pounds taxi fare (the conversion rate was 1.76 so the end result was painful) as Victoria and I arrived at the newly renovated Savoy, where we were graciously ushered into our high-ceilinged, well-lit, and well-appointed rooms. I flicked on BBC One and watched Wimbledon while awaiting Susan’s arrival from Seville, Spain, where she had spent the month of June researching 18th-century ship inventories. Ever frugal, Susan arrived by tube.
Since the fashion-driven Victoria was intent on purchasing a Cambridge satchel (if you’re under 30, check these out), we headed by taxi, again, to the legendary Harrods. Since this much-coveted satchel, as it turns out, is really a schoolbag, we were directed from handbags to the children’s floor, where we would find a better selection. On our way, we stepped off the escalator to gape at the massive statue, titled “Innocent Victims,” of Princess Diana and Dodi al-Fayed, who seem to be in the middle of executing a “Dancing With the Stars” routine. (Statue title: discussion point.) Victoria ended up deciding she would buy the item online so that she could get her name put on a metal plaque.
I was struck by the large number of burka-clad women in groups of three or four, all laden with shopping bags and carrying exquisite handbags, which gave the portly department store a bit of a bazaar flavor. Since Victoria had taken notes while reading “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” we headed across the street to TopShop, where she succeeded in buying a “very-in denim” jacket and an olive jacket. We studied the street map and agreed to walk down Sloane Street to Chelsea, where we were meeting a friend for dinner at Ziani’s, an Italian neighborhood restaurant he had selected at our insistence. Leisurely strolling, we window-shopped, Brit-watched, and stopped to watch tennis players in Cadogan Place, which I mistook for public gardens. As the Brits say, the restaurant choice was “brilliant.”
Friday: rain. After a substantial breakfast in the hotel’s River restaurant, we stopped in communal awe as we marveled at the hotel’s pastry chef, who was turning milk chocolate into perfect yellow replicas of tennis balls. We loved the Wimbledon theme. The price was steep but I did need to buy a hostess gift for American expats who had invited us to dinner that night at their home in South Kensington. If I could find nothing that morning in my pursuit of the perfect console table, I would spring for the tennis balls, which I later did. Susan was meeting a professor friend for lunch at the British Library while Victoria and I hit the treadmills at the hotel gym, where we alternately watched Wimbledon and a hotel guest so heavily tattooed we jointly decided that he had to be a British rock star, working off a regimen of drugs veterinarians typically administer to racehorses.
At dinner with my old friends, the talk was of the Olympics, the economy — Barclays, in particular — higher education, gastronomy, and Wimbledon. The meal concluded with a summer pudding of syruped berries and brioche, after which our hostess broke the tennis ball into equal portions and passed it around. Superb.
Saturday: overcast but clear. Women’s final. Serena Williams vs. Agnieszka Radwanska.
We took the District Line to Wimbledon and arrived at about 11. Not surprisingly, rain was threatening, which in no way dampened our excitement or the high spirits of the swarming crowds. We explored the lush grounds, where masses of purple flowers, a Wimbledon signature color along with hunter green, lined every twist and turn.
Victoria and Susan headed for the shops while I watched the boys doubles until dribbles of rain delayed the game. If we had been experienced Wimbledon-goers, we would have headed immediately to the Debenture Club’s — yes, we were badged members — courtside restaurants. Since the host explained that we would have needed to arrive by 11:30 for a seating, we dashed to the restaurant on the other side of the stair and secured a table. Self-service with salads, shrimp, and heavier fare. And, of course, strawberries.
A word about the crowd. In the royal box, men wore jackets and ties and one daring woman sported a pantsuit. Navy blazers were the men’s dress of the day and there was very little, if any, denim. The blazer-clad 20-something in front of us (we were not in the royal box) took an iPhone picture of Serena’s backside during warm-up and Facebooked it to his friends with the comment, “Serious junk.”
When the linespeople and referees in their navy blazers with white piping marched out in single file, the crowd went wild. A minute or so later, Agnieszka Radwanska, with body language that read hesitant, entered first, followed by a seemingly confident Serena Williams. Each carried a bouquet of long-stemmed purple flowers, a classy touch.
Both players exhibited the cold, serious demeanor of champions, remaining stone-faced when they made unforced errors, nor did they smile when they hit a winner. Serena and Aggie were so well matched that the atmosphere in Centre Court was rife with tension throughout the match. Serena’s serve was typically in the 120-mile-per-hour range, which Aggie gradually began returning. Each player had a follow-through that would have brought a flicker to any pro’s heart. They hit balls that no ordinary mortal could reach, much less hit, and yet they, no ordinary mortals, did.
