Editor's note: Jim Caple is spending two weeks on Page 2's dime traveling through Europe for a firsthand look at, to name a few, Wimbledon, the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and how far he can carry his wife.
WIMBLEDON, England I haven't been in bed in two days.
I've flown nearly 6,000 miles, crossed an ocean, spent a sleepless night on a cold sidewalk and stood in line for tickets so long that my feet feel as if I walked all the way from Seattle to London.
|Jim Caple's Lost in Translation tour
And yet I don't care right now. I'm in the second row at Wimbledon's Court 1, eating strawberries and cream from one hand, drinking a Pimm's lemonade from the other and sitting so close to Maria Sharapova that I should have a dollar bill in my mouth.
Wimbledon's defending champion might be one of sport's most photogenic athletes, but Sharapova is more dazzling in person. Her tanned legs seem to reach to the stars and she is so powerfully long and lean that, as my friend Paul says, she may feed herself by chewing leaves from trees. Four-inch gold earrings dangle from each lobe and she wears a gold-flecked designed tennis dress so fashionable, Wimbledon has asked to keep it for display in its museum. Each time she prepares to serve, virtually every male in the stands snaps her photo.
And so many fans shout "Maria!" between serves that it's not clear whether I'm at Wimbledon or an outdoor performance of "West Side Story."
Hearing one of these calls, the fan on my left grumbles, "I don't know if Wimbledon should encourage this business of calling players by their first names."
Mind you, this comment doesn't come from some woolly old buzzard still upset about India gaining its independence it's from an otherwise good-humored, open-minded Scottish philosophy student in his 20s who spent part of the previous night in the ticket queue ranting to me about "Revenge of the Sith." The whole problem with George Lucas is he doesn't have any respect for dialogue. He thinks it's just another sound effect.
And yet now here he is seated at Court 1 complaining that fans are being a tad too familiar by addressing players by their first names. Next thing you know, he'll moan that the game has been going downhill ever since Helen Wills Moody retired.
Wimbledon has that effect on people, though. It's such a marvelous, timeless place that you want to preserve it in shrink wrap. Not that you need to, because it's already literally bombproof Nazi bombs fell on Centre Court in 1940 but did not destroy it.
Wimbledon is the first stop on my Lost in Translation tour of European sport, and like Augusta and the Masters, it is not so much a sporting event as a destination. It's a place where you don't really care who is playing just so long as you're there to see them. In fact, even if no one was playing you would be quite satisfied just to be here. It's odd how simply seeing the Wimbledon tube stop on a public transportation map it's the last station on the District Line out of London can paste a smile on your face. There is such an old London storybook charm to the place that I can practically see Mary Poppins floating down to Centre Court with her umbrella.
Or maybe I've just had too many cups of Pimm's in my sleep-deprived state.
Wimbledon is so proper that it refers to the female competitors as ladies and the males as gentlemen, so precious that its tickets show a picture of a tea set and so taken with its own history that it places its old lawn mowers on display outside Centre Court (and to think my wife considers me a hillbilly if I leave the lawn mower near the front of our garage).
|POSTCARDS FROM EUROPE|
England is the country of Shakespeare, Dickens and Churchill, but for my money, the nation's greatest wordsmiths are the copy editors who write the headlines for London's tabloids.|
Consider this provocative cover from The Sun, the paper that famously printed the photos of Saddam Hussein in his underwear this spring. Hussein's lawyers, apparently, are threatening to sue The Sun over those photos, prompting the paper to run yet another front page photo of Saddam in his tighty whities with this headline:
"As Saddam Instructs His Lawyers To Sue The SUN Over Those Pants, We say
"YOU AND WHOSE ARMY?
"( Oops, you haven't got one)"
As if that isn't enough to get you to throw down 50 cents for the paper, there was this enticing teaser in the top right corner.
"Who Shared Di's Bed on Divorce Day?"
Top that, Shakespeare.
On the other hand, it also sells southern-fried chicken next to the strawberries and cream at the concession stand. What's next, Elvis impersonators?
The dress code for players may be predominantly white but the predominant color of Wimbledon is green, every shade visible almost everywhere you look. There is no garish advertising, nor is anyone dressed as a giant tennis ball, no annoying Wimbledon mascot named Wimby. More than 40,000 fans can be on the grounds at any time but the place is remarkably peaceful and intimate. Walking along the narrow path separating courts 14 and 17, there are literally matches at my shoulders, so close that I can practically identify the players' brand of deodorant. It's like getting to the Yankee Stadium concession stands by walking behind Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
Wandering the grounds I not only rub shoulders with today's players, I also find myself stepping back in time. As carefully preserved as everything is, I almost expect to find Bjorn Borg on Centre Court, Chris Evert on Court 1 and John McEnroe on Court 2. In fact, McEnroe is on Court 2, playing 45-over doubles with Peter Fleming.
True, this is not the McEnroe of the early '80s. For one thing, the old McEnroe wouldn't be caught dead wearing Capri pants. This McEnroe not only does so, he also clowns around, playing to the audience by tossing his racquet and staring at the umpire in mock anger. This is in stark contrast to the day years ago when he shouted at a fan, "Do you have any problems other than that you're unemployed and a dork and a moron?"
Should McEnroe shout such a thing today, of course, he would leave himself open to the inevitable response, "Who's calling who a dork? You're the one in the Capri pants."
Even if McEnroe is kinder and gentler, he still can play a little, with blazing serves and agile volleys that make you think that perhaps the Wimbledon grounds aren't the only ageless things here.
Paul and I arrived here to camp out for tickets at 11 the previous night and over 21 hours we experienced virtually everything Wimbledon offers. We see McEnroe win on Court 2. We see Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport win on Court 1. We see a doubles match on Centre Court, then listen to a thunderstorm straight out of Revelations pound against the rooftop. Even that storm is welcome, providing us the true Wimbledon experience a rain delay.
The day's only unfortunate moment is when I forget to turn off my cell phone at Court 1 and it suddenly rings in the middle of Davenport's serve. It's a rental phone with a Liechtenstein area code and the unfortunate ring tone of "Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas." It is very small and a little tricky to operate, so by the time I finally pull it from my pocket and turn it off, I feel every eye in the court on me and these stares are not the loving ones directed earlier at Sharapova. I slouch in my seat, certain Wimbledon security will cart me away to the Tower of London.
They do not, instead simply reminding me to double check that the phone is turned off. Evidently, even the police are caught by Wimbledon's spell. How else to explain the final sight I spy before reluctantly exiting the gates? For as the heavens rain down to suspend play for the evening, there is a police officer, splashing from puddle to puddle with his arms stretched wide, his hands waving and his head tossed back as if he were Gene Kelly, singing in the rain.
I haven't been in bed for two days but I feel like joining him.
Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is on sale now at bookstores nationwide. It also can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.