Feinstein: I Miss Wimbledon

John Feinstein loves tennis, but he hasn't covered Wimbledon since 1991 – for many reasons

John Feinstein
July 02, 2019 - 11:34 am

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I miss Wimbledon.
         
Tennis’ most important and compelling tournament began Monday and will continue until a week from Sunday. In Great Britain, it is known simply as, “The Fortnight.”
         
I covered the fortnight for the Washington Post and The National Sports Daily on seven occasions. I haven’t been back since The National folded in 1991, not because I don’t love tennis or Wimbledon, but because I do NOT miss covering tennis.
         
The book I wrote on the two tennis tours, “Hard Courts,” sold extremely well—it got to No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list—and got great reviews except from a guy in Time Magazine, who was disturbed by the fact that I wrote about what a complete mess the sport was with players—mostly men—getting under-the-table appearance fees all over the world and then frequently tanking so they could collect their fee and go home; with the men’s game in completely dysfunctional disarray as everyone fought for power and money, and players thinking they had zero responsibility to their adoring public.
         
“We don’t need to talk to the media,” Andre Agassi’s agent, the late Bill Shelton, told me. “We reach the public through Andre’s commercials.”
         
Great.
         
Anyway, the guy ripped me for not recognizing “the beauty of the game.” Oh, please. I love tennis and I promise you I know—and knew—100 times more about the sport than this yahoo did. You try covering tennis for 15 minutes, then tell me about the beauty of the damn game.
         
Since “Hard Courts,” I have more or less stopped covering tennis, in part because golfers are SO much more accessible than tennis players and because life is just too short to deal with agents as much as one does in tennis. There is one tennis book I’d like to write before I die, but I’m betting it won’t happen because my publishers would roll their eyes if I suggested it: The grass court season in Great Britain lasts a total of five weeks—three warm-up events prior to Wimbledon and then Wimbledon.
         
The warm-ups are played in wonderful throwback venues like the Queen’s Club in downtown London and Eastbourne, on the English seaside. I’d love to spend a “season” writing about the uniqueness of the grass-court tournaments; the venues; the people and the climax that is Wimbledon.
         
Not holding my breath.
         
Wimbledon was never easy to cover. The very first day I went there was the Saturday before the tournament began in 1985. I took a walk around the grounds, partly to get my bearings for Monday; partly because I was in awe of the fact that I was actually there. Covering Wimbledon had been a fantasy of mine almost from the moment I got into sports-writing. Now, amazingly, I was there.
         
I walked into center court with an Australian colleague of mine. I was struck by how small it was and how green it was. It was a tennis version of Fenway Park.
         
There was a doubles match going on—four female members playing. I knew, from reading a Frank Deford piece on Wimbledon, that this was one of the many unseen traditions of the club. Center court is shut down as soon as the final match is played each year and no one plays on it for 50 weeks. Then, the Saturday before play begins, four women play doubles in order to break the court in a little before the previous year’s men’s champion opens play there on Monday.
         
My friend and I sat down quietly to watch for a little while. We’d probably been there about 10 minutes when a security guard walked up and said, “Sorry, gents, private game.”
         
Huh? Seriously? He was absolutely serious.
         
As it turned out, I got to know one of the four women playing that day and she was appalled to hear we’d been tossed. “Next year, if you want to watch, you let me know and I’ll make it happen,” she said.
         
That first year it rained on the opening Monday—surprise—all day. Wimbledon had just opened a new writing room for international reporters—non-Brits—and the Duke of Kent, just as bored as everyone else was being given a tour by Barry Weatherill, who was chairman of the press committee.
         
I needed SOMETHING to write about. I noticed the Duke peering closely at the various computers sitting on people’s desks. One of the three stories I had to file was something called, “Postcard from Wimbledon,” a four- or five-paragraph anecdote about something off the beaten path.
         
I approached Weatherill. “Would the Duke like to see how one of these works?” I asked, gesturing at my computer.
         
“Wonderful idea,” Weatherill said. “Let me ask.”
         
A moment later, I was summoned to the Duke’s presence. We were introduced. Not surprisingly, the Duke’s first comment was, “Washington Post? Woodward, Bernstein, those chaps?”
         
Yes, I assured him. Then I showed him how my Radio Shack Tandy worked, including how I plugged it into a phone to send it through London to Washington.
         
