It’s not about the money. Richard the tour guide would repeat this refrain frequently, even though no one ever argued the point with him. The first few times he said it I thought the same obvious thing any of us would, given a world that looks like it does and more so all the time: yes it is. Instead he drew our attention to all the things it was about—the manicured hedges lining the balconies over the side courts, the grass that now stood at thirteen millimeters but would be sliced down to eight for play, the trained hawk that circled the grounds each morning to scare away other birds. And wandering through it all, I came to feel that Richard’s strange line was really just an alluring glimpse at the core of Wimbledon’s offer: come inside, and think of nothing but this.
The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club is quiet in March. The courts aren’t playable yet; futuristic grow lights slide slowly over their surfaces, bright enough to turn grass a temporary brilliant yellow. It was raining when I went. I took the trip because I was in London anyway, and when else would I be back? Certainly not to see matches, I would soon learn on the tour; tickets are sold on a lottery system, which means you’re not going even if you can afford it, and demand for the tickets makes the prices such that you probably can’t.
I had not planned on doing the guided tour of the grounds—that was the sort of thing onto which Calloway-shirted dads from Palm Springs dragged their families. I was just going to wander through the museum and maybe try to sneak onto Henman Hill for a minute. But Wimbledon plans for this, for people like me who think locker rooms, broadcast booths, and various other roped-off areas are fun but nonessential. Wimbledon knows why you’re actually here, and so the tour comes with a promise: at the end, you can sit low inside Centre Court for fifteen minutes.
Look. There are certain faraway places that exist in one’s head for so long they become myths. I have days now, while we collectively watch very bad things get worse, when I find myself loading the replay of the 2001 fourth-round Wimbledon match between Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. I do this, I think, because even eighteen years ago it all looks the same—there’s Roger, wearing white, and there’s that same famous court he hadn’t yet made his own. Sampras and Federer played each other just that once, and in so many ways that match straddles two different eras. Sampras crashed the net every point the way grass-court players did before the sport’s geometry fractured open, desperate to stave off the man who would soon lead the fracturing. Roger wasn’t Roger yet, that day. I mean, he was—it’s literally his body in that match, somehow looking both perfectly at home in 2001 while also playing like he’d been air-dropped from the future. That’s Wimbledon’s trick, Centre Court’s trick: inside, it is every year all at once.
I bought the damn tour ticket.
That surreal quality—the feeling that a century-plus of history wasn’t that long ago and is even still occurring right now—is not an accident. Wimbledon cultivates it at every turn. It would have you believe that the players wore the posh on-court formalwear of the 1900s just a day or so ago, can’t you remember it? Those outfits sit in display cases just feet away from Nadal’s signed sleeveless shirt, or a modern racket of Serena’s. The running list of champions appears all over the place; Richard the tour guide traced the few inches on the list from Fred Perry (1934) to Andy Murray (2013) with just a tiny flick of his finger. The lines between all these disparate times feel short and uninterrupted, a vacuum-sealed system of context and forces found only within Wimbledon itself.
And it was tempting, as we wandered the walled-off grounds, to buy in. We had come from all over the world to be here. My tourmates included people from Budapest, Amsterdam, Perth, Brussels. An enthusiastic man in an Ohio State University golf polo had brought his less enthusiastic family. The whole group jumped at the trivia questions Richard posed. We snapped photos of everything from the press-conference room to the giant display board featuring last year’s results. I have a thirty-seven-second video on my phone of a grow light traversing one of the lesser courts. That’s it, that’s the video, a lamp placed over a lawn. But at the time it was engrossing in a way that only comes when you’re able to forget everything else but the thing in front of your eyes. Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam to be officially hosted by a private club, rather than that country’s governing tennis body—it answers to no one. It doesn’t receive external input on how to do things, and it doesn’t ask for it.
At one point, on a balcony overlooking the court where John Isner played that world-historically interminable match against Nicolas Mahut, Richard leaned in and lowered his voice. “Who here would like to be a member of the club?”
The air changed. The conversational setup wasn’t hard to sniff out; we were about to be told that we were not really allowed in, not in the ways we’d spent the last forty-five minutes dreaming of. The only rule we’d been given at the start of the tour was that, if we saw any actual members of the club, we were not allowed to photograph them. In any space we entered Richard went first, to make sure we weren’t disturbing anyone. We were interlopers, and here we were about to be reminded of it.
We played along though. Of course we wanted to be members at Wimbledon, and said so.
“What do you think it costs?” Richard asked. And then he pointed at the man from Ohio, who had probably doomed himself for this callout by being too eager on the trivia questions. “What about you? Do you think you can afford this?”
Please trust me on something: I know this man, the one from Ohio in the golf shirt and slacks. Perhaps you do too. Play enough serious junior tennis and you end up seeing him all over the various country clubs and facilities that host the tournaments. White, tall, vaguely athletic-looking but gone soft in middle age. This man carries himself as though the world has been designed for him, and in nearly all the spaces he chooses to enter, he’s right. He probably plays at about a 3.5 NTRP level and can slap a forehand if you carefully put it on a plate for him. You know this man, and nearly everything he believes. He is always wearing a watch.
So you can imagine the way he sputtered for several seconds when asked to show his pockets like that, to have finally found a place willing to sneer at him on the same terms he’s spent a lifetime using to advance himself. This was not a man used to being big-timed.
But, we learned, the question was a joke—the man, his family, and all the rest of us could indeed afford to be members of the All England Club, because it’s not about the money. The membership fee is negligible. You’re still not getting in, though. The club keeps a very small active-member list—the number matches how many seats surrounded their original grass court over a century ago—and it’s invite-only based on your ability to advance the interests of the club. Paying a fee doesn’t get you in. Playing in the main event doesn’t even get you in, unless you’re able to do what Richard referred to as “the easiest way to become a member”: winning the singles tournament.
