Ranking the Greatest Traditions at the Wimbledon Championships

Jake CurtisFeatured ColumnistJune 25, 2014

Ranking the Greatest Traditions at the Wimbledon Championships

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    Wimbledon is the oldest and most prestigious Grand Slam event and is laden with tradition, some of which is lauded, some of which is ridiculed.

    Whether it be the rules, the equipment or the environment, things at Wimbledon have not changed a lot since its first tournament in 1877. And the event is known for those traditional touches almost as much as for the tennis.

    Some traditions are newer than others, and that is taken into consideration when ranking them. Other things associated with Wimbledon, such as wagering and inclement weather, are part of all sports in Great Britain, so they were not included in this list.

    Generally, the rankings of the 12 traditions listed here are based on how long the custom has been associated with Wimbledon and how closely it is identified with tournament.

12. Rufus the Hawk

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    Rufus is a six-year-old Harris hawk who has his own photo credential to gain access to the All England Club grounds and also has his own Twitter account and Facebook page. 

    Rufus carries on a relatively new Wimbledon tradition started 15 years ago by Hamish, another Harris hawk. In 1999, Hamish was given the chore of scaring away pigeons, which seemed to enjoy the habitat provided by Centre Court. Not only did the pigeons interrupt play on occasion, but their droppings also tended to spoil the grass courts.

    So Hamish was hired through the Avian Control Systems to rid the area of pigeons.

    Hamish was succeeded by Rufus, who works year-round at Wimbledon, but whose workload is increased during the tournament. He is set free at Centre Court at about 6 a.m. daily during the tournament, according to the Wimbledon website, and works for about four hours before play begins, chasing pigeons away. Rufus also works at dusk, assuming play has been completed for the day. He never catches the pigeons, but his intimidating presence is enough to keep most of the pests away from the grounds.

    During the 2012 Wimbledon tournament, Rufus created a stir when he was stolen, causing the police to get involved. An investigation ensued, but three days after his disappearance, an anonymous caller revealed Rufus' location, and he was recovered unharmed.

    Another Wimbledon tradition was preserved.

11. Seeding

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    Why is Andy Murray seeded No. 3 at this year's Wimbledon and Stanislas Wawrinka No. 5, even though Murray was ranked No. 5 on the ATP computer when the seedings were determined and Wawrinka was No. 3?

    It's because Wimbledon is the only major tournament that does not go solely by ATP rankings when establishing seeding. Wimbledon also considers past results on grass, and that has traditionally been part of its seeding policy. In 2002, Wimbledon reached an agreement with the ATP to determine its seeding in the men's draw based on three specific criteria:

    Step 1: Count the ATP ranking points of each player at the time of seeding—in this case, June 16, 2014.

    Step 2: Add all of the points a player has earned in any grass court events in the past 12 months.

    Step 3: Add 75 percent of the points earned for the player's best grass-court tournament in the 12 months before that.

    Because Murray won Wimbledon last year and was a finalist in 2012, his seeding received a boost. Wawrinka (pictured above) lost in the first round at Wimbledon the past two years.

    Being seeded No. 3 is a significant factor for Murray, because it guaranteed that he would not meet Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer until at least the semifinals.

    The formula does not apply to women, but the seeding committee still has the authority to alter seedings to create a competitive balance on the women's side. No such changes were made this year.

    There was a time when players' capabilities on different surfaces were more noticeable than they are today. Pete Sampras, Boris Becker and John McEnroe were outstanding on grass with their serve-and-volley games, but had far less success on clay. The opposite was true of baseline players such as Manuel Orantes and Gustavo Kuerten.

    In 1988, when a Wimbledon committee determined seeding, McEnroe was seeded No. 8 despite being ranked No. 19. Tim Mayotte was seeded No. 6 at the 1990 Wimbledon event even though he was ranked No. 14. Those adjustments were based on those players' success at previous Wimbledons.

