A quarter mile or so north of Centre Court, a row of courts, up a hill, past Court One and then arrive at Aorangi Park. This is the area where players practice.
There is an urgency on these 22 courts like none in tennis. The significance of Wimbledon is only one factor. Perhaps an even bigger driver of compulsion is the surface. Even as grass has been slowed, it remains grass – slick, fast, subject to random bounces that can unexpectedly turn the direction of a point. Come to think of it, isn’t that like life?
Maybe even more than team sports – where collaboration carries an implicit gestalt of imperfection and error – tennis players are fiercely self-reliant, independent thinkers who are addicted to control.
But the bounce can be so unfair.
Compulsion accelerates because court time at Aorangi is at a premium. Since grass can be rather dewy in the morning, no one can hit on the courts until 10 a.m., practice times carefully parceled, specific courts assigned.
Even though grass is slower than it once was, you’re still likely to see more players at the net here than on any other surface. So there was Christina McHale, striking volleys versus Julia Boserup. On the row below the two Americans, Victoria Azarenka also patrolled the net area, starting at the service line, taking a feed from her coach, Michael Joyce, to play a forceful volley, then taking two steps forward to snap off a winner.
You’ll also even see that bygone shot, the slice backhand. No different than a local teaching pro, on Sunday afternoon, there was Michael Chang, bucket in hand, feeding a slice of his own as his charge, Kei Nishikori, carved one back. Again and again.
Added to the mix is a tennis rarity: the surface itself changes. A week ago, the courts were pristine, a luscious, pure green. Rapidly, though, they get worn down. Back in the serve-volley era, the most worn out area was near the T area – where the center and service line intersect. These days, it’s the baseline and several feet behind it that turns a well-worn brown. Naturally, bounce-wise, the wheel of random fortune takes another turn. And let’s not forget the possibility of a bad slip.
How do you get to Wimbledon? Practice, practice, practice. But once you’re there, it’s a different story. Years ago, on the eve of his first match at Wimbledon, in an effort to sharpen his strokes just a little bit more, a young pro frantically sought to get in a few more minutes of hitting time on the grass. A veteran spotted him and offered this advice: Buddy, if you don’t have it by now – and left it at that.