By Peter Fletcher
As a Brit, it is difficult to describe the origins of my love for tennis without mentioning Wimbledon. So much of the genesis of my passion for the sport has its roots in this great tournament in Southwest London.
Nothing encapsulates the feeling of being a British tennis fan in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s more than the ‘Tim Henman teatime rollercoaster’. Recent British success in the form of Andy Murray’s outstanding legacy and Emma Raducanu’s unprecedented US Open triumph has perhaps spoilt — and unrealistically raised expectations — for the more recent generation of British tennis fans. Back in the late 90’s though, it was all about the annual ‘Henmania’ ride/ordeal! I vividly remember watching on TV as he beat Paul Haarhuis in 5 sets in 1997 to reach the fourth round. Hopes were raised further with a 4-set victory over defending champion Richard Krajicek to reach the quarter finals, but he eventually ran out of steam in a straight sets loss to Michael Stich. Henman’s 1997 Wimbledon run had my wide-eyed eight-year-old self hooked, and this was around the same time I picked up a racket myself and began playing at my local club.
The height of Henmania came in the next few years, with back-to-back semi-final losses in 1998 and 1999 to Sampras. The moment that lives longest, and most painfully in the memory, came in 2001. The ultimate ‘one that got away.’ That fateful semi-final against a resurgent Goran Ivanisevic, the previous 3 time losing Wimbledon finalist, who had torn through the draw as a wildcard, ranked a lowly 125th in the world. We can all argue what might have happened without the rain delays, which caused the match to be played over 3 days. However, for me, the most exciting aspect of the match was the fact that the delays caused the final to be played on ‘People’s Monday’, and I was promised by my Mum that we would join the queue for tickets outside the ground if Henman reached the final! Sadly, this wasn’t meant to be, and Goran went on to complete one of the sport’s most remarkable stories by defeating Pat Rafter over 5 sets in the final. I can’t begrudge him for it!
Despite not making it into the Wimbledon queue in 2001, it wasn’t long before I was badgering my Mum to be allowed to join the queue the following year. I love the Wimbledon Queue as a tradition. The fact that a number of great seats for Centre Court (and other courts) are reserved for the proper tennis fans each day (up until the quarter finals) really makes the tournament unique in my opinion. Queueing overnight (which is required to guarantee Centre Court tickets) isn’t for everyone, but every time I’ve experienced the Wimbledon Queue, I’ve always met fantastic people, had great conversations about tennis and the atmosphere is almost festival like with people from all over the world gathering to share their tennis experiences and excitement about attending the famous SW19 tournament.
Despite my early tennis education being shaped around Wimbledon, it wasn’t long before I discovered the whole tour and some of my early favourite players were from much farther afield. I remember being mesmerised by a 16-year-old Lleyton Hewitt winning the title in Adelaide in 1998. The 1999 French Open final, with Agassi completing the career Grand Slam in dramatic circumstances also sticks in the mind. Agassi was my Mum’s favourite player, and we were fortunate enough to be in the crowd in 2006 for his last ever Wimbledon match, against a rampaging Nadal who would go on to reach his first Wimbledon final that year. On the same day, a young Andy Murray fully announced himself as a world class competitor with a clinical victory over Andy Roddick. It was well worth queueing overnight for the ticket on that occasion!
As well as an avid tennis viewer, I’ve always been a keen player since the summer of 1997. Never reaching a particularly high level, playing county level tennis as a teenager, I’ve always loved playing the sport, and still play 2 or 3 times a week to this day (aged 33 and when my shoulder allows me to!). I also try to travel to watch tennis whenever possible and have visited the Australian Open, Paris for the French Open (many times) and Monte Carlo on one occasion, with many more trips planned in the future. Anyway, thanks for reading my tennis origin story, and I hope you enjoy the picture of me with an oversized tennis racket and a (clearly) undersized shirt!