Advantages Magnificent game
9th July 2001, Centre Court, Goran Ivanisevic and Pat Rafter - and me. Yes, I was there - and I have not stopped smiling since. Its a daft thing to write an op on in a way, as it was by definition an utterly unique event, but I've bored all my friends to tears describing it and so now, I'm afraid, it is the turn of my fellow Ciaoers.I was actually here at work on Sunday when the news came through that the All England Club had decided to put 10,000 tickets for Centre Court up for sale for the mens singles final. I knew I wasn't working on Monday, I was exhausted from a long weekend, I didn't have £40 to spare but what the hell, I though, who could turn down a chance like that? I mean, how often in your life are you going to get to the men's final at Wimbledon, let alone with two such amazing players?
My plan was to stay with my parents in Clapham (not far from the hallowed grounds of SW19) and get a cab first thing in the morning. I arrived at 7am, to find a field full of bug-eyed Australians, many of whom had pegged it down there the night before to support their beloved Rafter. My hopes soared as there only appeared to be a few thousand of them. I parked myself and began a three hour wait, for which I had prepared myself with several books. I never got to read any of them. There was too much excitement in the air, too many buzzing Aussies playing football, singing and generally psyching themselves up. But that was nothing to what happened inside.The gates to the ground were opened at 9.30, the gates to centre court at 10.30. I got in at about twenty past ten, to find huge crowds massed against each gate to centre court, counting down the seconds to entry. When the gates opened there was a stampede. Singing and shouting, ten thousand hyped up tennis nuts stampeded into centre court. The look on the faces of the elderly stewards was priceless: they'd never seen anything like it. Some were thrilled. "This is what it should always be like, people fighting to get in" one said to me, describing the people who'd had tickets the day before, to the proper final, as a "bunch of coffin dodgers". In the place of elderly, respectable members of the All England club and the fat cats on corporate junkets, Centre Court was rammed with thousands of shouting, cheering, chanting flagwaving, true tennis fans, none of whom could believe their luck and all of whom were determined to turn this most sedate of sporting events into a carnival.
No wonder Rafter and Ivanisevic reeled when they walked onto centre court and into what must have felt like a wall of sound. According to my steward friend, normally on a final day half the seats are actually empty at the start of play because the corporate lot can't bear to tear themselves away from their smoked salmon and champagne, and drift on to court later. Not today. The crowd had spent an hour and a half hyping itself up before their arrival: there was the arrival of the Australian cricket team,w which brought the Aussies to their feet, the arrival of Jack Nicholson with Laura Flynn Boyle, and the priceless moment when they dropped their hollywood cool and leapt up to join in the mexican wave, there was the fun of making so much noise every time Sue Barker tried to do a piece to camera by the court that she couldn't help but laugh and fluff her lines, there was the arrival of McEnroe and Cash (more wild enthusiasm from the Aussies) - so by the time those guys arrived it was extraordinary the roof was still on the court. And the incredulous smile on Rafter's face, as he saw the sea of Aussie flags, painted faces, inflatable kangaroos and heard the roars of support, along with the site of disbelieveing officials with their fingers in their ears, said it all.It was hard to believe that the match itself could be anything but an anticlimax after all that. But everyone who watched on TV knows that it surpassed all to become the most exciting final anyone could remember. It was evident from the start that there was not a hair's breadth between the players, either in terms of ability or passion. By the end, both would have laid down their lives, at that moment, for that trophy. Both were inspired to find such moments of tennis brilliance as are rarely seen even on this court. I don't think it is possible, for example, to understand just how fast the Ivanisevic serve is without seeing it for real. How Rafter ever got it back I don't know. You see his arm go up, you see the ball tossed high in the air - and then the ball thudding into the safety net at the back of the court. Sometimes its not even possible to see whether it went cross or down the line. It was a shot only surpassed, possibly, by Rafter's magical ability to transform a viciously fast service return from Ivanisevic into a delicate drop shot, which time and again, bounced tantalisingly twice as Ivanisevic fruitlessly dived for it half a second too late.
By the final set I was exhausted. I spent most of the match on my feet cheering and clapping both players: apparently the umpire had to call for quiet a record number of times. I had taken my rings off long ago because I was clapping so hard they hurt. And I cannot describe the tension when Ivanisevic double-faulted on his first championship point, except to say that the only time I've experienced greater was when he double faulted on the second one. The nerveless lob with which Rafter saved the third brought the Australian contingent to their feet yet again, and the final Ivanisevic serve, almost one of his amazing second-serve aces, which won him the match was met by an erruption worth of a World Cup final. Quite simply, the place went nuts, knowing they were witnessing a poetic and historical victory. Both players flung their arms around each other: they knew too that they had played the game of their lives. Both were in tears, I think; certainly half the crowd were.The presentation, the interviews, the victory lap of honour... all one big celebration. Apparently you could hear the cheers miles away, up in Wimbledon village itself and beyond. Both players said afterwards they had never played in an atmosphere like it; the Duchess of Kent said she wished every match could be like that. But it is the very fact that no match has ever been like that before, or probably will be again, that made it so special.
Now, I am not normally a sports person. I like watching tennis, but that's as far as it goes. I support Chelsea, and am mildly pleased when they do well, but it is not the end of my world if they don't win. But on centre court on Monday I suddenly understood why some people feel the way they do about sport. Here were thousands of people from different countries, all passionate supporters of one side or another, yet united in their appreciation of an titanic struggle that somehow did all that stuff about defining the human spirit that sport at its best is supposed to do. Here were the Australians, devoted to Rafter yet who rose to their feet and roared their appreciation at every peerless Ivanisevic shot, their pleasure at such flawless tennis even overcoming their partisanship. No cheering of double faults here, one of the less pleasant habits of the Henman fans, for example.If this had been football, no-one would have dared to allow the supporters to mix, yet here I could yell for Ivanisevic surrounded by Australians, and yet share with them my appreciation of the game. And when Ivanisevic reached his goal of what seemed two weeks ago an impossible dream, when he was a wild card outsider with a damaged shoulder, a career in freefall and nothing but willpower and faith in his game to propel him foward, the Australians too cheered him as loudly as his supporters. And similarly, when the bitterly disappointed Rafter stepped up to take his runners-up plate, the Croats roared their appreciation of the man who had come such a gallant second and given us all a match to remember for a lifetime.
I, for one, will never forget it. As I said at the start, this is in some ways a stupid thing to write about on Ciao as it will probably never happen again. But it was a quite incredible experience, and a very uplifting one. I'll never look at sport, even things other than tennis, in quite the same way again, and that really is what I wanted to say here. Boys, you have a convert: I'll never try and change the channel, moan about football scheduling or take the piss again, I promise.Well, not for a week or so at least. :)
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