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Wimbledon, Silverstone & Cricket World Cup: 'Afterwards, all you wanted to do was play, watch and talk sport'

Written by 
Published in Tennis
Saturday, 11 July 2020 23:12

There are summer days as a child when all you want to do is play sport and watch sport and talk sport.

Days when the sun shines and feels like it's going to shine forever. Daylight from before you're awake and long after you should be asleep.

And then you grow up, and time shrinks and the opportunities fade. Other things become important. Those days slip away. You still care, but the narratives lose their simplicity. There is too little to watch, or too much.

It barely even felt like summer in the early morning of Sunday 14 July 2019. Rainy in north-west London, where England were meeting New Zealand in the World Cup final, drizzly in south-west London before the Wimbledon men's singles final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

In the Midlands, where Lewis Hamilton was aiming for a record-breaking sixth win at the British Grand Prix in Silverstone, the thousands who had camped out overnight were crawling out of tents in anoraks and wellies.

And so you were ready to watch, but to turn over too. To dip in and then go and do something else. Keep an eye on it, have it on in the background.

Except the clouds went and the sun broke through and the golden afternoon began.

You couldn't turn over, except you had to, to be in three places at once. You dipped in and then dived. The background faded away until it was just you and those who think the same way - and the noise and drama and stress.

All three of those great venues felt the same but different. Wimbledon on finals weekend is simultaneously emptier - all those outside courts covered and unused; the spectators quieter, the haves and the have-mores - and more concentrated, all the focus and drama on one small rectangle of grass.

Silverstone, for that weekend, turns into a festival, a gathering, a pilgrimage. Lord's was a favourite old relative in bright new clothes. It was your dad with a hipster beard. It was all the comforting old traditions about to be made inconsequential.

And the narrative, for most people, appeared straightforward once again. Centre Court wanted Federer, mainly. Silverstone wanted Hamilton, completely. Lord's acknowledged its pockets of beige shirts and its natural soft spot for Kiwis and then cracked on with bellowing for England.

Straightforward? Maybe on the surface, for Hamilton, although not if you understood how difficult it is to drive as he does, as relentlessly as he seems to. But never at Wimbledon, and as never before on that great grassy oval, seven miles or so across the capital city.

There are vantage points in Wimbledon where you feel like you can see across the whole of London. From the top of Henman Hill; on your way down Church Road, through the big trees and past the bigger houses. From Lord's you look south beyond the cranes and see landmarks and history.

As mid-afternoon became early evening and Federer and Djokovic swapped sets and England chased down New Zealand and staggered and slowed, you could almost feel the invisible threads connecting the two arenas starting to tighten and pull. The distance shrinking, the pressure taking over.

It crept up on you, first slowly and then with a grab on the shoulder: this is not normal. This is like it used to be. This is summer's sporting day of days, and I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen next.

Those other things that mattered more fell away and went forgotten. You couldn't watch and you couldn't look away. You hated it and you loved it and you lost yourself completely to it.

Rallies slowed down and stretched to become epics in their own right. Overs picked you up, dumped you into despair and then dragged you out again.

It was Roger's, it was Novak's, it was Roger's. England were in control, faltering, alive, dead again.

At various points you tried to drag your eyes away, only to see other people who couldn't watch at all. The women in summer dresses burying their faces in their hands as Federer flopped away two championship points. The men with red jeans and redder faces, leaving their seats at Lord's and ploughing lonely laps of the concourse out back, shaking heads, puffing their cheeks, checking their phones and running back in.

Very few of us actually remember enjoying it. Not in the moment, when you were convinced the thing you really didn't want to happen was certain to happen. Not when you felt so powerless to exert any sort of influence over something that mattered to you so much.

The cool assessments were for later, the sober context: a Wimbledon men's final longer than any that has come before, a World Cup final that might just be the greatest game of cricket in history.

You just knew it was never going to be easy. Not with Federer raging against the dimming of his light, never with England's cricketers. You just didn't know it was going to be this hard.

There were moments when you were certain it was over. Federer's match points. England needing 21 runs from five balls.

There were points when none of it made sense: Ben Stokes hitting a six which wasn't a six at all, but a two and four; a final over that turned out not even to be the penultimate over; a game that ended in a tie to produce a tie-breaker that also ended in a tie.

And when 7pm came and went and the skies began to grow a little darker once more, it was a very Djokovic way for Djokovic to win Wimbledon, and a very English way to win a World Cup.

Pulling yourself through when all around want the other guy; finding a strength on the points that matter more than all the others. Extra time at Wembley in 1966, extra time in Sydney in 2003, a champagne Super Over in London.

So much happened that one day in July that you struggle to hold on to it all. And afterwards, all you wanted to do was play sport, and watch sport, and talk sport.

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