Wednesday, August 22, 2012


The ostensible reason for coming to London a few days earlier than required was to settle down a bit before my course began, but really it was just for Wimbledon. I had a very small window of opportunity before the daily grind began and I wanted to be able to grab it.

A Stefan Edberg/Boris Becker Wimbledon final in the 80s first brought tennis to my consciousness, after which the cool whites and greens became an annual harbinger of joy. Despite being the only channel available, PTV managed to provide quite a variety of sporting entertainment back then. Besides the obvious like cricket and hockey, it showed football world cups, Olympics events and live telecasts of Wimbledon finals, both gentlemen and ladies. In those 11 schizophrenic years of Zia where it was mandatory for a PTV announcer to wear a dupatta on her head, there was also Musarrat Nazir tossing her lustrous tresses on a psychedelic disco set and Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graff working their short skirts and rackets into the collective Pakistani consciousness.

So Wimbledon was a place of romance for me since childhood, right up there with the England of Enid Blyton's creation. Andre Agassi hitting a ball in mid-air on a Wimbledon court occupied the post above my bed (at a time he still sported long locks and a rockstar image) and life-lists in floral teenage diaries included watching Andre Agassi play a Wimbledon final live. Once Agassi retired, I transferred my affections and dreams to watching Federer play a final on Centre Court instead. So I wasn't going to miss the opportunity now that everything was aligned--I had a visa, I was in England and Wimbledon was on!

I arrived in London on the 27th of June and decided to attend the next match Federer was playing on the 29th. One of the best things about Wimbledon is that it reserves tickets for tennis fans who want to queue on the day, so there is no tension (or convenience) of acquiring one through dubious means. The catch, however, is that you need to queue overnight to get your hands on the limited number of tickets available this way. So, on my second day in the city, I packed my backpack and set off on the long trek to Wimbledon on the London Underground.
My brother decided to come along till Wimbledon station so I wouldn't get hopelessly lost on my way, but thanks to our spontaneous detour at St. Paul's Cathedral (about that in the next post) he got really late and had to head back home before the last tube, which meant I had to make my own separate way to Wimbledon. As I stood on the platform watching my brother's back recede I experienced a range of emotions from trepidation to a sense of novelty at the freedom to stand all alone late at night in a big city, about to embark on a midnight adventure.

At 12 AM I got off at Southfields Station (the right station for the Wimbledon Tennis Courts instead of Wimbledon Station itself) outside a quiet market square with little signs of activity besides a few people at a late night corner pub across the street. A man I asked for directions quipped, "You're a bit late for the matches' but pointed me in the general direction, which I dutifully followed up a road with rows upon rows of small, posh gate-less houses. The farther I went, the quieter and steeper the streets became, with just one woman with a dog walking behind me to provide some sense of comfort. After she too turned into an alley, I stopped, confounded and with no clue where to go next. Fortunately a few people passed by who informed me I needed to go back to the subway station and take a different road from there.

After a long trek downhill I reached the Southfields Station again, this time taking the road from the pub which eventually led to a couple of official-looking people standing on the pavement. I asked them about Wimbledon tickets and one of them shone a torch into the pitch darkness ahead of him which was met with an answering torch beam from what seemed like very far away. Walking in the direction of the beam I reached an official who cheerily informed me that I was the 943rd person in the queue and that meant there was no chance I was going to be able to get a Centre Court ticket in the morning. I could hope for a Court 1 at best and a grounds ticket at worst. For the uninitiated, Federer, the 6 times Wimbledon winner is given the respect of always playing on the grandest court in the grounds, Centre Court, so that essentially meant the reward for an all-nighter would be a half-Wimbledon experience. Yes I wanted to see Wimbledon, but Wimbledon without Federer is like strawberries without cream (unimaginative analogy I know, but at least it sticks to the theme). Considering how late it was by then, the decision was made for me, there was no going back. There was also the naive hope that I would still somehow manage to wrangle my way into Centre Court, after all I was the same person who had elbowed her way to the front row of a Junoon concert as a teenager, darned if I was going to let my old age get in the way of my desi fighting spirit now. I nodded my resolve to go on, but before waving me off the security guard asked if I had my camping equipment on me.

'Camping equipment? But I thought you could rent it on the grounds'.

Turns out you couldn't.