    Perhaps because Wimbledon's grass courts are slower than they once were, the difference in performance on grass is less dramatic now. The fact that playing styles differ less among elite players than they once did could also be a component. The pure serve-and-volley player is virtually extinct.

    However, Murray and Federer still have a far better chance of winning a major tournament on grass and hard courts than they do on clay.

    The seeding tradition lives on, making Wimbledon distinctive.

10. The Queue Etiquette Guidebook

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    Leave it to the British to provide a guide on how stand in line to get into Wimbledon. The queues are long, so there are certain rules and recommendations to be heeded during the lengthy wait. 

    The guidebook informs readers that excessive consumption of alcohol will not be tolerated, and it suggests that those in line should wear appropriate clothing and footwear. Queue-jumping (what Americans call butting in line) is strictly forbidden.

    As an American man said in the video above, "It's extremely organized."

9. Formality in Names

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    Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

    Some may consider it anachronistic or pretentious, but Wimbledon still bestows elegant titles on the competitors.

    The men's and women's competitions are called the Gentlemen's and Ladies' events. Wimbledon is the only tournament that does so.

    More noticeable is the reference to female competitors. For 132 years, according to a Fox Sports article, the names of female players were represented on the Wimbledon scoreboard by the title "Miss" or "Mrs." before their surname, as shown in the 2008 photo above. In 2009, the inclusion of Miss or Mrs. on the scoreboard was dropped. However, the chair umpire still refers to women players as Mrs. or Miss. Male players are seldom called Mr., though.

    Wimbledon is all about formalities, and this one continues.

8. Centre Court

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    The quiet aura of Wimbledon's Centre Court is a tradition in itself.

    No advertising pollutes the distinctive green color that pervades this unique tennis arena, which reflects a history of many glorious battles.

    Built in 1922, Centre Court is the oldest main court for a Grand Slam event, predating Roland-Garros by six years.

    Centre Court survived a World War II bombing on Oct. 11, 1940 that destroyed 1,200 seats. The tournament was not held during the war years (1940-45), but Centre Court was in use for the 1946 Wimbledon tournament, even though the damaged area was not repaired until 1947, according to the Wimbledon website.

    Tradition was sacrificed for practicality in 2009 when a retractable roof was added to accommodate night play and the intrusion of inclement weather.

7. Match Scheduling

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    Wimbledon has its own way of scheduling matches, with three scheduling rules creating a tradition worth noting.

    First is the fact that the defending men's champion plays the opening match of the tournament on Centre Court. That's why Andy Murray (pictured above) played the first match of the 2014 Wimbledon.

    The defending women's champ traditionally plays the first match on Wimbledon's second day, but since 2013 winner Marion Bartoli has retired, the tournament committee had to choose which woman would open play on Tuesday. Sabine Lisicki, last year's runner-up, had the honor.

    The second tradition is that the middle Sunday of the two-week event is a day of rest. It is the only Grand Slam tournament that schedules no matches on what would seem to be an attractive day for spectators. Despite the inconveniences caused by rainy weather, only three times in the history of the tournament (1991, 1997 and 2001) has Middle Sunday been used to make up matches.

    The third custom is less significant as far as a tradition, but important to many viewers: All four women's quarterfinals are played on the second Tuesday, and all four men's quarterfinal matches are played on the second Wednesday. If you favor either men's or women's tennis, you know which day is the most appealing for you.

6. The Trophies

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    The trophies presented to the Wimbledon singles winners are almost as recognizable as the players who receive them, and the trophies have a lot more history.

    Since 1887, the men's winner has been presented a silver gilt cup that stands about 18 inches tall and carries the inscription  "The All England Lawn Tennis Club Single-Handed Champion of the World." Three of the past four champions (Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray) hit two-handed backhands, so the title is a bit anachronistic, but such is the fate of venerable trophies.

    A pineapple design adorns the top of the trophy, and nobody seems to know why. That's tradition.

