On Wimbledon’s idle Sunday, the World Cup remains very large

By Art Spander

LONDON — Yes, they’re still holding a tennis tournament here, meaning the London borough of Merton, SW 19 in the postal code (nothing goes ZIP in this country).

Middle Sunday, as it is known, is when the lawns of Wimbledon get a rest.

Maybe the English people, too.

“England’s dreaming,” was headline on the huge wrap-around front page of the The Sunday Times. Not about weaseling out of Brexit, two years after voting to get out of the European Union. Dreaming, of course, about the World Cup.

The dreamers, however, do not include the executives of the All England Club, who are doing their best — and failing — to hold their event in a vacuum, not allowing the soccer matches to be shown on Wimbledon’s big-screen television outside Court One.

On Saturday, when Rafael Nadal led the way into the second week, the fans who didn’t flee Wimbledon to catch England’s 2-0 quarterfinal win over Sweden in nearby pubs peered at their tablets or iPhones anywhere the game was being streamed.

The roars that carried around the grounds had nothing to with service aces or great forehands. They were for the goals some 1,500 miles away in Russia by Dele Alli and Harry Maguire.

It’s their event, Wimbledon, and certainly they’re allowed to do with it what they want.

On a smaller scale, there have been teams in America that refused to permit the TV sets in their stadiums to be switched to a sport other than their own.  

England, Britain, is like an early 1950s United States. In the Kensington and Chelsea section, maybe a mile from famed Harrods department store, young men — some of them quite wealthy, obviously — rev the engines of their Ferraris. Aston-Martins, Jags and Benzes, tearing out in a squeal of rubber. You might call it a royal version of American Graffiti.

That isn’t the reason many of the players and media, who would stay at the then very convenient Gloucester Hotel, have shifted to Wimbledon, roughly eight miles to the southwest. The stars, Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, need convenience and, in these days of aggressive fans and social media, privacy. They rent homes not far from the tennis courts.

Twenty-five years ago, you might go to dinner at a late-night eatery on the corner of Gloucester and Harrington, Dino’s — it’s gone, but the neon sign still clings to the building — and see Gabriela Sabatini. Now she would be sequestered in SW 19.

The World Cup always interjects itself into Wimbledon every four years, but Wimbledon never even blinked. Until now. Until England, a surprise as the Cup moved along, suddenly had a genuine chance to win for the first time since 1966.

That final was in London, against Germany. A mere generation after the end of World War II, 21 years. Emotions were high in England, still recovering from the Blitz. An editorial in the Daily Mail the morning of the championship game began, “If Germany beat us this afternoon in our national game, we can always point out to them twice we have beaten them at theirs.”

Sport and politics never are inseparable. Hitler used the 1936 Olympics to glorify Nazi Germany. The success of the Boca Juniors helped keep Peron in power in Argentina. The happy days in Russia with the Cup were well scripted.

“This may be the best of the World Cups,” wrote Matt Dickinson in the London Times, of this competition in Russia. “It might also be a ‘well-scripted charade whose roots go back to Berlin in 1936.’” He was quoting Gary Kasparov, the chess champion and vehement opponent of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

”The football here,” said another Putin critic, “has been Putin’s friend.”

The Game transcends all. It keeps politicians in power. It keeps Wimbledon on edge. The Championships are an afterthought to the success of the England World Cup team.

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