At Wimbledon, Room Service Beats Courtside

This June, fulfilling a lifelong dream, I went to London to watch the Wimbledon tennis championships.

The BBC coverage was great.

Yes, that’s right, the closest I got to an actual match was the TV screen in my hotel room, as I spent four days flipping the remote control between BBC1 and BBC2, ordering room service and lounging around in air-conditioned comfort as the world’s best tennis tournament unfolded before me. Call it “virtual Wimbledon.”

I hadn’t quite planned the trip to work out just this way, of course. It was just that a series of events-deciding to go at the last minute, the historic difficulty of getting tickets to the All England Club, and perfect weather drawing record crowds-conspired against me. But, now I realize this might have been the best of all possible ways to have experienced Wimbledon.

Perhaps I should explain. I’m a bit of a tennis fanatic-have been ever since I started following Chris Evert’s career back when we were both teenagers living in South Florida more than 20 years ago. So at the beginning of this year I decided I would go all out and attempt my own version of a Grand Slam. The plan was to attend all of the four major tournaments-the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open-in 1999. Australia was a snap. No problem with the French. And I already have tickets for the U.S. Open in September. But Wimbledon was a different story. Official tickets are sold through a lottery system that was well over by the time I started to make plans, and no friends in London seemed to be able to score any tickets. So, after returning to New York from the French Open in early June, I decided I would have to pass up Wimbledon in two weeks’ time.

Then came the first-round upset of Martina Hingis on opening day. I had first learned of the Hingis loss to qualifier Jelena Dokic when I went on the Wimbledon site (www.wimbledon.org) that morning and then raced home to watch the tape-delayed coverage on HBO. And as I watched the match, I picked up the phone, called American Airlines and booked a flight to London two days later. I would take my chances of getting a ticket when I arrived. I figured I would try the concierge at the hotel, or just go out to the stadium and see if anyone was scalping tickets.

Two mornings later, a few moments after I had checked into my hotel room and was in the middle of unpacking, the phone rang. It was the concierge.

“Mr. Emmrich,” he said. “I’m going to be straight with you. Forget about getting a ticket to Wimbledon-not unless you want to pay around 700 pounds [around $1,100] for one.” But there was a ray of hope. I could go late in the afternoon, and join the queue outside the main gate. It seems people often start leaving by 3 or 4, and turn over their tickets to the club officials, who then resell them to people who are waiting in line. “There are plenty of good matches going on late in the day,” the concierge said helpfully. “Two of our guests went yesterday and ended up with excellent seats to a Centre Court match. Try that.”

It was now around 11 A.M., so I decided to catch a quick nap and then head off to Wimbledon around 3 to try my luck. But when the alarm went off a few hours later, and I stirred groggily in the bed, I didn’t feel like jumping on the Underground just yet. So I turned on the TV, and started watching a few games of an exciting Andre Agassi match on BBC2.

Then I looked over and spotted a room service menu.

Hmmm. I was a bit hungry. Maybe I would eat something first and then head out to Wimbledon. In fact, afternoon tea sounded just perfect. Half an hour later, after I had showered and had wrapped myself in a terry cloth robe, the meal arrived-fresh brewed tea, an assortment of tiny sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, and a strawberry tart for dessert. I settled into the club chair in my room, watched the Agassi match continue, realized that a Patrick Rafter match was coming up next, and decided: Forget the trip out to the Wimbledon grounds. I was staying put.

The next day, though, I decided to take the concierge’s advice, and after watching a few early matches on TV, took the District line train out to Southfields, the closest Underground stop to Wimbledon, and headed off toward the tennis grounds.

Suddenly, there before me was a line of people stretched about two miles down the road. (In fact, there were two parallel lines: one for people trying to get into the matches that afternoon, the other for those who would be camping out overnight for the next day’s matches.) As I slowly made my way toward the front of the line, I stopped and asked a man how long he had been waiting. “Since around 11,” he muttered. It was now 4:30-and he was still a mile from the entrance. I stood there for a minute, wondering what to do next, realizing that even if I got inside the grounds, it probably wouldn’t be until 7 P.M. or so, when, in all likelihood, all that would be left would be a few Ukrainians playing a mixed doubles match.

Then it dawned on me: My hotel would be serving afternoon tea until 5:30. If I caught the next train back, I would get there in time to order-and also watch Boris Becker’s second-round match. So, I made a brief side trip to a nearby store to buy a Wimbledon T-shirt-I wasn’t going to come this far without at least a souvenir-and then made it back in time to turn on the TV and put in a call to room service.

The next day, I gave up all pretense of heading out to the matches themselves, and instead parked myself in an oversize chair by

a bay window overlooking Green Park, swiveled the TV in my direction, picked up the room service menu (perhaps just some finger sandwiches and a half-bottle of champagne today?) and spent the next seven hours wallowing in tennis. And tennis televised by the BBC, with no commercials and announcers who actually know to shut up when the ball is in play. (Back in the United States, I was being driven crazy by HBO’s Jim Lampley, with his constant references to “Tory Tim” Henman, a nickname Mr. Lampley gave the British player about four years ago and that he seems determined to make stick, even though it has been patently ignored by every other tennis announcer in the business.) So, for the four days of my tennis odyssey, I had great food, a comfortable seat and, of course, instant replay to catch some of those shots that would have just whizzed by if I had been there in person. One more reason why TV is better than real life. Moreover, each morning I would gather up all the London newspapers and pick up the kind of gossip I probably couldn’t have gotten back in New York. Like whether Martina Hingis’ break with her mother-coach was because of Martina’s new boyfriend or because of the mother’s. Or the British tabloids’ search for the birth father of American teen Alexandra Stevenson.

So, resolved: I’m going back to Wimbledon next year. I wonder if any London hotel rooms offer a 27-inch-screen TV?