Communing with the spirits of Wimbledon

WIMBLEDON, England -- It was one of those rare London days when the midday sun was almost too much even for mad dogs and Englishmen. But by late afternoon, as I sat in the quiet solitude of the Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club on the day before the oldest and grandest of tennis tournaments would begin for the 119th time, I was comfortably shaded by the familiar inward-sloping roof of this magnificent, Elizabethan-style theater. A gentle breeze cooled the body and soothed the soul.

I let memories wash over me, illuminated to incandescence once more by the brightness of the sun's spotlight. By now, this was the sort of sun-baked Sunday that the British invariably describe as "glorious" -- that being an adjective they can attach to their weather only occasionally, and do with enormous enthusiasm when it applies. From out of the shadows of the mind and the incomparably magical history of this place, what Billie Jean King calls "the spirits of Wimbledon" began to dance across the lawn, their feet light as a zephyr.

Billie Jean is Wimbledon's all-time leader in career titles (six singles, 10 doubles, four mixed doubles), and in the early 1970s, when she was still at the top of her game, she invited me to join her at Centre Court on the eve of "The Championships" for a ritual of hers that became mine for nearly 20 years as well. She would sit in the nearly-empty stands, absorbing the scene with all of her senses, "just soaking up the atmosphere and trying to get the vibes." She termed this, at various times, her annual reunion, communion, or simply visit with the spirits of Wimbledon.

"I think about all the generations that came before me," she said once, "and I just think about them walking out and curtsying or bowing to the Royal Box and what must have gone through their minds, and what it must have meant to all the great champions through the years."

She knew almost instinctively, as the greatest of champions do, that Wimbledon in general and the Centre Court in particular is a place where history, fantasy, and sometimes stark reality fuse in a kind of timeless enchantment.

Rex Bellamy, the retired poet laureate of tennis for The Times of London, once summed up the majesty of the setting: "The tradition of the tournament inspires everyone's endeavors. The mystique of royal patronage is itself a bond with an old glory that hangs like a sunlit mist over the green lawns in the land where tennis was born. Ghosts flit about the courts. Because in the mind's eye, the giants of the past are still with us: indeed, many are there in the flesh."

There was no mist, only brilliant Sunday sun, the afternoon before the worldly Roger Federer would step onto the most lovingly manicured grass court in the globe to begin pursuit of his third consecutive title in what Wimbledon still quaintly calls "the Gentlemen's Singles." The ghosts are doubtless delighted to have Federer in their ethereal company, for his shotmaking elegance and intelligence make him a worthy successor to seven-time champion Pete Sampras, five-straight-winner Bjorn Borg, two-time Grand Slammer Rod Laver and other gentlemanly champions of the past half-century.

Billie Jean, who is attending her 45th consecutive Wimbledon, understands the difference between reminiscing and living in the past. She always has been a pioneer spirit, able to focus intently and simultaneously on the past, present and the future. She has a rare appreciation for the lessons of history and the value of perpetuating a heritage. She believes in having vividly realistic dreams, reveries, fantasies and mental images, then "working your bahoola off" to make them come true. The spirits of Wimbledon were part of her preparation, along with rigorous practice and attention to detail.

Thus, she found herself repeating a favorite quotation to a small group of tennis aficionados who gathered for an Indian dinner on Saturday: "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." We talked long into the evening about what makes great champions great and related subjects, and Billie Jean mentioned a couple of things that startled me.

First, she recalled that the tennis patrons in her native Long Beach, Calif., had wanted to send her to play Wimbledon when she was 16, but she declined because she thought she had not done enough to earn it yet. Imagine that happening today! She did come the next year, 1961, and won the Ladies Doubles with Karen Hantze Susman, then 18 -- "a couple of kids who hit-and-giggled our way through the tournament."

The conversation wandered through the decades to Maria Sharapova, the radiant Russian-born Floridian who won the Ladies Singles last year at age 17. Her fetching face, figure, and supermodel's sensibilities, as well as her stunning tennis, make her a sort of Anna Kournikova who's got game. Her victory here launched a thousand paparazzi to follow her every move, and rapidly made her the highest-earning female athlete in history. As the crusading firebrand who dragged women's tennis into prominence and profitability, Billie Jean applauds this vision along with the ghosts of a less mercantile time.

"I really like Sharapova," she said. "I hear that when she arrived the other day, she came out here and walked barefoot around the Centre Court."

Her listeners were rapt, but somewhat incredulous. "Sounds like a photo shoot to me," said one. "No, I think it was pretty spontaneous," Billie Jean responded. "I hear there was nobody else around. She just wanted to feel the blades of grass on her feet. It was her own little moment."

I have learned never to doubt Billie Jean King's sources, especially with respect to Wimbledon and its intimate Centre Court. Still, I wanted to verify the report when Sharapova came to a defending champions' press conference Sunday.

My ears perked up when she said: "I didn't really have a vision until I came here as a junior about three years ago. Once experience the whole atmosphere, from then on I just said, 'This is my favorite tournament.' ... It was hard for me to say it was my favorite until I actually got here and experienced the whole vibe of the tournament."

I had a flashback to Billie Jean talking about the spirits. But these mass media sessions have a tabloid bent these days. Maria fielded fewer questions about her Wimbledon preparation, physical and mental, than about stalkers, her 24-karat-gold-trimmed tennis shoes, and the seemingly inevitable: "Do you have time for boyfriends?" She smiled coyly and gave that question precisely the answer it deserved: "I have time, but I don't talk about them."

That was the clincher. Despite my journalistic training, I was not going to ask about a private stroll on the Centre Court without 24-karat shoes or socks. If she did have time to do that, I didn't want her to talk about it and possibly spoil a rare moment of sweet innocence. If she didn't feel the grass between her toes and in her soles, I prefer to believe she did.

That would be her unique communion with the spirits of Wimbledon, and an enduring image in the sunlit mist of my mind: the reigning queen of Wimbledon dancing across the lawn with all the glorious ghosts, imagining herself at 18 to be the barefoot contessa of Centre Court.

Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.