“And all you do once you dial the phone is sit back, put your feet up and light a cigarette?” the Duke asked.
         
Well, not exactly, I said but he had the basic idea.
         
“My goodness!” the Duke exclaimed. “That’s absolutely brilliant!”
         
I had my postcard.
         
Only two matches were played that day: John McEnroe—the defending champion—played to a 3-all first set tie with Peter McNamara before calling for tournament referee Alan Mills and insisting the court was unplayable.
         
Mills agreed. McEnroe and McNamara went to get a hot shower. On court 1, Ivan Lendl and an American named Mel Purcell played on into the gloaming. Lendl won in straight sets at about 9 o’clock with darkness closing in.
         
So, that was what I had for a lead: McEnroe playing six games and Lendl winning easily. Yawn.
         
But then Lendl threw a tantrum when he walked into the locker room and saw everyone else was gone and that McEnroe had been allowed to stop after six games.
         
With a Wimbledon member sitting next to him, Lendl ripped everyone but the Queen, screaming that he and Purcell could have been hurt and why the hell didn’t Mills tell him McEnroe had quit for the night?
         
“He didn’t ask,” Mills said later.
         
Lendl to the rescue. He was the lead, McEnroe the sidebar and the Duke the postcard.

The most frustrating thing about covering tennis in general and Wimbledon specifically was the lack of access to the players. At Wimbledon, we not only couldn’t get into the locker room; we couldn’t get into the players’ tea room without some kind of special pass—or with Bud Collins sneaking you in there, since he knew EVERYONE at Wimbledon.
         
Several years later, the great Ted Tinling, who the club had hired as a media consultant, insisted that the club begin inviting not only one of the British media to their morning media committee meetings, but also a member of the international media.
         
For years, a different Brit would go to the meeting in the morning, join the boys for a couple of glasses of sherry and tell them that everything was wonderful—plenty of beer in the English writing room; players brought to the interview room promptly and god-awful food in the cafeteria, which they loved. When the great Rex Bellamy complained in the London Times one morning about the lack of salad dressing choices, the committee had that fixed by lunchtime the next day.
         
Now that was power.
         
Ted—who I co-dedicated “Hard Courts” to, along with Bud—told Weatherill that foreigners, specifically, the Americans, had to be invited to the morning meetings. I was president of the U.S. Tennis Writers that year, so I was invited one morning.
         
The sherry was poured freely, everyone toasted everyone and Weatherill—a truly nice man—turned finally and said to me, “Everything all right with you chaps, John?”
         
I said we appreciated everything the club did for us, but…
         
I then launched into a bit of a harangue (I’d had at least three glasses of sherry by that point) about our lack of tea-room access; the fact that post-match interviews were always cut off after exactly nine minutes and that, lovely as the writing room (now four years old) was, it was nowhere near a bathroom.
         
The bathroom issue really bothered them. “Oh, my,” said one member. “We MUST do something about that.”
         
As for the access questions, Weatherill turned to Ted and said, “Surely, Ted, you don’t agree with this do you?”

“I only agree with ALL OF IT!” Ted said. “About time you all stop treating these players like they’re the Royal Family! They’re bloody tennis players! They should talk to the media wherever and whenever they are wanted! You’re letting these horrible agents run YOUR tournament!”
         
There was dead silence in the room. Ted was grinning like a Cheshire cat. He was 79 and didn’t really care what the chaps thought. He had known I’d bring up access and he pounced.
         
I staggered out of the meeting—never to be invited again—a few minutes later and passed out at my desk until just before play began. I was awakened by Richard Behrens, then the press officer. He had a message from Mr. Weatherill: whenever I needed it, the bathroom only a few steps from the media’s center court entrance that was located in the club’s offices was available to me. Any questions from security, send them to Mr. Weatherill.
         
You can’t say the chaps didn’t give it their all to make us feel welcome. The sherry was excellent.
         
I really do miss Wimbledon.
 
 
John Feinstein’s most recent book is, “The Prodigy,” a novel about a 17-year-old who has a chance to win the Masters and has to fight off agents, equipment and apparel reps and his own father who want to turn him into a human ATM machine even as the tournament is going on. His latest non-fiction book is, “Quarterback—Inside The Most Important Position in Professional Sports.” John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com