NIKE'S WAY OF INVENTING BRAND FEDERER

Notwithstanding the STRICT ALL-WHITES code, Wimbledon hasn't done too badly over the years inthe fashion department. Players, both male and female, have always improvised despite the seemingly stuffy limitations, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY.

June 25: I arrive at Victoria coach station and ride the tube to Southfields, changing at Earls Court. I exit the station, baggage in tow, and head towards the All-England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, which is a kilometre down the more-or-less straight road. This is my first trip as a journalist to Wimbledon, and I'm a little uneasy because I haven't brought my accreditation letter with me.

It's a bright Sunday afternoon but already a queue is forming for the first day's tickets. Camping tents have sprung up on the pavement on the opposite side of the road and entire families are sitting out, drinking cola or beer, reading magazines and sunning themselves. To my relief, the staff manning the gate are polite and accommodating. After a couple of phone-calls, Nick, a boyish media-handler who looks like a cross between Daniel Radcliffe and The Line of Beauty's Dan Stevens, meets me at the gate and hands me my pass. We amble towards the media centre. "If England makes the World Cup final, nobody's going to bother with Murray or Henman," he says, only half-jokingly I suspect.

June 26: Notwithstanding the strict all-whites code, Wimbledon hasn't done too badly over the years in the fashion department. Players, both male and female, have always improvised despite the seemingly stuffy limitations. Think of Maud Watson (c. 1884) in her daring ankle-length skirt clearly designed to scandalise spectators, or Suzanne Lenglen's chic pleated silk skirts from the 1920s. Then there was Gussy Moran, who nearly caused a riot in 1949 by wearing lace-trimmed underwear. More recently, veritable fashion divas such as Christ Evert, Gabriela Sabatini and the Williams sisters have imposed their style on the tournament.

This year's theme appears to be retro. The linesmen walk out for the tournament opener in 1930s-style, white-trimmed blue blazers emblazoned with the Ralph Lauren Polo logo and the crossed rackets of Wimbledon. There's more to follow: Roger Federer steps out on Centre Court, wearing a modish ivory-coloured jacket inscribed with a crest that features an F for his surname, a Swiss cross, his Leo star sign, a tuft of grass and three racquets representing his three Wimbledon titles. At least that's what the gentleman sitting next to me in the press-box, a pair of field-glasses dangling around his neck, claims. Behind me, the Guardian's tennis correspondent gasps admiringly. "Stylish," he mutters. A blazer worn over shorts? Anything but, I'm inclined to think; in fact the Emperor seems — what's the term — sartorially challenged. It's the sort of thing the Drones Club would frown upon. Now Federer has never come across as conceited, just supremely confident. So what's with the faux-smoking jacket? Perhaps it's Nike's way of inventing Brand Federer. Gives him a bit of colour. Nobody will accuse him then of being a suffocatingly modest champion. It would be hilarious, though, if he lost to Gasquet today in straight sets.

Federer wins the first set easily enough, and then the skies open up. This blasted English weather! The champion scoots off with his precious jacket. All matches are subsequently cancelled for the day.

June 27: Federer demolishes Gasquet, champion last fortnight in Nottingham. Already I can see the terrible headlines in tomorrow's sports pages (eg. "King of England chastises Sheriff of Nottingham"). I watch most of the match from the Centre Court media box and return to the international writers room on the fourth floor of the press centre, in time to watch the final game. At first silence prevails. Then a chorus builds, voicing the opinion that the Swiss might as well sew a fourth racquet, right now, on his jacket crest.

One point that just struck me: watching tennis from the sidelines at Wimbledon is an intensely different experience from watching it on television. In one way, it's the difference between watching the enactment of a play and watching a soap on television. Television obviously pampers the viewer. It indulges you with multiple replays from different angles. Running commentary further intensifies the drama. It isn't as though I haven't watched `live' tennis before; but sitting self-consciously in the Wimbledon Centre Court press-box, it takes me a little longer than usual to register that Roger Federer has just hit an exquisite backhand over the high part of the net, or that Richard Gasquet is simply not approaching the net enough.

There is no giant screen, so the audience cannot be certain about the accuracy of line calls. In short, there is more spontaneity and the drama feels less manufactured. That's never a bad thing. I'd prefer watching Federer from an uncomfortable Centre Court seat, any day.

Henman sets up a potentially explosive clash with Federer after a come-from-behind first round win. The Englishman is huffing, but perhaps he needs a great opponent to stir him. Federer says Henman, a four-time semifinalist here, could give him some trouble, and the ageing Henman himself is optimistic — he knows he has little to lose.

