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In the international world of sport, the tennis calendar remains remarkably the same year to year. Like clockwork, then, there's an annual pilgrimage. In the early days of summer -- although the frequent rain and bone-chilling temperatures tend to belie the season -- the tennis community gathers together in an upscale enclave in the southwest corner of London.
Destination: Wimbledon, the most prestigious tennis event of the year. It takes on a different complexion compared to all the other tournaments, right down to the accommodations.
Most of the year, players migrate from one locale to another, packing and unpacking their bags in posh hotels, most often of the five-star variety. At Wimbledon, keeping to that kind of lifestyle required long daily commutes to matches through clogged London traffic.
In the early 1990s, when players began to inquire about accommodations closer to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, renting private homes for the fortnight became an innovative alternative. The owners head off on vacations while the players make themselves at home.
A number of subletting companies have sprouted since then to facilitate the process. Joanna Doniger owns Tennis London, the short-term rental agency she bought in 1994 from two drivers who brainstormed the idea while ferrying players between the city hotels and the tennis courts.
The All England Club is nestled within the confines of Wimbledon village with the quiet middle-class community of Southfields on the opposite side. Both of these neighborhoods have become extensions of the tournament scene. Players can be seen strolling along High Street, dining in the many restaurants, shopping in the supermarkets and boutiques, or even living in the house next door.
"There's a lot of reasons to stay in Wimbledon," said Andy Roddick, who has done so since his first Wimbledon in 2001. "A big one is that during the rain delays I'd rather sit in a house than a locker room. It's pretty much, for me anyway, a no-brainer decision."
Tennis London rents around 150 Wimbledon area properties each year, which must meet high standards. About two-thirds of those properties are taken by players; the rest by media, officials and agents who have all discovered the benefits of staying within walking distance.
"I've been doing this for such a long time I think the players just know me as Joanna the housing lady," Doniger said. "What determines the price is location. Southfields is about half the price of Wimbledon Village. The places range from 1,000 [British] pounds to 10,000 [British] pounds a week, and you have to rent for two weeks. The expensive ones are huge houses that will have six or seven bedrooms and be standalone properties."
Tennis London rents to the biggest names in the game: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Caroline Wozniacki, Roddick and the Williams sisters are all clients.
"When Federer first came to me he would have a little flat with two bedrooms," Doniger said. "Now he's in a big, smart house."
Often players will stay at city hotels during the Aegon Championships at Queen's Club, which takes place closer to the center of London. But some prefer to settle into the quaint village of Wimbledon immediately upon arriving in England.
"I actually love it. We all -- my mom and brother, and my trainer -- stay together," James Blake said. "You get up in the morning and smell mom cooking eggs and stuff.
"One of the most fun things, if I stay here during Queen's, is you get to see and experience the transformation of the village from no one being around to during the tournament -- it's jam-packed, and you see that huge influx of people."
Players can appreciate having full kitchens, but many like to mix it up with fine dining on High Street.
"We've got a lot of favorite restaurants," Roddick said. "Everyone knows every restaurant in the village. It's like being in the players' lounge when you're eating at a Wimbledon restaurant."
There's even a Starbucks for morning coffee -- Roddick is a frequent customer when in residence.
The one common thread for many of the Americans is that the properties -- posh as they are -- tend to have their quirkier side. For example, the houses, big or small, often feature a space-saving, all-in-one washer-dryer unit. Showers sometimes lack full curtain coverage or are hand-held attachments in bathtubs. And bathroom sinks frequently have separate hot and cold water taps rather than one mixed apparatus.
"It's been 12 years and I still haven't figured out how to work the washer-dryers here, so that's always a disaster," Blake said. "I don't even bother anymore. I just wait until the tournament starts and put in all my laundry there.
"I've also yet to figure out how it makes sense to have a shower and a shower curtain only covers half of it. The rest of the bathroom always ends up getting soaked."
Other players, however, consider such eccentricities part of the location's old-world charm.
"I love Europe, and I have a place in Paris," Serena Williams said. "So I'm kind of used to not having the most modern things. As long as I have recessed lighting, that's like my main thing."
Players tend to find a place they like and return year after year, but Doniger has discovered that occasionally a client will need a change of scene.
"Some players are very superstitious," Doniger said. "If they didn't do very well when they've stayed in a house, they'll want a new house the following year. They don't want to be laying in the master bedroom and thinking, 'I've been in this place before and it didn't go so well.'"
Wimbledon's unique accommodations add a certain charm to an already unique event. In fact, it's one aspect that many players would like to see catch on at other tournaments around the world.
"I wish I could do this a little more," Blake said. "I'm friends with some of the golfers, and they say they do it a lot. It's really nice. It just makes for a good feeling."