Peering into the darkness, I trudged on to the vast camping grounds dotted with a sea of tents--a mini-Mina of sorts, where I was escorted to the end of a snaking 'queue' of nine hundred and forty two tents. On my left, two young Indian men huddled over a phone, announcing to their friends that there was no hope of seeing Federer even if they stayed in the queue the whole night. On my right a man toiled to set up a tent, grunting and muttering to himself in, what to my unpracticed ears sounded like Japanese, as I dropped my backpack on the grass and lay down on its wet surface, backpack for pillow, marvelling at the stupidity of not even bringing a blanket to spread under me. The warm weather of the morning had fooled me into thinking I could just spend a night under the open sky without any protection, innocently unmindful till then of the treacherous nature of the British 'summer'.

It had become unmistakably chilly by the time the Indians decided to abort their quest and the Japanese managed to put up his tent and duly disappear within it. In fact, it was so chilly that I knew I wouldn't be able to survive the night in only my jeans, t-shirt and thin, half-sleeved sweater. I zipped open my backpack, fished out my other pair of jeans and wriggled into them over the pair I already had on, wrapping a flimsy cotton top around my ears to stop the freezing cold from seeping into all my joints and pores. It hardly made any perceptible difference. It was cold enough to qualify as a January night in Lahore but with added wind chill.

I can swear that along with my fingers, the hands on my watch also froze between 2:30 and 3:00 while I tried to inch my way nearer to the Japanese tent in the hope of finding some residual warmth. By 3:00 I was desperate enough to produce some strategically loud sniffs in the hope of rousing the chivalrous spirits of fans of a famously gentlemanly sport, but was only met with sounds of people shuffling underneath their warm tents trying to make themselves more comfortable. When I had dreamed of going to England and living the setting of so many of my favourite stories, I hadn't quite had Eliza Dolittle and The Little Match Girl in mind. But that was how it was, and thus I spent the whole night, occasionally walking around to try and stay warm with little to no effect.

Streaks of dawn began to appear on the horizon by 4:00 and the guards on duty told me they would start waking up everyone by 5:30. One of them took pity on my shivering state and suggested I go to the bathrooms for some respite from the biting wind. The makeshift bathrooms at the opposite end of the field were surprisingly clean and even a couple of degrees 'warmer' but there is only so long one can stay in a loo. By the time I returned to my spot I was so exhausted, cold and bleary that I would have forced my way into a tent at gunpoint if I had to. Fortunately for others this wasn't the US. 

I think my plight finally transmitted itself to my neighbour who poked his head out of his tent and asked me in half sign-language, half mumbo-jumbo if I wanted to come inside the tent. I swiftly calculated the possibility of a Japanese tennis-tourist turning out to be a molester but decided that by this time I was past the stage of caring. Next thing i knew I had crawled inside his tent and was lying gingerly on the edge of his air mattress. He turned out to be quite the gentleman and exited the tent soon after, leaving me to finally collapse into an exhausted stupor before the guards woke everybody up and nudged them into a tighter queue. 

In a couple of hours the whole site was abuzz with morning activity and sounds of tents being folded all around, while I tried to prolong my fitful sleep a bit longer by resolutely keeping my eyes shut. The air remained as chilly as the night before and the clouds above loomed dark and threatening. My tent friend hurried off to check up on his car leaving me in charge of his things, including a cell phone that kept buzzing while he was away. It had to be the most bizarre situation I have ever found myself in, and I have been in some. Upon his return I hauled myself out of the tent and tried to talk to him as naturally as one can to a stranger you just slept next to in a tent. The awkwardness of the situation was mercifully defused in the quest to join the corners of the tarpaulin and stowing the tent away neatly, when suddenly I noticed that there was nothing Japanese about either the man's features or his accent. Turns out he was French. So much for my nationality molestometer! And then we held hands, walked off the grounds and zipped around Europe for the next month, arriving in Pakistan in due time to feast on family blessings and copious amounts of laddu; bought a mountain chalet in Switzerland and lived happily ever after. 
No? Well, no! This is not THAT kind of story, though truth IS stranger than fiction as you shall soon find out. 

As I stood shivering on the side and a fresh gust of chill wind hit me, the cold and the exhaustion became overwhelming and I decided I had had enough dream-chasing for a lifetime, and the only one I cared about any longer was one involving a warm duvet and a bed. So with the single minded pursuit of the guestroom at my brother's place I power-walked my way right out of the grounds and on to the Southfields Station. French dude had gone off in pursuit of his car again and I didn't feel there was any particular need for me to inform him of my change in plans. 

