A WALK IN GOD'S TENNIS PARK

Despite the accelerating price of strawberries, Wimbledon's quaintness, its order, its manners, gives the illusion of time having stopped, and people enjoy that, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

You could recognise the Americans because accent and volume would betray them, a Texan with a shirt as offensive as his tone, blustering on about Chris Evert's backhand (and in this he was right, it was a shot of squint-eyed, precise beauty), his voice puncturing the silence of the tube as it galloped unevenly towards Southfields.

From Southfields you can take a bus to the courts, but the walk was refreshing, and soon you'd start to overtake the lines that stretched for a chatty, colourful mile, and if it was your first time, too, then the heart hiccupped. When the Doherty gates, like barriers to some precious place, swung open to let me in, on that first Monday in 1987, I felt awe. Wimbledon, you eventually figure, is manicured and polished, buffed and beautified, precisely for that purpose. "OK, OK," in subsequent years I wanted to scream, "I feel privileged to be here, I promise".

Despite the accelerating price of strawberries, Wimbledon's quaintness, its order, its manners, gives the illusion of time having stopped, and people enjoy that. The tournament has not shunned change yet embraced it only subtly, as if aware that people find comfort in the familiar. Of course, young people feel a natural rebellion against Wimbledon, for its traditions can be claustrophobic. History anyway is not the favourite subject of 20-something youngsters out to change the world.

I was taken by Wimbledon, its tidy imprisonment of history, yet uncomfortable with its small conceits (its insistence on calling itself The Championships, the bowing now stopped but so long an anachronism persisted with, the men's trophy on which is inscribed "The All England Lawn Tennis Club Single Handed Champion Of The World"). But it is an appreciation that has grown. Everywhere else athletic competition seems to be business, rock'n' roll, glitz, marketing; at Wimbledon, it just feels like only sport, something pure. This also is a sweet illusion.

Meanwhile, day one, intimidated as I was, soon I was leashed with the lowest form of pass that read ROVER, and that meant, well, that I could rove, winding through the outside courts amidst broken dreams and echoing applause, watching Ramesh Krishnan's skidding backhands and have elderly strangers softly ask, "Is he the son of... " and you'd reply "Yes", and they'd smile, as if suddenly shards of a memory had reappeared of a graceful man named Ramanathan Krishnan.

According to Wimbledon's class system, the "ROVER" was forbidden from entering centre court (my promotion to CENTRE COURT pass would come two years later), but some desperate pleading might allow you on there if it wasn't crowded, which is how I got to watch Jimmy Connors, down 1-6, 1-6, 1-4 to Mikael Pernfors, come back, all grunting guts, to win in five.

On Centre Court, you did not scream. You applauded. You were fair. And another thing. Every tournament may have a main arena, but there is only one Centre Court. And really, every year, you'd pass by a stairwell and feel compelled to leap up it, and just stand there, alone but for a steward, communing briefly with ghosts of Cochet and Budge and Tilden. One year I took a young fellow up those stairs and introduced him to the court, and he, spellbound, squeaked, "one day I'll play here". Indeed, Leander Paes did.

Play starts on outside courts at noon, but if you went early, you had Wimbledon to yourself, and you could sit on a bench, watch Connors josh with son Brett, McEnroe hurdle a small hedge to congratulate Andres Gomez, who'd triumphed in Paris. There is always a great stillness and calm to Wimbledon, till Becker threw the ball into the air and exploded into his violent ballet.

Soon the grounds are throttled by people, all tinkling glasses and umpires calling distant scores, and for all the champagne drunk Wimbledon rarely loses its manner. Of course, Fred Perry might disagree, soaking in a tub after his first win only to hear a committee man tell the defeated Jack Crawford: "This was one day when the best man didn't win." But when I got there the snobberies had become amusing, like on warm days when the Duke shed his jacket, whereupon the rest of a relieved Royal Box followed suit.

The tennis at Wimbledon? No, before the tennis there is the waiting. Always there is the waiting. Some days you walk in and there's Fred Perry's statue with a drop of water perched on his nose, and all day the mournful skies dribble and spit.

Hundreds of black umbrellas would open in mourning, necks craning hopefully for a sight of distant blue sky, walks taken to the merchandise shop where you convert pounds into rupees and leave dizzier than young qualifiers facing the Sampras serve on grass. Might be a good time for brunch, and The Hindu's Nirmal Shekar, one of Wimbledon's most faithful pilgrims, would look at me putting down steak, eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, bread rolls, shake his head in amused disbelief, and go off and peck furiously at his computer, producing day after day the most colourful and dazzling of stories. Great tennis needs great writers. Once dry, other artists emerged.

Unlike now when only the back of the court is worn out, you could see clearly then, in the late 1980s and the 1990s, the route of the adventurer, the abraded trail to greatness from baseline to net taken by Becker and Edberg and Cash. Throw in Lendl whose face revealed nothing of his ache to win on grass, and scuffed up heroes Jimmy and John, a title beyond them now but still able to rebuke disrespectful fools, and those conjurers of shots Leconte and Mecir, and did I forget anyone? Oh yes, Goran the sad clown, and Agassi who would be loved after a fashion.

And then there was Pete, so regal, so undisturbed, so understated, his game built on a classical, familiar design but with the modern flourish of pace, a man whose style, in play and manner, was made to order for Wimbledon. Some things don't change. Fluttering pigeons and tittering patrons still interrupt the cathedral hush, and lone jets grumble across the sky as muscular knees go weak in the walk past Kipling's advice and onto centre court. But serve and volley is a tradition Wimbledon has no control over, suggesting that the committee's rumoured hot line to God is possibly a fabrication. If not for St Roger we would all be bereft, for Wimbledon is the court of cut and thrust, imagination and invention, not of huffing and puffing duels from the baseline. An entire vocabulary of shots is being lost to us, but perhaps one day the cycle of life will bring them back.

Play goes on at Wimbledon seemingly forever, the sun gone and a keyboard concerto rising up from the press room. Then suddenly the arenas are empty, and you're back on the road to Southfields, past tomorrow's growing line of spectators, some in tents. As the train bustles home, you lean back, tired and exhilarated and grateful after taking this long walk in God's tennis park.