June 28: Federer has Henman for lunch. Turns out Henman did have something to lose, after all — his dignity. Maybe that's harsh: Henman was up, after all, against the The Jacket. Sania Mirza takes on Elena Dementieva in a first round match, and there is a significant Indian presence in the crowd. Little has changed from last year — the teenager from Hyderabad is still massively popular with the expatriate population — but Mirza is no longer a coy ing�nue trying to find her feet on the pro tour; she is a confident young woman who knows she belongs.

Naresh Kumar, the sagely former Indian Davis Cup captain, is here to watch the match and I sit next to him and pick his brains over the next hour. So, does he think the era of serve and volley tennis is finished? "Unfortunately it does seem like the successful era of serve and volley is dead," he sighs. "Hardly anyone in the top 100 does that these days. Max Mirnyi, Taylor Dent. Federer can volley well, but he prefers to dominate from the back. The courts at Wimbledon have slowed down, and the grass is thicker. It is no longer practical to serve and volley. Today you can survive on grass with spin and a double-handed backhand. But it is encouraging to find shotmakers of the calibre of James Blake and Richard Gasquet who have single-handed backhands."

Meanwhile, Mirza has begun superbly against the world number seven, striking winners from all parts of the court, and comes within one point of running up a 5-2 first set lead. Kumar reckons her forehand is as powerful as Sharapova's. "But it's hard to keep up the winners for two or three sets," he says guardedly, when I ask him if he thinks she can win today. "Sania has got a weak serve. Her muscles are bound to wear out in a few years because she's never learned to swing from the shoulders. But Dementieva's serve is no better. As far as this match is concerned, Sania's main disadvantage is fitness. Dementieva is among the best movers in the women's game."

As it turns out, Mirza loses her way in the second set after putting up a tough fight in the first. "I feel despondent about Sania," Kumar says towards the end of the match. "She is definitely a top-20 talent. But physically and athletically, she is not up to the mark. She will need at least four or five years to build her strength scientifically."

Afterwards, Mirza says she is reasonably satisfied with her performance, although she sounds disappointed at her inability to close out the first set. "I've been trying to improve the variety in my game, these past few months," she says with a curiously affected American twang. "I trained with Tony Roche in December. He changed my service action, and we did a lot of work in general. I can't slack off on groundstrokes or any other aspect of my game."

June 29: Lunch-time conversation swerves around to the topic of equal prize money. "Mauresmo blanked her first-round opponent the other day, whereas Nadal nearly lost to the world number two hundred-and-something," a journalist declares, chomping furiously on his pasta. "It's ridiculous. The argument is not so much about discrimination as it is about quality. The actual disparity in terms of money isn't much, is it? All-England Club is merely making a point — and a damn good one, in my opinion." On other counts, I assure you I'm practically a raging feminist; but on this point, I must concur with the aforementioned journalist.

June 30: Bob Bryan writes on his ATP website blog that his friend, Boyd Tinsley, the violinist from the Dave Matthews Band, is in town to catch a couple of matches. Fact is, I became a journalist in the hope that one day I could interview DMB — that's how crazy I am about their music. The chances that I might spot Tinsley aren't exactly high, though. Life is so unfair.

July 1: Not sure if I've been looking in the wrong places, but not counting the media cafeteria, I haven't seen anyone selling strawberries and cream. Not that I would want a bowl of the hideously expensive stuff. It's a bit sad, really, that Wimbledon should exploit tradition for commercial gain.

Andre Agassi loses to Rafael Nadal in straight sets. It's the end of a fine career on grass. Breaking with tradition, Sue Barker engages the teary-eyed Agassi in an on-court interview, as the crowd gives him a standing ovation. "To say good-bye, for me, this means as much as winning, saying good-bye," says the classy eight-time Grand Slam champion at his final post-match press conference at Wimbledon.

On a day like this, tennis is of secondary importance to Englishmen at least. Andy Murray is playing very well against Andy Roddick, but most in the audience probably wish they were at the local pub, watching Beckham and his mates. Word slowly filters through a horror-struck Centre Court that England has gone out on penalties. The English can be funny: at times it does seem as if their sense of self-esteem depends solely on the fortunes of their football team. You've got to feel for Murray. The Tory party might want Gordon Brown out of English politics because he is Scottish, but there is no doubt the English have already embraced Murray, the 19-year-old from Glasgow, as the new Henman. Murray has his work cut out. But if he wins Wimbledon one day, you can take it for granted no mention of his Scottish forefathers will be made. Such amusing hypocrisy, I say.

Allez les Bleus!