On the train platform I began to have second thoughts. The night's tribulations nagged at me and it seemed ridiculous to leave when I had put up with so much already. Yet I knew I needed a warm jacket to survive the day. Catching pneumonia for a ladies match on Court 1 two days before my classes were to start did not seem like a good bargain. I asked a uniformed man if there was any place near I could buy a jacket from and he pointed me to a very Pakistani looking uncle manning the station newsstand, 'He knows everything there is to know about this area'. With that ringing endorsement I approached the man who told me no place would be open so early in the morning, but slipped in the reassurance that it would soon start getting warmer and that I should probably make my way back to the grounds. Something in his confident manner convinced me to brave the day anew, and I decided to return to the Wimbledon grounds. 

There the scene had now transformed. Everyone was packed together in a long queue and things were humming along. My queue card allowed me to jump the line to where I originally belonged. Standing together like that with so many other hopefuls, the whole effort felt far less futile. Sure enough the temperature also started to improve.
I found the friendliest people of my stay in England in that queue. The jovial, party-like atmosphere encouraged conversations and helped make the wait far less painful.  It was also there that I learned the biggest news of the day, that Rafael Nadal had crashed out of the tournament after a second-round defeat the night before. I also discovered that Aisam-ul-Haq would be playing in one of the grounds courts that day, a singularly cheery prospect. If there was going to be no Federer at least I could salvage the ticket price by cheering for my country. 

Chattering with an Irish couple behind me, I suddenly noticed my French guy make a reappearance through the crowd. I cheerfully stepped aside to make room for him as he strode up and asked, 
'Do you have my tent with you?' Not quite the question I was expecting. 
Racking my brain I hazily recalled him leaving to check up on his car right after I had helped him pack up his equipment. But how was I supposed to explain to someone who barely understood any English that I was feeling nauseous with cold at that point in time, had dropped my lifelong dream of attending Wimbledon altogether and nearly sat on a train and left, and that his tent was the last thing on my mind when I'd shuffled off the ground in a fatigued haze. I just stared at him, while his accusatory glance almost made me feel up my clothes to make sure I had not indeed poached his belongings. After several vehement shakings of my head, wild gesticulations and many sorry-i-have-no-clue faces he disappeared back into the crowd taking my morning's buoyancy with him. Such a bummer that he had to be rewarded for his kindness with the loss of his things and even greater bummer that, if not stealing, I could at least be genuinely accused of thoughtlessness. He showed up again after some time to tell me that nobody knew anything about where his things had disappeared, not even the officials, and I once again found myself in the position of protesting my innocence. After that he just disappeared and did not return to the queue, although his number was one ahead of me. I have a feeling he abandoned the grounds altogether. Bollywood won't be knocking on my door any time soon for scripts, I guess. 

Soon after, an official started handing out wrist tags to people in the queue. Purple for the Centre Courters, orange for those who would make it to Court 1 (that's me!), and other colours for Cort 2, 3 and the outside courts. The queue then started inching along a lake and over a bridge streaming Radio Wimbledon from sleek white speakers fitted discretely into its steel, green structure. It seemed solely obsessed with Andy Murray's progress in the tournament, but still, it was Radio Wimbledon and I was listening to it on the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon itself. 

Walking on the bridge I suddenly found myself right in front of what is the 'actual' Wimbledon, that iconic Star Sports image of charcoal buildings fronted by a riot of purple and white Petunias that year after year has marked the joyful arrival of summer for me. I stood and gazed upon it for many seconds, just basking in the wonder of my being there, and shedding some involuntary tears. Only one other thing moved me in the same way in my month and a half in England. But that's a story for another day.

The first view, though this is a picture taken later from within the grounds. The first glimpse was too special for me to bother with a camera.

A little something to be proud of as a Pakistani

Where I bought the Wimbledon insignia T-shirt for Talha and a purple & green Wimbledon umbrella that I lost in the tube a couple of weeks later :(

Nice name for a Wimbledon cafe

Instead of going into Court 1 and watching Sam Querrey vs. Milos Raonic, I chose to stay on the outside courts. I first got to see the thrilling sight of Novak Djokovic (my second favourite player on the circuit) come practice on one of the outside courts. I had seen both him and Federer six months ago at an exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi, so it wasn't completely novel, but still Wimbledon is Wimbledon. Djokovic is so much more tall, thin and wiry in person. On television he comes across as more beefy. 