Here lay the heart of what Richard so intently wanted to show us about the most venerated tennis locale in the world. There was no earthly way in; the only way to be included was to have been included already. He wanted us to see it as Eden before sending us out starry-eyed toward the plains.
A few days earlier during my trip, I went to see the Tower of London. One of the buildings in the fort showcases the royal jewels. The winding exhibit displays gemstone-encrusted everything: crowns, scepters, swords, capes, dinnerware, various figurines with no clear hypothetical utility. You’re meant, as you walk through, to celebrate all this. The accompanying historical plaques describe “generous gifts” from foreign governments and aristocrats, as well as the occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, and coronations at which these items were passed around. “Don’t let your wives in there, gentlemen,” I heard a guide tell a group. “They’ll start looking too long at their own ring fingers.”
A projector displays a film on a wall at the end of the exhibit, just before the exit back outside. June 2nd, 1953, the televised coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. She’s twenty-five years old, serene and seated, surrounded in the great hall by other royals and people of high-enough station to be let inside. After being robed and handed various accoutrements of value we can only guess at, the Archbishop of Canterbury places the crown on her head. With that, Elizabeth became queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan, and what we now call Sri Lanka. Trumpets sound and the congregation rises to pray and cheer, and we the viewers are meant to feel a swell—of what, though? Vicarious pride in a new queen, maybe, or envy, or something more radical and pressing. Awe, in one direction or another. A dizzying vertigo that something like this could exist in the same world into which you’re about to return.
Grass-court tennis started as a way for the upper crust to socialize. That’s why they dressed the way they did to play, in belts and corsets and other clothing that has nothing to do with athletics, and it’s why the club still keeps its all-white dress code. Here is the starting point from which Wimbledon—and really, all of tennis—wishes for us to see a smooth line of progress to the game’s current culture. First there was British high society fraternizing on a private lawn, and now Serena Williams is a Wimbledon champion and proud member of the All England Club. Point A to Point B, in the same way we’d trace the evolution of tennis itself through the exploits of our favorite players on Centre Court.
But the game’s DNA is not quite so mutable. In truth, a far different line exists than the one Wimbledon wishes us to see. It spans from those original grass-court aristocrats to a current upper class that’s stratifying ever further up and away, that fills the membership rolls at every private club from All England to Indian Wells to whatever pristine, sealed-off place that man from Ohio meets his friends after work.
This remains, by and large, who tennis is designed for. It is the only group to whom Wimbledon can credibly promise a version of the world with its own closed loop of history and circumstances, a version that’s not about the money. It never is, once you’ve already paid for the gates.
In the end, Richard led us through the guts of the stadium to a small stairway that opened into the bowl. In the tunnel I reminded myself to snap a few quick pictures and then just sit down and be present, if only for a few minutes. We filed in and the chatter of the tour went quiet.
There I was in the heart of it, the most sanctified space tennis has to offer. Centre Court is smaller than you think, if you’re like me and think it’s a towering composite of everything you’ve ever felt about a thing you love. The seats along the sideline press right up against the court itself; there just above the far baseline and the players’ entrance was the royal box, flowers lining its front. The green scoreboard’s yellow numbers, still illuminated, had been frozen in place at the exact moment Novak Djokovic defeated Kevin Anderson eight months ago: the board showed the three sets Djokovic had won, along with a play duration of two hours and nineteen minutes, and a time of day of 4:29 P.M., which is when Djokovic’s final serve went unreturned on championship point.
They started freezing it like that in 2013, when Andy Murray became the first Brit in seventy-seven years to win the event. No one could bear to reset the scoreboard and clock, and so Wimbledon simply decided it would remain that date and time on that court for the full year that followed. In the center of the garden it is whatever year you’d like.
I took my photos and sat. I wanted to believe so badly that things really could be this way, timeless and separate; I felt intoxicated and wished to be more so. But Wimbledon and its heart I saw beating in front of me is not a universe unto itself—outside its walls is a world increasingly defined by who gets let in and who doesn’t, who can enter the spaces that offer the luxury to forget the people who can’t. The All England Club is simply tennis’s version of an ancient and recurring story playing out everywhere, across everything, unable and unwilling to be compartmentalized out of view. Time will not sit still forever.
In 2001, on this court, Sampras had to hold serve to stay in the fifth and final set against Federer. I pictured this service game in my precious few minutes sitting low along the baseline. He kept rushing forward like he had all match, like he had his whole career, even here at the brink of defeat. First point, Roger passes him clean with a backhand return. Sampras flubs a tricky but makeable volley on the second. Love-thirty. Behind me, Richard was starting to usher everyone out. You have to try something else, Pete. They’re never going to play your way ever again once you’re gone.
Sticks that trademark flat serve up the T for a quick point. But Federer makes Sampras dip too low on his next volley, and he can’t lift it back over the tape. They arrive at match point.
Eras change before the comfortable are ready. We know this because they never are; if left uninterrupted they would gladly continue the same way forever, only it would not feel like forever to them—in their curated spaces, time moves how they will it. On match point Pete Sampras serves a spinless ball into Roger Federer’s forehand side and follows it in. He’s won thirteen major titles with this tactic and the kid across from him has won none; where he’s been will surely be enough to take him forward. With one gliding step Roger presses into his right knee and cocks back, waiting for it.
We were abruptly led back outside into the bright gray day, blinking, and I couldn’t really bear to linger so I made for the train. Eighteen years of hindsight reveal what happens when you test Roger’s forehand like that. All these stories are old stories. History doesn’t knock when it arrives.