Lucky lottery winner flies to Wimbledon

Destination England

June 10, 2007|By Stevenson Swanson | Stevenson Swanson,Chicago Tribune

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND / / It was raining when we arrived at Wimbledon. Of course.

England had been sweltering under a heat wave for a week, but as my wife, Ann, and I set out in the morning for our long-awaited visit to tennis' hallowed lawns, the clouds rolled in, the temperature dropped, and the rain began to fall. The main reason for our trip to England, five months in the planning and years in the dreaming, seemed to be in danger of turning into a damp disappointment.

You don't have to cross an ocean to see top-level tennis: The U.S. Open, one of the four major tournaments of the tennis world, begins Aug. 27 in New York. But ever since watching the classic 1980 men's Wimbledon final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe on television, I had fantasized about setting foot one day on the grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, a prosperous suburban village southwest of central London. Set amid verdant parkland, the grass courts and dignified grandstands are not only the embodiment of all that is best about the sport, but also irresistibly English in their serene understatement.

And so for years, I had participated in Wimbledon's arcane "public ballot," the club's lottery for distributing a scarce commodity -- tickets to the main courts, including Centre Court -- to the untold thousands of Anglophile tennis fans dying to get in.

Year after year, my hopes foundered on the rocks of random selection.

But in January last year, I received an unmarked envelope from SW19, the English postal code that includes Wimbledon.

"Your application for tickets via the 2006 Public Ballot has been successful," the letter began. After that momentous but appropriately restrained declaration were eight steps that had to be followed to buy the tickets, including a procedure for notifying the All England Club in case I had changed my name since mailing my application.

Applying for tickets through the public ballot is a shot in the dark in every sense, considering that hundreds of thousands of requests are mailed in. You cannot specify which court you want. Everyone wants Centre Court, of course, but the lottery system is used to allot not only about half of the tickets for the "Cathedral of Tennis" but also for the No. 1 and No. 2 courts, the smaller, less-famous show courts.

You cannot specify how many tickets you want. Two is the maximum. You cannot specify which day you'd like to attend. All 13 days of play during Wimbledon fortnight are included in the lottery. And you certainly cannot specify where you'd like to sit. You can't even count on sitting together.

Considering all of those factors, we did remarkably well. Our tickets were for Centre Court, next to each other, on the second Thursday of the championships, the day set aside for the two ladies' semifinal matches. The tickets were a stiff 69 pounds a piece -- nearly $125 -- but deciding whether to go or not was not even a decision. "No" has to be a possibility for something to be a decision, right?

But now, after sending off a certified check and spending plenty more on airfare and lodging, we waited under our umbrellas for a double-decker bus to take us from the Wimbledon station on the London Underground to the 84-year-old grounds on Church Road.

Looking for a silver lining, we reflected that Wimbledon is famous for its rain delays, so there was something fitting about enduring a spot of dampness. Like a dish of strawberries and cream, a visit to Wimbledon wouldn't be complete without it.

And fortunately, soon after we reached the grounds, the rain petered out. A loudspeaker announcement informed the crowd waiting to pass through the security checkpoint that, barring further rain, the matches would begin on schedule at 1 p.m.

That set the tone for what turned out to be a glorious day of watching four of the best women tennis players in action, and, not incidentally, wandering the grounds and drinking in the atmosphere.

Spread over 42 acres, the All England Club consists of 19 grass courts, a variety of restaurants and food counters, two large shops and seven smaller outlets that carry Wimbledon merchandise, and a new tennis museum that features a holographic John McEnroe conducting a tour of the men's locker room.

In the center stands, well, Centre Court, dedicated by King George V in 1922 and frequently renovated and expanded over the years, including repairs in World War II, when five German bombs destroyed 1,200 seats. Next to it stands the new No. 1 court, completed in 1997, which has a giant TV screen facing a hill where as many as 3,000 people can watch coverage of the main matches.

From the top of the hill -- officially the Aorangi Terrace -- the whole of the All England Club and the rolling hillside beyond is on display. As befits a place that hosts the only Grand Slam tennis tournament still played on grass, the overwhelming color scheme is a deep, restful green. Advertising logos are mercifully discreet.

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