OPINION | Wimbledon's THE sports event ... and I am gutted

Wimbledon (PA/Supplied)
Wimbledon (PA/Supplied)

So it's to be the world's frigid fortnight in mid-year ... is that being over-dramatic?

But that is the way I instantly felt when the bleak confirmation came: no Wimbledon 2020.

For what it's worth, tennis comes in no higher than fourth among my favourite sports ... though it is my premier individual one (doubles firmly isn't my thing) beneath, in no special order, the major team-based pursuits of rugby, cricket and soccer.

I'm still passionate enough about the racquet game, mind you, and no more so than when Wimbledon comfortingly comes around every year.

It has done this unfailingly since the first post-War tournament of 1946, when Frenchman Yvon Petra won the men's singles crown and American Pauline Betz the women's title.

Until this year, that is ... it was duly announced on Wednesday that the upcoming Wimbledon (earmarked for a start in late June) has been cancelled due to the global coronavirus crisis.

As if I didn't know it deep down already, it somehow served as the most radical underlining to the sports fraternity of the severity of this deadly pickle we find ourselves in; an occurrence none of us could have remotely foreseen only a few months back.

No Wimbledon? That bastion of deep mid-winter, television-side assuredness in South Africa since the mid-Seventies? Perhaps THE sports event of the planet's annual roster for sheer majesty, aura, glamour and richness of tradition?

It is an uncomfortable, troubling feeling; more so than I'd have imagined.

Wimbledon has been unfailingly reliable to all those of us born after World War II: it remains not uncommon for people to book leave for a fortnight, with the primary intention of pigging out, if you like, on the alluring tournament.

My mum did it, while I was still a schoolboy.

I would later do it sometimes, too, especially in the period in journalism before I became a dedicated sportswriter.

Remember when we depended on the SABC-TV broadcast, pre-SuperSport? There was no channel-surfing in those days, for choice of matches, but you nevertheless utterly revelled in what you got.

In earliest days of live fare I remember Jan Snyman, more often than not, being responsible for Afrikaans commentary; Kim Shippey, probably, as lead voice in English.

We would be absolutely mortified if rain, that old British bugbear, wrecked part or sometimes even all of a day's play, in the era before the retractable roofs over the two main show courts which now guarantee at least some activity.

I have only ever attended one Wimbledon ... 1989, and gratifyingly in a working capacity which meant I was present for the lion's share of the fortnight.

But it was also enough to make it, to this day, probably the most memorable sports jamboree I have been to, despite my list, spanning decades, including World Cup finals in both soccer and cricket, advanced stages of the rugby version, and being smack-bang in the middle of the Lord's media centre "bubble" for day one of the immortal 2005 Ashes series.

Why? It's quite hard to precisely identify, really.

It's just the pure, unrivalled "feel" to Wimbledon.

That brilliant summer of '89 (the weather was almost unrelentingly glorious, which helped a lot, too) I was a youngish secondment for six months to the then-Argus Group's thriving newspaper bureau in London.

My jobs included getting a train to Taunton to interview the prolific County Championship run-plunderer Jimmy Cook at Somerset, another to Colne CC to get a taste of Dave Rundle's life as their overseas pro in the Lancashire League, seeing Allan Donald play in the NatWest Trophy final for Warwickshire against Middlesex at Lord's, a trip to Italy for a Fransie Badenhorst world title boxing crack - including helping carrying the bucket for a couple of days for him and trainer Harold "The Hammer" Volbrecht - and accompanying the sadly late Theodore Yach on his support boat as he made a failed (though later gutsily rectified) assault on swimming the English Channel.

But nothing beat my accreditation, even if in a "B-category media" sort of capacity, for that 1989 Wimbledon.

My pass only allowed me on Centre Court if there wasn't sufficient press-box seat demand by more senior, specialist tennis scribes, so I didn't have a prayer there from the semis onward but was still able to bask safely enough in prime-court matches featuring the likes of Ivan Lendl, "Glamorous Gabi" Sabatini and Steffi Graf in slightly earlier rounds.

But I also loved being able to flit seamlessly between outside courts during week-one action, including catching snap-chats after matches with South African participants like Dinky van Rensburg, Elna Reinach and Danie Visser. (I watched volatile Johan Kriek melt down in every respect in a first-round exit that year, although he was campaigning in the colours of the United States.)

During that opening week, I also had the most bizarre of unintended, personal encounters with John McEnroe, to this day still my favourite "touch" player in tennis.

Walking back from an outer court, and already in a limited-access area of the main complex, I suddenly realised that McEnroe, just off his own successful passage in an early round, was immediately ahead of me with bag over his shoulder.

Almost in that moment I twigged who it was, he turned to me as quickly and, in typically no-frills New York manner with a call of nature clearly pending, fired out: "Where's the John?"

I did a clumsy, mental double-take: This is really happening ... John is asked me for ... the John.

"Er, I'm not sure," I stammered, just slightly regretting that I didn't know the SW19 geographical layout well enough to be able to confirm where the nearest loos were, "that's the media room ahead".

"Hmmph," he shot back, quick as a flash "wondered what that smell was".

I would later watch McEnroe (sort of feeling he was my lifelong buddy now, of course) negotiate further battles at that Wimbledon, noticing at close quarters just how frequently he would berate himself beneath his breath with such curses as "aaagh, suck a big one, John!".

Still fuelled by the memories of '89, my annual appreciation of Wimbledon - tennis remains a great TV sport, agree? - knows no bounds, shows no signs of waning.

Wimbledon 2020 out of the window?

It's horrible, I tell you ... just horrible.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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