After Djokovic left I scrambled to grab a good front row seat on Court No. 4 for the Aisam-ul-Haq/Jean Julien-Roger doubles match, unfortunately marred by numerous rain interruptions and some bulls-in-a-china-shop-type American 'fans' with whom I had a little side cheering-match of my own. One 'expert' from among them was informing the large group about tennis's point scoring system while they cracked loud jokes about American football. They were almost like a parody of Americans in England. I had a rather jolly time looking my real-Pakistani-tennis-fan nose down upon them. The Brits around me, equally true to their character, maintained polite poker faces. After cheering Aisam on to a first set win, I lost patience at his second set loss and decided to use my hard-won Court 1 ticket instead. (It was only the next day that I found out that Aisam had won that match)

Court 1 had two back to back ladies' singles matches. What a yawnfest! As far as I am concerned ladies tennis has been nothing but a disgrace since Steffi Graff, failing to generate a compelling narrative or a truly dominant champion ever since. In normal circumstances I wouldn't go see a ladies match free, but here I had paid £60 and needed to 'halaal' my money. By the time I entered Court 1, the clouds had disappeared and it was bathed in sunshine. I had an amazing seat that was barely two rows away from the action and it was so Wimbledon-y, so stately, that once there, I felt a lot less peeved about not being able to make it to Centre Court. Not only did I get my money's worth but Court 1's splendour, my great seat, and the obviously knowledgeable crowd made the experience way above and beyond my expectations. Also, if there is any ladies player I would like to see amongst the current crop, it is probably Maria Sharapova. Even women find it hard to resist such leggy, blonde beauty. Even though the ones behind me seemed to hate her with a vengeance, bitching about her grunting, and managing to find something crafty and devious in the slightest twitch of her finger. I thought she played some powerful and beautiful tennis, as did her opponent.

Even then, I slipped out once Sharapova advanced, to take in the sights and sounds of other outside courts. Each one had its own unique feel that no other court could replicate. Some sunken like Greek amphitheatres, others high up on a hill, yet others proudly proclaiming their glorious past:

And of course Henman Hill, which much to my surprise, even officials on the grounds referred to as that. I guess things will change next year after Murray's golden feat.
During my wanderings I found out that there is still a bright chance of getting into Centre Court. Federer's match was the last match of the day and a lot of people who have day passes to Centre Court leave towards the end and surrender their tickets at the gate for others to be able to enjoy. These returned tickets are resold at a price of £5 only and handed out to people who stand in a queue at a designated area opposite Henman Hill. Once I found that out I dropped all plans of returning to Court 1 to see Kim Clijsters and went and stood in the queue. Volunteers, who were friendly and honest with their advice, told me that I should return in an hour by which time the tickets would start pouring in and there would be a high likelihood of getting into Centre Court. When I returned at 6, Federer's match was well into the first set and the queue for the debencture tickets (that's what it sounded like, debencture) was snaking many miles long. Even then the volunteers were confident that I would be able to find my way into the match, 'Just hope that Federer loses at least a set'. Meaning thereby, that if the match ran a little longer there would be greater chances of 'experiencing Centre Court', as he put it. 

But before I could go the legitimate route, a man walked past calling out, 

'Anyone wants to go in alone? I have one ticket' 
'Me! Me! Me!'. 

He came over and quoted a price that didn't sound too exorbitant, I think something around £30. The rather upright British woman in front shook her head but I felt little moral qualms as I shelled out the cash hastily. Selling tickets in black is a frowned upon business inside Wimbledon, as well as hard to pull off around a network of officials, volunteers and security. But this was Federer, and I don't go to Wimbledon every day and Federer isn't getting any younger. I wasn't about to let that go for some dubious higher moral ground. Resolutely avoiding the lady's disapproving gaze, I grasped the ticket firmly and skipped out of the line straight toward Centre Court. 

What a magnificent sight. The closed centre-court roof.

The Centre Court atmosphere was electric under a closed roof where I sat next to a sweet, old British lady who gave me all sort of tips for my stay in England, despite my rather unfortunate opening question, 'Are you French?' I assumed anyone who was not clapping effusively for every Federer point had to be. Her response, 'Good heavens, no.' Haha. She was as British as they come.
Well, Federer didn't just lose one set, as the volunteer had asked me to hope, he lost two in a row, and it took all my doing to bring him back from the brink. There was some hard work to be done like joining in chants of, 'Let's go Roger! Let's go! *clapclapclap*', while shouldering the burden of getting him through with lone encouraging shouts at other crucial junctures. Roger eventually pulled through in five sets in a thrilling contest and especially mentioned the crowd's support in his post-match conference. What an amazing way to round off the day. 

On to the 4th round (and the title)
That's me surveying the grounds at the end of it all
I came out of the grounds to fading light, processing the events of a thrilling twenty four hours with every step that took me away and on to new adventures, none of which, I was sure would surpass my very first days in England. 

