WIMBLEDON, England — On both sides of the Atlantic, politics has come to be dominated by vitriolic name-calling and pervasive dishonesty. So it was a relief to escape, if only for a few days, to a more old-fashioned and genteel realm where actions speak louder than words and competition is governed by strict rules and a decorous code of conduct.
I speak, of course, of the Wimbledon Championships, which concluded on Sunday with a five-set endurance contest between two of the all-time greats — Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. I have been a regular spectator at the U.S. Open for a quarter-century, but this was my first visit to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. It felt so much like traveling in time back to the 1950s that I kept looking around to see whether a silver DeLorean was parked nearby.
There are no corporate advertisements on Centre Court and no corporate boxes. The only box belongs to the British royal family. Jackets and ties must be worn in the members’ “enclosure” (i.e., clubhouse) — and no jeans or “trainers” (Brit-speak for sneakers) allowed. Players must be attired in all white. The most common treat remains, as it has been since the tournament began in 1877, strawberries and cream washed down with a glass of champagne or a Pimm’s Cup. Afternoon tea, accompanied by scones and crustless sandwiches, is de rigueur. The food is familiar and far from Michelin quality — just as it was in the Britain of old, before London became a global foodie destination.
The tradition-laden grounds formed the perfect backdrop for a tournament dominated, as the tennis world has been for more than a decade, by the legends who have become known by one name. Roger, Rafa (Rafael Nadal), Serena (Williams), Novak: They were all competing on the last weekend of the tournament. Just as Wimbledon seems to resist the march of time, so do its leading players. Federer is a year older than Andy Roddick, the former world No. 1 who retired from professional tennis seven years ago. Yet at the ripe old age of 37 (old enough in tennis terms to be put out to pasture or at least the senior circuit), Federer was gliding around the court as smoothly as ever — and playing as gloriously as ever.
As I watched from just behind the baseline on Friday, Federer dispatched his great rival, Rafael Nadal, in four efficient sets. Federer’s serve has not lost its pinpoint accuracy, nor his forehand its power and his backhand its versatility — he still switches with ease between a tricky backhand slice and a speedy topspin. He even comes in to the net regularly, something few players do any more even on grass. Nadal is a formidable competitor in his own right who owns just two fewer Grand Slam singles titles than Federer’s record haul of 20. Just a month ago, he thrashed Federer in straight sets at the French Open. On Friday, Nadal fought off four match points in the fourth set before succumbing to Federer’s timeless greatness.
That set the stage for a men’s final for the ages. Federer was the clear crowd favorite as regular cries of “Let’s go, Rog-ah” attested. This was a long way removed from the obscene taunts that are a regular feature of Premier League football matches. The crowd’s worst breach of etiquette was to applaud Djokovic’s missed shots. But in fairness, they applauded his winners, too. One woman even screamed, “We love you both!”
The two combatants on Centre Court were impassive throughout. They did not shout, they did not berate the umpire or themselves, they did not break any rackets. There was, in short, none of the bad-boy behavior associated with earlier Wimbledon stars such as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors — or newer entrants such as Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic. Federer and Djokovic were as classy and quiet as a Rolls-Royce Wraith. They were men at work, and they concentrated on their labors with superhuman intensity.
A lesser player might have folded after losing a heartbreaking tiebreaker at the end of the first set. Not Federer. He came roaring back to take the second set, 6-1. A lesser player might have been disheartened by such a lopsided loss in the second set. Not Djokovic. He redoubled his determination and squeaked out another tiebreaker to take the third set. And so it went for four hours and 57 minutes – the longest Wimbledon final ever. The fifth set was one that no one who saw it can ever forget, even if Federer said he would like to. Acting as calmly as if he were out for a late afternoon stroll, Djokovic fought off two match points to win his fifth Wimbledon singles title in a tiebreaker played at 12-12.
It was so enthralling I often held my breath and barely bothered to look at my iPhone. But during a changeover in the fifth set, I checked Twitter and saw that President Trump had just made a racist attack on some Democratic members of Congress. Sigh. Back to reality. If only the modern world were as decorous as Wimbledon.