The crumbling porch at the entrance of that once fine edifice, the United Kingdom, is held up by a series of Corinthian columns: the monarchy, the great public schools, the ancient universities …
They have much in common. A rich patina of tradition suffuses everything they do. They all run their own operations skilfully; and they have the knack of creating an image of constancy while continually updating themselves, a process assisted by having vast reserves of money.
The All England Lawn Tennis Club is more an offshoot of the establishment than an integral part of it. But it is perhaps the most perfect example of this genre. And here we are again: summertime and all that. God’s in his heaven, Sue Barker’s on the telly, all’s right with the world and everything is as it always was.
Except in those cases where it isn’t. This year there have been two major innovations at Wimbledon. One is the new roof on No 1 Court: 70m quids’ worth of new clobber. It has not been in use yet; indeed the BBC – and it is very much its fortnight – is predicting there will be no rain between now and the men’s final.
But the roof is THERE. And somehow it feels more intrusive in repose than its 10-year-old Centre Court sister. It broods above this formerly charming tennis court like some mega-piece of industrial machinery. I began to feel we were in the innards of a nuclear power station, possibly with Homer Simpson in the umpire’s chair pushing buttons at random.
This reverie was abetted by the presence on court of the Romanian Simona Halep, who accompanies every shot with the noise that might represent the death throes of a strangled gazelle. Or maybe an alarm proclaiming that the reactor core was going into meltdown.
One can see that the Centre Court roof was a worthwhile investment to guard the tournament against really bad weather. But the extra one feels like a luxury item. By my reckoning £70m could build about 1,750 tennis courts across the UK. But there is one further characteristic that links this array of successful British institutions: a ruthless focus on their self-interest.
The other change may also not be needed this fortnight. The ludicrous matches last year between giant men with giant serves finally forced Wimbledon into accepting last-set tie-breaks. They decided not to resort to them at 6-6, as in the other sets, but only at 12-12, by which point the crowd’s enthusiasm is starting to morph towards exasperation. Since the turn of this century, only 14 singles matches (only one of those in the women’s event) have ever got that far.
It seemed like a good compromise, dealing with extreme situations without bringing great gladiatorial battles to a premature end. It also appears as though Wimbledon tennis has now lost the distinction it shared with baseball of being theoretically interminable. Baseball remains like that: if the scores stay level, the contest keeps going. And maybe the tennis could still be the same. Anyone who watched John Isner (6ft 10in) and Kevin Anderson (6ft 8in) in their semi-final last year could imagine them continuing a tie-break to infinity by dive‑bombing each other without dropping a service point.
There was a newcomer to their ranks this year, the 21-year-old American Reilly Opelka, winner of the boys’ singles in 2015. He was tall then. He is now officially 6ft 11in, apparently the tallest tennis professional of all time.
He beat a somewhat smaller German in straight sets, playing good all-round tennis rather than relying on an impossible serve. This was on Court seven, which is like playing tennis on the concourse at Euston. The world passed by, many pausing just long enough to point to Opelka and gasp. I squeezed on to one of the few benches and found myself next to the Opelka family, none that tall but very friendly. “Has his height been a plus or a minus?” I wondered. “Both,” said his uncle Frank. “For years he’s had people coming up to him and saying: ‘What basketball team do you play for?’ He just wanted it to stop.” Let’s hope he now makes himself famous for his tennis.
But after last year, there might just be a certain prejudice against the Brobdingnagians. Anderson, 26-24 winner over Isner a year ago, was shunted out on to No 3 Court at 11am on day one. Considering he was not just last year’s runner-up but is also the No 4 seed, that seemed rather insulting.
Fourth seed is a position normally occupied by the grand chieftain of the Murray clan. And when the hell did he last play on No 3 Court?