LONDON – Elizabeth Windsor decided to take in some tennis at Wimbledon yesterday. Although tickets are scarcer than elephants cavorting at Piccadilly Circus, she managed to cop a couple, and in the front row of Centre Court, no less.
When she walked in, people began to cheer and clap and point cameras at her. She looked a sprightly, likeable 84, and is used to this kind of attention because in her day job she is Queen Elizabeth II.
Her Majesty last had an urge to see tennis at the Big W in 1977. Thirty-three years ago — she didn’t want to risk overdoing. However, everybody in her realm knows that she prefers race horses to tennis players, and is a regular communicant with her own.
Her father, King George VI-to-be, actually played Wimbledon. It was doubles in 1926, an embarrassing hackerly performance causing his wife to veto any repeats. A scepter swings with more power than a racket.
That was the sentiment of an earlier king, Henry VIII, a tennis lover. He was proud of his chop stroke that was emulated by his executioner on the persons of wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.
As far as tennis goes these days, Her Majesty’s domain is down to one body. It belongs to a prickly Scotsman, Andy Murray. Despite her fondness for the steeds, I’ll bet she’s a bit sad that in this nation, the sire of the game, nobody can play it. Except for No. 4 Murray.
Virginia Wade, the most recent Brit to win here, 1977, hopes with everybody else that Murray proves to be a drought buster.
Last year the Queen sent Andy a good-luck note, and yesterday wished him well in person in a chat that followed his batting practice-efficiency victory over Jarko Nieminem, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. Well it must be nice to have a monarch in your corner, but the tough stuff lies ahead for the clever Murray, a semifinalist to Andy Roddick a year ago.
Three sets were enough for the Queen who departed beneath a robin’s-egg blue bonnet that looked more comfortable and fetching than a crown. Alas, her handlers blew it. They should have escorted her to the back court where the Impossible match was still outrageously in progress in its third day, and an overflow crowd delighted to be in on a tennis classic, a fly-me-to-the-moon lift-off that couldn’t ever happen – but was happening just the same.
Linked forever as partners in tennis crime or tennis glory – take your pick – are Long John Isner, once an All-American at the University of Georgia, and quick Nic Mahut with a French background. Foes for three days, and now lifetime friends, they collaborated in an expanding dream that amazed the sporting world and looked endless.
“I honestly thought it was a dream,” said the towering Isner, the wake-up man, the end of the line whose zipping two-fisted backhand punctured the revelry of 11 hours-5 minutes spread over Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday. “I was expecting to wake up, in all seriousness. I didn’t think that type of match was possible.”
It wasn’t – a match of 183 games beyond any imagination — but was. Game after game after game that finally came out like this for Isner: 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 70-68. Yes 70-68, an unheard of score. Never happened; never will. But did on Court 18, the repository of John and Nic’s dream. These serving heavies got caught up in it, blasting each other like prizefighters, and couldn’t get out. It was too absorbing for them and witnesses, a once in forever trip through those 183 games, 20 of them on the last day after darkness had stalled the fatal fifth at 59-59. Absurd. Who could have conjured it. “You can’t imagine going to 20-all,” Isner said.
You couldn’t have broken serve with a sledgehammer. Each guy lost serve only once until the conclusion, ending a stretch of 170 holds.
Isner said, “I lost track of the score, just tried to hold serve. One break would mean the match.” It was abrupt: a Mahut error, good low returns and the backhand passer. Suddenly it was over, and they had their niche in sporting history.
Aces flew like hail stones: 112 for John, 103 for Nic., 215 altogether. Every time they struck one, it added to the all-time record.
“Nice to be part of that match,” the antagonists agreed after hugging. They said they were delirious as the score ascended – and so were we observers.
Ever aware of history and its place in it, the Wimbledon folks immediately presented the protagonists and the umpire, Mohamed Lahyani, with gifts, photographed them at the scoreboard, honoring and acknowledging their unbelievable feat.
While it was pleasant to see the Queen, it’s too bad she missed Isner and Mahut tearing apart all the records while creating a match for the ages.