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Game, Pavlov: The Positives of Wimbledon’s Strict Social Conditioning

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Game, Pavlov: The Positives of Wimbledon’s Strict Social Conditioning

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The social conditioning that Wimbledon creates is unique. For a couple of weeks, rich and poor, elite and everyday dutifully comply with strict rules of etiquette and behavior.


There’s no prettier tennis venue than Wimbledon, a haven of purple and green nestled in the rolling hills of a well-to-do neighborhood eight miles from Britain’s Houses of Parliament in the nation’s capital.

Whether for those who queue for tickets days in advance or admire the tournament from the loftier heights of corporate vantage, Wimbledon is proof that environments matter. And that in this instance their good governance can provide two weeks of well-being for over 470,000 people.

“Everybody’s so well behaved it makes our job so much easier,” shrugs one of the event’s police officers in rolled-up shirtsleeves and ubiquitous Bobby helmet.

“How can you get any better than Henman Hill on my birthday?” gushes a spectator, equally happy to watch a match from a giant outdoor screen on a large grass hillock yards from the entrance to Centre Court.

“There’s so much to do!” cries out a young teenager to his parents as he races around the beautiful grounds, past Coca-Cola stands, ice-cream carts, sweet dispensers, restaurants, and sandwich kiosks, peering in on different side-court matches and holding a punnet of strawberries and cream.

But this is no Willy-Wonka family outing. Alcohol – from champagne to lager and Wimbledon’s famous Pimms Cup – is free-flowing inside the stadia, and plenty of adults call out their allegiances through the highs and lows of their favorites’ victories and frustrations. But despite a few flushed, unfocused faces shouting just a little too insistently in a foggy haze of confused loyalty, the crowd is exceptionally polite.



Organizers and guards couldn’t be friendlier, allowing new waves of viewers to stream into the main courts in the late afternoon on re-usable stubs handed in by earlier spectators; nearby residents, kids after school and anyone after work – formal clothes loosened and a glass of wine in hand – eagerly take their seats for a few precious hours of real-time tennis.

Wimbledon’s social ladder is largely occupied by the middle rungs, in which expensive outfits meld with the larger swathe of well-priced summer florals and Panama hats. And the tournament out-smarts a sensitively class-conscious Britain.

The royal box models the right amount of modern hierarchy; dukes and duchesses rub shoulders with trendy aristos and vintage aristocrats, sporting legends, business leaders, political figures, and media stars, while the masses mill around the garden piazzas and tarmac thorough-ways, largely unperturbed by the glass balustrades enclosing the dining elite above them. Some even smile and wave back, united by the same intensity of enjoyment.

It’s a careful balance, orchestrated with sensitivity and a respect for heritage. One hundred and fifty-year-old nostalgia floats in and out of today’s retractable roofs, instant replays, and mobile-carrying meritocracy, and rows of purple and white peonies and ivy-clad walls soften both the utilitarian aspects of sports structures as well as the red lines of socio-economic demarcation.


Like Edwardians at a picnic party, the crowd breaks into rumblings of disapproval. Spectators remain hugely sympathetic, but with a curious absence of the F-word, even in a healthily jocular way.


The general lack of public profanity makes it all the more shocking when a player occasionally swears or tries to game the advantage by contesting a line call. Like Edwardians at a picnic party, the crowd breaks into rumblings of disapproval. Spectators remain hugely sympathetic, but with a curious absence of the F-word, even in a healthily jocular way.

Instead, the prevailing emotion is one of gratitude at being able to take part, which includes the players themselves, top-ranking, unknowns, underdogs, and the defeated. The latter majority may be overcome with disappointment but never by the privilege of having participated.

Underpinning the camaraderie is the understanding that, without the talent and perseverance of those who lose, there would be nothing to celebrate. And the victors share their endorphins with the crowd, in co-dependence inside a venue that is everyone’s to enjoy.

One wonders if Serena Williams would display the same angry outburst on a Wimbledon court that she did at last year’s U.S. Open, whose forceful intensity, garish colors, and ear-splitting rock music between sets are in marked contrast to Wimbledon’s Ralph Lauren-clad lines-people, pristine white tennis outfits, general chatter on change-overs, and breathless cries over hard-won points. Though homegrown American ways may better challenge the unconscious gender bias that would otherwise languish within Britain’s social do’s and don’t’s.

On Sunday, after an epic five-set, five-hour marathon men’s final between Novak Djokovic and 37-year-old Roger Federer, the tournament began to wind down. Broadcasters and viewers alike expressed a twinge of regret that this annual life-affirming story of the human spirit, in which the instinct to compete and survive is channeled through sporting skills and civility, was drawing to a close.

We will have to wait another year for the daily intermingling of almost forty thousand people of diverse backgrounds, ethnicity and income, who get to witness the struggles and battles of their tennis heroes whose own life stories and backgrounds are as ordinary as their own. Laughing, screaming, and crying next to friends and strangers alike, they remain ever-respectful of their place inside an environment that is bigger than everyone.

Without it, there is no tournament and no sense of belonging to something that brings out the best in them.

Now to try to bottle the formula for the rest of the year.


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Trisha de Borchgrave

Trisha de Borchgrave is a London-based current affairs writer for print and online media. You can find her on Twitter @TrishdeB.