Enjoying the sights, sounds and tastes of England

Updated: June 23, 2005, 9:50 AM ET
By Barry Lorge | Special to ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England – It was a perfect day for wandering at Wimbledon, for wondering which court to pop in on next, for sampling a splendid smorgasbord of 71 scheduled matches. And for savoring the panorama of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club in all its picturesque glory. The verdant 42-acre grounds basked in warm sunshine that also seems to uplift the spirits of everyone from players to vendors of "ice lollies," which are a sort of traditional British popsicle.

The glorious landscape was ablaze in vivid colors, a veritable botanical garden. The idyllic afternoon lingered softly into twilight. The third day of the 119th renewal of the oldest tennis tournament was ideal for taking in all the flavors and textures, aromas and hues, for stopping to smell the roses and taste the strawberries. And for adults, to sip Pimms Cup – a favorite British summer drink that on Wednesday, the catering director reported breathlessly, smashed all previous records for one-day consumption at The Championships.

For hors d'oeuvres, there was Taylor Dent, who had been extended to five sets in the first round, looking surprisingly fresh in spanking fellow American Kevin Kim 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 on Court 18. For lunch, Kim Clijsters showed how much of her old swiftness and mobility she has reclaimed from injuries in routing Marissa Irvin 6-1, 6-1 on Court 1. At teatime, U.S. Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova reversed a defeat in Dubai against Sania Mirza, the pride of India, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-4 on Centre Court.

For supper, women's top seed Lindsay Davenport devoured Jamea Jackson 6-0, 6-3 on Court 2. And there were plenty of delicious leftovers for those inclined toward roaming in the gloaming. Mario Ancic, the thunderbolt-serving Croatian who was the last man to beat two-time defending champion Roger Federer at Wimbledon, prevailed in a tougher-than-anticipated 7-6 (6), 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 triumph over Danai Udomchoke of Thailand that ended at 8:30 p.m. on Court 14.

Martina Navratilova, nine-time singles champion, successfully began her quixotic quest for an eighth ladies' doubles title, which along with her four mixed doubles crowns would give her a grand total of 21, breaking a tie with Billie Jean King for Wimbledon's all-time career record for trophies collected. At the end of the match, a beaming Martina lingered to sign autographs for the stragglers on Court 1 – including many who had queued for hours to get into the grounds five or six hours after play began, then obtained tickets turned in for resale by those who left the feast early.

As the curtain of darkness began to descend over Centre Court, there was a dash of bitters as a nightcap for diehard British fans: Joachim Johansson of Sweden outslugged Greg Rusedski, the Canadian-born adopted son of the Union Jack, 7-6 (10), 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5), the match ending at the stroke of 9:12 p.m.

Such an all-day banquet for the senses and sensibilities. The best tennis of the moment, with liberal side servings of nostalgia. Wimbledon is also a giant annual reunion of the tennis world, with past champions and other luminaries gathering to the great delight of idolaters and practiced people-watchers. The order of play features appetizers and main courses and flavorful ethnic entrees – all served up on 19 green trays: grass courts surrounded by flower- and shrub-lined walkways.

Wednesday's total attendance was 42,100, the second highest of all time, just 357 bodies shy of the single-day record set on the first Wednesday of 2002. Even with such crowds, Wimbledon never feels uncomfortably claustrophobic these days because the bountiful buffet is tastefully presented on multiple "show courts," with balconies and terraces that overlook the outside courts.

Fans of all ages picnic and watch a giant-screen TV from "Henman Hill," a grassy natural amphitheater so named because Brits congregate there to watch native son "Gentleman Tim" Henman. Amenities for fans as well as players have been upgraded impressively through the years, with food courts and spacious tea lawns that add luster to the most magnificent setting Anglophiles and tennis aficionados could imagine.

As The Championships have expanded and modernized over the past three decades, the growth has been guided by a philosophy of excellence that is cherished and nurtured by all the men and women in their mauve-and-green All England Club colors who oversee the sport's pre-eminent spectacle.

