Centre Court at the All England Club, the most storied venue in tennis. (Julian Finney/GETTY IMAGES)

In many ways, it was a blessing for Marion Bartoli to have lost her first Wimbledon final.

She was just 22, and her head was spinning as she stepped out to Centre Court, having been escorted from the All England Club’s Ladies Locker Room for the traditional walk that wends past the gallery of former Wimbledon champions, past the trophies in glass cases, past too much splendor to absorb en route to the most famous stage in tennis.

“Everything was just like a dream coming true,” Bartoli recalls of the moments preceding the 2007 match. “I was almost too impressed by the court, the occasion, Venus Williams on the other side of the net. I was just literally looking all around constantly, which is not good if you want to win the final!”

Bartoli didn’t win that day, permitted just 90 minutes on Centre Court by Williams, who hoisted the championship trophy for a fourth time. But the experience paid dividends six years later, when the Frenchwoman earned a second trip to the final and stepped on court as if a thoroughbred with blinders, blocking out the beauty of her surroundings until the trophy was in her arms.

Any world-class tennis player has total recall of the masterful drop shot she hit on set point, as well as the perfectly lined-up backhand she plowed into the net instead. But Wimbledon champions and runners-up share an equally indelible memory of the singular pageantry that happens before the final.


Marion Bartoli poses with the trophy she won on her second trip to the Wimbledon women’s final (Stefan Wermuth/AP)

The fine points of the meticulously choreographed, chaperoned 2-minute 20-second walk that leads to Centre Court have been tweaked over the decades as the All England Club has modernized its locker rooms and redone its interiors. But it remains unique among Grand Slams. And in a world of oversharing, its protocol remains largely a secret to all but the best of the best.

At the All England Club, which hosts Wimbledon each year, nothing is prized quite so much as precision and punctuality.

And the clock will start ticking for Saturday’s women’s final between seven-time champion Serena Williams and 2016 finalist Angelique Kerber the moment they are summoned from the second-floor locker room by Lorrayne Gracie of the All England Club.

Gracie will lead them through a carpeted hallway lined with leafy green plants, past the photographs of champions past. They will walk through the elegantly furnished Members’ Area, where heads of state of sometimes wait to wish a finalist from their country well.

Then it’s down a winding staircase and past the Gentlemen’s and Ladies’ trophies, each displayed in its own case.


Billie Jean King holds her trophy while Chris Evert looks at her runners-up medal aafter the 1973 Wimbledon final. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“When you see the trophy gallery, that is the most amazing,” Bartoli recalled in an interview last week, “because you just want to grab that trophy, literally, out of the [case] and just hold it for yourself!”

On Saturday, with Gracie setting the pace, Williams and Kerber will follow behind.

They will pause on the parquet floor, with Wimbledon’s uniformed Service Stewards, drawn from different branches of the military and London Fire Brigade, standing at attention.

Should Kerber glance at the dark green Champions board on the wall, she will note Serena Williams’s name, lettered seven times in gold, among those of each champion since 1877.

Should she glance instead at the wall above the doorway to Centre Court, she will see a fragment of the Rudyard Kipling poem “If—”: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same.”

For Hall of Fame inductee Chris Evert, reading that quote before each of her 10 appearances in Wimbledon’s final was a treasured moment.

After a few more steps, the finalists will pause in a carpeted foyer, having been handed an enormous bouquet of flowers custom-made for the occasion and delivered to the grounds via an elegant black car that morning. Gracie will peek at the on-court digital clock for the countdown and wait for it to display 2:00.

At that moment, she will lead Williams and Kerber out. They will make an immediate left turn but not yet be visible to the 14,000 in the stands.

That’s when Evert always heard the hush. “You can actually hear it,” she recalled. “‘Hushhh!’”

“Meantime, you’re shaking in your boots,” nine-time champion Martina Navratilova said.

Once they turn the corner, the noise explodes. The sound of applause and cheers still stays with Navratilova.

“ ‘Ah, this is what it’s all about!’ ” she recalls thinking. “I loved it! This was what all the work was for.”

Until 2003, it was customary for Wimbledon’s female finalists to curtsy to the Royal Box before play began. For 1994 champion Conchita Martinez, the curtsy was a source of great anxiety.

“I was more worried about that — about messing that up — than anything else,” Martinez recalled. “But for me, the special thing was that Lady Di was here. For me, that was the highlight.”

Navratilova also remembers how special it felt to play in front of the late Princess Diana. She holds a special fondness for the princess of Wales: “She was always smiling.”

Evert was taught to curtsy just minutes before her first Wimbledon final, in 1973, by her opponent, Billie Jean King. In that era, the women’s finalists were led from the locker room to a small waiting room just off Centre Court and left there until summoned. That’s where King schooled her young rival.

“She just showed me,” Evert recalled. “She showed me, with one leg behind the other, you bend one leg and then the other. She went down with the knee; she was very dramatic! I said, ‘I’m not going to be quite that dramatic, but I get the gist!’ ”

Decades ago, also in that waiting room, women’s finalists had to stand for inspection by a steward charged with ensuring their outfits complied with the “primarily white” dress code. Evert failed inspection one year, sent back to the locker room to change out of the red ruffled bloomers she wore under her dress. She had made sure they were hidden by her white dress; the All England Club was not swayed. She ended up grateful to have packed a backup pair in white.

Though curtsies are a thing of the past, the Royal Box remains a prominent part of the Centre Court pageantry. Williams will have a friend there Saturday: former actress Meghan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, who will attend with her sister-in-law Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.

Williams has faced the Royal Box seven times with the Wimbledon trophy in hand.

For Bartoli, once was enough to last a lifetime. Just two weeks after winning Wimbledon, she announced her retirement at 28.

But so much about that day lingers still. The beauty of the court, the perfect blue sky, the faces in the Royal Box and the bouquet that she brought back to the flat she was renting. She put the flowers in a vase and enjoyed them for a few days, while she stayed in London to tour the city and fulfill media obligations. But she couldn’t carry them on the plane back to Paris.

Five years later, they live on in her mind, like so much about that afternoon.

Beautiful.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Princess Diana as the duchess of Kent.