So long! And thanks for all the fish


  1. I enjoyed that. I went to Wimbledon in 2006. Got a ticket in the lottery for the centre court and watched Nadal play. Would have loved to see Federer, but that unfortunately didn't happen. I can so relate to the romance of Wimbledon. :)

  2. Loved this! Almost felt as if I was going through the tribulations of getting into Wimbledon with you! Well written! Looking forward to more outpourings!

  3. Great pics. Do share your views about Novak and surprised you didn't share any similar observations about Roger.

    A french man whom you took as Japanese... says it all about his looks. Else, it would've been compelling not to walk away from his tent (phone as well?? haww hye!!)

    Gives away great similarities with what could have been the start of a Noor Jehan/Jehangir kinda romance. Your only handicap was that you didn't have the second pigeon in your hands, to show him how you lost the first one at his Mughalia inquiry, voh hamara kabootar kya hua??

    All guys who are not cute can just take a walk but of course...which he did

    When the day had so much success for Roger's fans, how could he have not fought back from 2 sets down.

  4. WOW...... awesome post, made me smile so much. Good adventure!

  5. Reading this was so much fun. It's like reading an adventure story where you know the protagonist and are unconsciously cheering them on at each step. I look forward to news of more adventures.

  6. Haha reading this article was experiencing Wimbledon vicariously through you! I am soo jealous. But yes, I agree that women's tennis has suffered a lot; However, I think the Justine Henin-era produced very compelling matches, one of my favourites of all-time was a 2003 US Open Semi b/w her and Capriati - great stuff! Also, in the current crop, there are some who really know how to entertain - Jelena Jankovic, Sharapova, Angelique Kerber and there was another amazing match this year at Wimby b/w Wozniacki (who I despise) and Tamira Paszek, a brilliant, but mentally weak player from Austria. I urge you to watch highlights on youtube! :p Thank you for the entertaing account.

  7. Lovely reading...! Never had a Wimbledon experience for the years a lived there.. no reading this i regret it.. :( I should have!! :'(

    But I do love Southfields... Always enjoyed the Starbucks coffee in the morning sun across the road from the flower shop. Nice quite place.

    Did u know the first Mosque in London is in Southfields, called the London Mosque. Qaid e Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah attended a lecture there titled "The Future Of India" in April 1933, just before returning to India, hosted by Maulana Abdur Raheem Dard. Maulana sb convinced him to return to India. (A diff debate altogether :) )

  8. oh my God what a piece, i havent read such a sensational, descriptive and emotional piece in years. The night you spent on grass to get the ticket was like someone is waiting for love of his life. superb.

  9. Wonderful post Sabahat! I did not know what the fans have to go through to get to Wimbledon courts. I am SO happy you did not return home after your experience with the London chill. I think it was all worth it in the end :) Keep writing! I am curious to know what "other thing" moved you in the same way in your stay in England. Another post coming up? Dare I hope?

  10. Awesome post! Loved reading it.
    I do sympathize with the frenchman :P. Poor fella.

  11. Exceptional writeup. and whatta beyond exceptional (+ hilarious} advent to your first ever live wimbledon/roger match.
    Stay awesome. Write awesome.

  12. Brilliant post Thank you so much for sharing all with us .. You make me smile
    Best part of this post is Djokovic ( Nole ) Pictures ... Thank you for letting me have these pictures
    Heart you

  13. Thanks for this piece, I enjoyed it a lot. Great respect for your forbearance, staying up all night in the cold! The Benneteau match really was a great one, though I only watched it on tv.

    Have to say Wimby is one of my favourite places in London, though if you'll still be in London next spring its worth trying a trip to the French Open in Paris - easy to get there on the Eurostar (you could do it in a day trip at a push) and tickets are easy to get on the internet.

  14. Thank for reading Xoff, Shaista, Usman, Haider, Madeeha, Asif, Fakhar, Sohaib, Faiza, olenhad, Saad and Sara. Your encouraging comments made the effort of this post worthwhile :D

    Thanks for reading, Carl, and for the tip on getting to Roland Garros. I am back in Pakistan now and would unfortunately need a separate visa for France even if I were in England around that time :( I am really glad you enjoyed the post.

  15. WoW - Superb.
    Although I'd always been inspired by Blue Courts of Flushing Meadows but this SW19 made me feel at Center Court. You are among few lucky people on this planet earth who have seen RF live on Court. :) - I havent seen him playing on Grass but wanna see the Force and Execution of his Backhand down the line.

    Best Part was RF's Pics at Center Court.

    Thank you so much for sharing such a lovely experience.