"I think we have kept to our principles," Chris Gorringe, the amiable and efficient CEO of the club and The Championships, was saying Wednesday morning. "We have tried to maintain the integrity of the sport. Our No. 1 mission statement, as it were, is to be the premier tennis tournament in the world, and on grass. The 'and on grass' is very important. This place just would not be the same without playing on the surface that we started off with.

"I think we've tried to balance traditions with innovations. There is no point in holding onto tradition for tradition's sake. But if you believe in something, you should see the thing through and try to maintain what's important – like the predominantly white clothing, which we believe in. Like having no advertising around the courts, and not having direct sponsorship. Like the grass, which needs to be perfect. It's standards, I think. And attention to detail, which I feel passionately about."

That direction extended to the architects who were charged in 1990 with devising a 20-year development plan. "We sort of characterized that plan to be 'tennis in an English garden,'" Gorringe said. "One thing we didn't want to cut back on was landscaping."

The result is loving preservation, and even improvement, on a setting so spectacular it inspires excellence. The great writer John McPhee, in his classic 1970 long essay/short book about why Wimbledon is the ne plus ultra of the sport, quoted two-time Grand Slam champion Rod Laver, who once won 32 consecutive singles matches in The Championships: "It's what the atmosphere instills here. At Wimbledon, things come to a pitch. The best grass. The best crowd. The royalty. You all of a sudden feel the whole thing is important. You play your best tennis."

That remains true today. And naturally, more than a dollop of good weather is like cream on the famous English strawberries that are a trademark treat. So far, both have been spectacular. Wednesday was sunny and hot, with light winds and temperatures that maxed out at about 85 and had dropped to a balmy 75 at dusk. More of the same, even a little warmer, is predicted for Thursday, but then an ominous outlook from forecaster Roger White: "This is probably the last dry and hot day in this spell. A thundery, humid, but still warm day likely for Friday."

The British people – including All England Club officials and staff – relish the wonderful weather while it lasts. Alan Mills – Wimbledon's referee since 1983 and who, like Gorringe, is retiring at the end of this year's tournament – has been coming here for 51 years, first as a player, then in other capacities. He remembers when a full fortnight of sunshine was referred to as "Wimbledon weather." That was pre-global warming. "I think in those days, the whole country decided to take two weeks off from their jobs and go on holiday because they were guaranteed good weather," Mills recalled, a trifle wistfully.

The old-time "Wimbledon weather" helps the players get into a rhythm, and certainly makes the referee's job much easier. "At least you know you're going to play the matches, and you're going to finish the matches each day – at least most of them," Mills said. "Also, everybody is much more amenable. People are walking around with smiles on their faces. The players are happy because they know when they're going to play, where they're going to play, not wondering – as we normally get – 'When is the rain going to stop?' The answer to that, of course, is: 'How long is a piece of string?'"

But on these sun-splashed days, the All England Club is a rhapsody in green and mauve. Vines climb the walls that are painted, an architect explained, "a deep shade similar to holly bush, but generally known as 'Wimbledon green.'" These are accented by purple petunias and surfinias that drip from balconies and window boxes. The grounds are a multihued palette of flora, including bed after bed of those incomparable English roses.

"Wimbledon weather" also whets appetites for more than tennis. Martin Joyce, managing director of the catering company that serves The Championships, said that the accent so far has been on "lighter foods: freshly filled baguettes, salads, strawberries are selling fantastically well, and obviously drinks are just going out the window."

The favored alcoholic beverage of Wimbledon is Pimms Cup – a venerable secret recipe that is similar to sloe gin and is mixed with two measures of lemonade and/or ginger beer, then garnished with fruit, mint and an essential ingredient: cucumber. "At Wimbledon, we put a little strawberry in, just to give it a nice touch," Joyce said. "Here at Wimbledon, we invented Pimms No. 1 in draught form, so it comes in 11-gallon barrels, premixed, so it's perfect."

Surely, nothing less would do.

Joyce informed me late in the day that 7,000 portions of strawberries and 24,000 ice creams had been provided to patrons Wednesday. As nightfall neared, he telephoned with a late scoop: "We've just got a flash," he said, unable to curb his enthusiasm. "We're going to hit 20,000 Pimms today. That's 25 percent more than we've ever served in one day."

Another record for the ultimate tennis tournament in the most extraordinary of English gardens.

Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.