The crowd, which seemed slightly to favor the well-established Serena, wanted tennis and was rewarded with three sets. Radwanska’s game, in which she had been matching Serena shot for shot, faltered, and Serena’s aces, overheads, and backhands cinched her victory. Serena fell to the ground, collected herself, and leapt into the stands to hug her father, which brought tears to my eyes, working her way down the family box with embraces for Venus, family members, and her mum. Her memorable quote in her post-victory interview was (bear in mind I have three daughters), “I want whatever Venus has.”
At the awards ceremony, the semifinalist Radwanska said tearily, “I played the best tennis of my life,” which brought the sit-stand, sit-stand crowd to its feet again.
After the women’s final, we raced to the Courtside Terrace, where we succeeded in scoring a balcony table. For us, this was a competitive event. The much-touted tea, strawberries, cream, and, especially, the scones proved disappointing, which Victoria described as a “first world problem.” (First world problem is a handle for a tweeter/twitterer.) The afternoon tea with the stale scones and plastic-wrapped sandwiches, I informed them, was their dinner.
As I began my antiques venture on Friday, I had stopped in impulsively at the Savoy Theatre and bought stall tickets to Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys,” starring Danny DeVito and Richard Griffiths. If I had known that after the women’s final two more matches would be held, including, gasp, the women’s doubles final, I never would have opted for the theater. We did stay for a few games of the men’s doubles, packed up, and headed back to the theater. After the play, my daughters commented, “Well, we had a little culture,” as I continued to kick myself.
Sunday, the gentlemen’s final: Andy Murray (crown prince) vs. Roger Federer.
My daughter Susan, who had been doing her research in Spain, where the temperature had reached 112 degrees, failed to bring any warm clothing. Because the stores did not open until noon on Sunday, we hit Covent Garden’s Burberry Brit, and Barbour, and ended up with a sweatshirt from H&M. This meant we were cutting it close to make the 2 o’clock final. We hotfooted it to the tube, knew the lay of the land, and were in our seats 10 minutes before the game. Our Facebook friend, I was pleased to note, was not at the gentlemen’s final. Celeb sighting . . . Kate and Pippa. We spotted Anna Wintour, Vogue boss, at the women’s final but could not find her at the gentlemen’s. David Beckham and wife, Posh, were in the royal box for Murray-Federer as well. Muted clapping on their part.
All eyes were on the royal box for the celeb sighting of Kate and Pippa. A 60ish blonde was in the royal box too, and we are not sure whether it was Camilla. It wasn’t the queen.
The British television and newspapers were plastered with footage of Andy Murray, the first Brit in the final in 70-plus years. To say that the crowd was behind Murray is a serious understatement. It was almost tiring. When he won the first set, the crowd could barely contain itself. I asked my daughter early in the gentlemen’s match whether there were any tips she thought we might pick up watching these finals. She looked at me and responded matter-of-factly, “I think it’s fair to say that they are playing on a different level.” I was chastened.
While their serves seemed equally matched, Murray’s perhaps a bit better, the Brit in front of me explained to his bored wife that Federer was more of a tactical player. His shots did have a pinpoint accuracy to them. Federer was so smooth and so fluid on the court, he made tennis look effortless. When rain delayed the game and the announcement was made that the roof was going up, the crowd dispersed, jamming the restaurants. It was almost as if the crowd needed the 20-minute lull to relax. A cheer went up in the fourth set: “Murray” followed by three claps. (I participated.)
Although it never seemed as if Federer had the match sewn up, he did. When he won, he did the by now obligatory fall to the ground. One of the interviewers asked him if 30 was the new 20. Sigh.
After the Venus Rosewater silver trays are presented, the champion walks around the stadium, holding the circular tray aloft and displaying it to the fans. Serena had been ecstatic as she had circled, but Roger seemed increasingly sheepish.
After the men’s final, we stayed for the mixed doubles, where in seven minutes we saw four games and decided it was time to leave Centre Court and buy souvenirs. The only shop remaining open was the museum store. The crowd was overwhelming so we abandoned the souvenir idea and trekked up the hill.
Our dinner at an Indian restaurant, Gaylord, daughters’ choice, had the feel of an anticlimax, particularly since we walked there in an incessant rain. The next day, we took the tube to Heathrow, parting at our respective terminals.
Not quite willing to give up the British experience and fighting off jet lag, on Tuesday night I went to see the Broadway play “One Man, Two Guvnors” (British cast). Although farce doesn’t do it for me, it was a fitting ending for the post-Wimbledon experience, and I found myself laughing out loud. If you do go, bring a sandwich.
Carole O’Malley Gaunt is the author of “Hungry Hill,” a memoir. She lives part time in Sag Harbor.