By Isabel Wing
In the late afternoon sun, the Wimbledon queue was all but empty. A few tents and stragglers were around, the stewards were lazing in lawn chairs, and I stood staring at my phone screen, waiting for the text that would turn my stressful travel day into a dream. Forty minutes earlier, I had been laying in a patch of grass by Charing Cross station in a sweaty, tired heap. I hadn’t eaten for eight hours, and I had been unable to navigate the grimy swarmed streets of London to find a café or a grocery store. I couldn’t get to my friend’s flat until early evening, and my inability to read a subway map had landed me by Embankment station, where I was told by someone that to get to the part of town my friends were in, I needed to take a boat across the Thames. After a day without food and a general fear of drowning, there was no way I was getting on a water taxi. I walked until I found ground to sit on. It was nearing 4:00 in the afternoon, and I was just starting to chill out when my phone buzzed. It was a message from Jack, a tennis podcaster I knew from Twitter. We were planning to be at Wimbledon the same week, so there were tentative plans to hang out at the tournament. I knew he had scored a ticket to Andy Murray’s match on Centre Court that evening, and I was naturally jealous. I opened the message, and read, “I will more than likely have a spare ticket if Scott can come good!”
“To Andy?” I replied.
“Will confirm when Scott confirms!”
The match was scheduled for 45 minutes from now. I had to decide. It would take half an hour to get to the park and it was far away from where I was staying. If I got into the match, who knows when it would end? I didn’t have a key to my friend’s flat, I didn’t know how to get there, and my phone was losing battery. Would there be time to eat anything?
Two weeks earlier, I moved to the UK from California, where I grew up watching Wimbledon in my living room every summer. It was the only grand slam I could watch uninterrupted; there was no school, the matches were on at six in the morning, and my summer job at a theatre was in the evenings. For every final, my mother would make popovers (or Yorkshire puddings, as they’re called here in the UK) with jam and strawberries. I dreamt of going to Wimbledon one day, perhaps before Roger Federer, my favorite player, retired. It all appeared so inaccessible to me, thousands of miles away in a grassless city. On television, they showed all the Hollywood actors in the stands, those with the means to travel continentally just for these matches, those who could afford show court tickets and accommodations, decked out in Ralph Lauren polos that were probably complimentary. It looked glamourous and out of reach from my suburban living room.
Later, I learned of grounds passes and Henman/Murray Hill where spectators could sit in the rain and watch the action. With some planning, that experience seemed within my grasp. Before I even purchased a ticket to London, I made plans to get to Wimbledon. I found family friends who would let me crash for a few nights, and a grounds pass would be enough. There were few opportunities to see live tennis in my hometown, though California is always sprouting new and talented players. The closest tournament was Indian Wells, but that was hours away and never scheduled during my spring break. For 26 years, I had only ever seen tennis on television or a computer screen.
Before Jack could confirm, I gathered myself up and headed for the train.
Holding my overnight bag and trench coat, I hung around the front gates and peered through like a lost dog. Court No.1 was ahead of me, and I saw purple and green flower arrangements decorating the walls of the stadium. Jack came to meet me and told me that the ticket to Andy’s match may have gone to someone else. “No, it hasn’t,” I said. “I’m already here.” I don’t usually believe in manifestation, but today I was summoning all the powers of the universe to bring me this ticket. Jack suggested I buy a grounds pass anyway so I could sit on the hill to watch the match. We walked to the short queue, chatting about tennis and my chaotic day in London. As we reached the tents, Jack pulled out his phone. He smiled and showed me the message from Scott.
“She’s all good to go!”
As the powers of the universe descended upon me like a long-awaited storm, all my hunger, exhaustion, and disbelief rose to the surface of my brain, and I burst into tears. Jack was laughing at my comical appearance, and the woman at the ticket counter asked what I wanted. I stopped hyperventilating and choked out “Just a grounds pass.” “Five pounds,” she said. I began to tear up again.
When we reached our seats, I took in Centre Court in its entirety. It was smaller than I thought it would be. The court was a bright green, with no dry brown spots yet. Andy Murray and John Isner were already mid-set, and our seats were right above the scoreboard. I snapped a picture and sent it to my parents in California. At once, they turned on their televisions and focused on finding me in the crowd rather than the match. It was surreal. Andy Murray was right in front of me, fuming as always. The wallop of Isner’s serve reverberated through the stadium, so fast I couldn’t see it. The energy from the crowd was like caffeine, and I forgot to feel hungry or drained.
The crowd was predictably biased, and I fell in step with the Andy fans, cheering wildly and pumping my fists with every point won. I was grateful for the crowd’s energy. At home, watching with family, there is often a slew of screaming and swearing, with the occasional sob. Friends know me to be intense when I watch tennis, so much so that watching me was more entertaining than the match. Sitting in Centre Court, I didn’t know if my usual vigour for tennis would be appreciated, or even allowed. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that everyone was here for the same reason. After years of dreaming, I was at the epicenter of the sport I fell in love with when I was ten. I was planted amongst people who understood why I was screaming, who wouldn’t laugh derisively when I cheered so hard that I fell out of my seat when Andy won the third set. The community that I found through Twitter, of all places, had led me here. Tears rolled down my sunburned cheeks and I felt deeply indebted to those who had welcomed me into this circle. Jack chuckled at my constant displays of emotion but understood exactly how I felt.
The rest of the weekend at Wimbledon is blurry now, a jumble of long queues, red wine, and grass stains. I moved from court to court, catching bits of every match. I, regrettably, left before the end of the third set of the Liam Broady-Diego Schwartzman match, thinking it was soon to be over after Diego won five games in a row. I watched the end of it on the hill. When the early evening rain came down, I stood under my umbrella as everyone ran for cover. The hill emptied and I stood alone, the sky was grey, and I was soaked, but I hardly noticed. When the clouds cleared, the scent of rain and earth rose up and the purple and white flowers were glowing. The grass looked even greener.