When strangers living on distant shores connect, magical things can happen.
As we parted Gill said, “Nice meeting you, Pat. Get in touch when you’re in London and I’ll give you a tour of the club. Maybe we can have a hit.” Having a hit is the colloquial term tennis players use for a non-competitive, pick-up match.
I floated home with joy at the prospect of actually playing tennis at Wimbledon — the most hallowed ground in the world to any serious tennis fan. Even Roger Federer doesn’t hide the esteem with which he and all tennis professionals hold The Championships, played there every June. Top seeds will sit out other tournaments to be sure they are fit and healthy for Wimbledon.
The strict dress code for players is all white; the matches are played on grass courts at the All England Lawn Tennis Club; spectators delight in eating strawberries with clotted cream between matches.
At the start of singles play, 128 men and 128 women compete. Two weeks later, the two champions are lauded by millions of fans worldwide. Tickets are sold by lottery and there are measures in place to eliminate ticket resale by scalpers. Owning a ticket to Wimbledon would be a thrill beyond my dreams.
In August 2011, I was recently divorced, learning to live alone, and facing another socially empty summer weekend in the city. As a tennis member of the Toronto Cricket, Skating, and Curling Club, I knew that 12 All England Club players were touring Canada and would be playing 12 Cricket members on Friday at 5 pm. We’d been encouraged to come out to watch.
Meeting in Canada
I put on an orange sleeveless dress and drove to the club. My plan was to have a swim after watching the matches, and then eat supper alone on the patio. Only about 10 of us were there to cheer on the players on this warm sun-filled evening, as the shadows gradually lengthened across the courts. One of the visiting players — Jan Kodes from Czechoslovakia — was the men’s Wimbledon champion in 1973. He was still an impressive player to watch.
After a brief swim in the club pool, I headed to the Ladies’ locker room to change. Drying my hair beside one of the English visitors, I introduced myself. Gill Brook was slender, fit, and about 10 years younger than I. She explained that her husband Phil (then in the Men’s locker room) was Chairman of the All England Club. I restrained my impulse to kneel down and kiss her hand.
We chatted while applying makeup: my son had graduated from Cambridge University; her son had just started at Harvard. Rather fun that both our kids had chosen universities on opposite continents.
“In October,” I said, “I’ll be coming to London following a two-week tour of Eastern Europe.” “Well then, why don’t you get in touch and I can show you around our tennis club?” she answered.
My tummy felt a jolt of excitement. Is this really happening? Did I come across as angling for an invitation? Of course not. The concept had never entered my mind. Honestly.
The next time I saw our Head tennis pro I told him about her invitation and he gave me Gill’s email address. When I wrote to her, she responded, “Great to hear from you. I’m currently in Thailand, but I’ll be back home when you’ll be in London. Just write when you are there and we’ll set something up.”
Meeting in England
I was travelling very light and didn’t have room for unnecessary clothes or shoes. I packed a white tennis top that would be usefulin other locales and decided to wear my tennis shoes as my all-purpose footware in Europe. The taxi picked me up to drive me to the airport. I suddenly realized that my tennis shoes would hurt my feet on long tourist excursions, so I asked the driver to take me back home where I changed to my comfy Rockport walking shoes. If Gill and I actually did play tennis, I would just buy tennis shoes over there, for heaven’s sake.
Once I got settled in England, Gill and I were in touch again. It turned out that she was a tennis pro herself and was teaching a lesson just before we would meet at 3:45 pm on October 19th. Thank goodness I’d skipped the tennis shoes — if we’d had a hit she would have trounced me!
I took the Underground to Wimbledon and walked to the club. She met me at Security and so began our two extraordinary hours together.
Hallowed Ground Alright
It was easy to picture throngs of people crowding the grounds during The Championships having seen them on TV. Thankfully we meandered in solitude as Gill pointed out features like Henman’s Hill (where fans without tickets sit to watch play on an enormous TV), the media centre, Court 1, and Centre Court where the finals are played. The latter had a special light suspended across its width to maximize growth of the grass.
Attached to Centre Court are the locker rooms luxuriously appointed for the top 12 men’s and top 12 ladies’ seeds. Talk about an inner sanctum. Then to the members’ lounge where the actual, real, honest-to-God trophies sit in glass cases. Winners and finalists are given small replicas to keep. We walked through the actual door that finalists walk through to play the Final match in July.
It gave me goose bumps to think of my tennis heroes standing right there. Mounted over the door in metal letters is a quote from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “IF”: “IF YOU CAN MEET WITH TRIUMPH AND DISASTER AND TREAT THOSE TWO IMPOSTERS JUST THE SAME.” Heart-stopping stuff.
On the wall beside the door to Centre Court is a list of all the winners since Rene Lacoste in 1928. Gill explained that a painter stencils on the recent winner’s name while he or she is being presented with the trophy outside. Those Brits have class.
After walking out to Centre Court, she took me up into the Royal Box where she snapped my photo — showing green empty seats in the background.The grass is kept healthy with a special light.
High Tea in the Lounge
Then, we headed to the members’ tea lounge for a scrumptious selection of scones and cakes. She introduced me to her husband Phil who enthusiastically reminisced about their tour of Canada. That day he’d been taken to lunch by Sir David Frost…yes, that David Frost, television host. Sir David wanted to repay the Brooks’ kindness in inviting him to the Royal Box the previous July.
“What’s he like?” I asked.
“A very smooth interviewer,” Phil replied. “Every time I asked him a direct question he’d somehow avoid answering and get me talking about myself instead!”
Heading to Gill’s car, we saw the little house where the two of them stay during the Wimbledon fortnight. They usually live in Kent.
Due to the pandemic Wimbledon 2020 was cancelled, but until 2019 I would see on TV this delightfully down-to-earth and genuine woman sitting with Prince William and Kate.
My dream came true only because I seized an opportunity to be welcoming to an English visitor in a locker room.
Photo: Balcony outside the members' lounge at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Photo credit: Pat Butler
This post originally appeared as an article on Medium and on the Ontario Tennis Association website.