Center Court – A 30 year wait
Wednesday finally saw the culmination of a 30 year dream of mine to shoot a match on the famed center court at Wimbledon. After 30 years of being a photographer, 25 of those spent with Reuters covering every conceivable sports championship around the world, there were still two things I always wanted to photograph, but for one reason or another never had the opportunity to do so. One was shooting a match on center court and the other, covering a British Open golf championship at St. Andrews.
This year is not my first at Wimbledon, I have been here a number of times editing the great pictures our photographers take during the fortnight of tennis. There is no tennis tournament that produces the beautiful images that Wimbledon does. From the simple white clothes that the competitors must wear, to the light that seems to illuminate the court in a magical way, to the darkish backgrounds of spectators the perfect distance away from the player and to the history that has played out on the grass year after year, one can only describe the chance to be here as special.
Special in the same way it is to have a chance to photograph the Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club. Wimbledon and the Masters are ageless events played out in a similar way with no commercialism and lots of green as backgrounds. They are both considered ultimate events to cover as a photographer. The Masters I have been fortunate enough to attend 20 times.
Growing up a huge sports fan and then becoming a sports photographer, Wimbledon was a place I wanted to see. The first tennis final I covered as a professional photographer was the Canadian Open final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe in 1979. I don’t think I ever missed watching the men’s or women’ finals at Wimbledon enjoying the yearly Breakfast at Wimbledon TV broadcasts. Yes, my favorites were like everyone’s, the Borg-McEnroe marathon and the Nadal victory over Federer 2 years ago.
Arriving at the All England Lawn and Tennis Center yesterday, it was suggested to me by my colleagues and Bob Martin, the photo manager for the tournament, that today was the day that I should leave the confines of the editing room and photograph the first match of the day between Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych. If you are going to take pictures it might as well be of a six-time champion who was expected to win his quarterfinal match and move into the semi’s on his way to another final.
After a little hemming and hawing I grabbed the cameras of our photographer Phil Noble, who graciously agreed to take over the editing and made my way to the court. Luckily our photo messenger escorted me out as I had no idea how to get to the photo positions at the side of the court.
Walking out a tunnel and arriving on center court for the first time was definitely a wow moment. Standing there you instantly take in the sights that you have seen in pictures but never with your own eyes. First you notice how intimate the stadium is. This is not Arthur Ashe stadium at the tennis center in New York. This is lower, more compact and with a very clean look. Not an advertisement to be found anywhere except a few unobtrusive corporate markings on a wall and a couple of corporate names on the umpires chair.
Then you notice the grass, the new roof tucked away at the ends of the court, the Royal Box, the families box, the pre-match scurrying around of people measuring the net, stocking up the refrigerator with water for the players, positioning the players chairs just right, and so on. Then slowly the grandstand starts to fill up, actors, today, Sir Michael Caine and Ben Stiller take their seats in the Royal Box, Federer’s wife and father arrive, ball boys and girls appear, line judges, the umpire and then finally the players walk onto the court to a loud round of applause.
Within a few minutes, play begins following a short warm up. The last full tennis match I shot was the final of the U.S. Open two years ago. Needless to say, you expect to be a little rusty shooting a sport you haven’t covered for awhile but it doesn’t take long to get your timing down and take pictures consistently with the ball in them.
It is hard to describe how exciting it feels to see balls whizzing back and forth. The sound of the ball hitting the racket is different. I don’t remember a court being so quiet while play was on. The US Open never seemed to be like this. Visually, looking through the camera it seems easier to pick up the ball coming into the frame as the backgrounds are solid green, the yellow ball vividly stands out unlike other tournaments where you have to pick it out of a host of advertisements in the background.
It didn’t take long to realize this was not going to be a normal Roger Federer three set match. Berdych came out strong and in the fourth set it was apparent Roger was not going to win today. That is when it hits you that there is a news story happening here, a six-time champion who has been in the past seven finals bowing out in the quarterfinal round. As the fourth set progressed I could feel my heart beating a little faster with each game Berdych won. Match point arrived, Berdych won and with heart racing, your mind remembers to photograph everything you see, the winners celebration, the losers walk to the net, the handshake, the after match waves of the winner and the players departing the court together.
All in all it was far more than I expected. I started off thinking I would be photographing just another tennis match but left wondering if I had photographed a bit of history, a great champion exiting a championship earlier than expected and wondering if he would be able to win this great event again. While Federer will make a return to center court I knew when I walked out it was doubtful I would ever be back to shoot a match in this stadium. Walking down the tunnel I looked back one last time, thinking how my dream to photograph a match on center court completely lived up to the billing I gave it in my own head.
The British Open will be played in 2 weeks at St. Andrews and finally, I will get to live out that other dream of mine and help cover that event.
Two dreams completed in less than one month is more than anyone can ask for.