    The winner's name is engraved on the trophy, but by 2009, there was no space left for additional names. As a result, a black plinth with a silver band was added, so names could be added.

    The women's champion is presented the silver Venus Rosewater Dish, a name that seems particularly appropriate sbecause Venus Williams won it five times.

    The Rosewater Dish, which is 18 inches in diameter, is actually a year older than the men's trophy and was first presented in 1886 to Blanche Bingley Hillyard, who wore a dress that went completely to the ground when she won the title.

    The dish is decorated with mythological figures and is a copy of an electrotype from the pewter Temperantia dish that resides in the Louvre in Paris.

    The men's and women's champions do not get to keep the trophies, but, since 1949, they have received smaller replicas.

5. Strawberries and Cream

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    No snack is more closely associated with Wimbledon than strawberries and cream. It is to the All England Club what hot dogs are to American baseball stadiums.

    The New York Times reported in 2006 that, during the 2005 Wimbledon, Facilities Management Catering Ltd. served 23 tons of fruit, or more than 2 million strawberries, and 1,820 gallons of cream. The Wimbledon website currently reports that around 28,000 kilograms (nearly 31 tons) of strawberries and over 7,000 liters (1,850 gallons) of fresh cream are consumed during the tournament. It suggests this tradition is getting stronger.

    Last year, a serving of strawberries and cream at Wimbledon cost $4.25, about the average price of a hot dog at a Major League Baseball stadium.

    Legend had it that King George V introduced strawberries and cream to Wimbledon crowds. But the librarian of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum told the New York Times that the strawberries and cream tradition dates to the first Wimbledon tournament in 1877. Strawberries and tennis both represented the arrival of summer. Strawberries are only available during that time of year and became the fashionable thing to eat during summers in the 19th century. It just coincided with Wimbledon.

    If you want to duplicate the Wimbledon experience at home while watching matches on television, be advised that the official Wimbledon strawberry is the Elsanta variety, and the double cream contains at least 48 percent butterfat.

4. The Tournament Name

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    Alastair Grant/Associated Press

    Unlike the other three Grand Slam events, Wimbledon is not referred to as the open event in the country in which it is held.

    Wimbledon is the oldest of the four majors and distinguishes itself from the United States Open, Australian Open and French Open by dismissing the word "Open" and identifying itself by its specific location. Wimbledon is a suburban district in London in the borough of Merton and just happens to be home to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, site of the tournament since it began in 1877.

    Calling this Grand Slam event Wimbledon is tantamount to referring to the U.S. Open as Flushing. But Wimbledon is about tradition, thus the name.

    Officially, the tournament at Wimbledon is titled "The Championships" and is often referred to as "the fortnight," terms that have become traditions in themselves. British newspapers often refer to the venue as SW19, which is the postal code for the Wimbledon district located in southwest London. However, the event is never called the British Open or the England Open.

    The French Open's official name is "Les internationaux de France de Tennis, Roland Garros," and the U.S. Championships were often referred to as "Forest Hills" by Americans when that event was held at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York, until 1978.

    But these days, those events are commonly called the French Open and U.S. Open, even on the ATP and WTA websites.

    Wimbledon is just Wimbledon, and always will be.

3. Royalty

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    British royalty has always been a conspicuous part of Wimbledon by its presence and participation. After all, the Queen is a patron of the All England Club, and her cousin, the Duke of Kent, is the club's presiding president.

    The British Royal Box, which seats 74 people, has been reserved for members of the British Royal Family and guests since 1922.

    The Duke of York, who later became King George VI and the father of Queen Elizabeth II, played in the 1926 Wimbledon men’s doubles tournament. He lost in the first round.

    For years, tradition required male players to bow and female players to curtsy to the Royal Box upon entering and leaving the court. However, in 2003, the Duke of Kent stopped that practice, and now bows and curtsies are necessary only when the Queen and Prince Philip are present.

    Members of Royalty act as award presenters after the finals of events. The Duke of Kent handed the cup to the 2013 men's champion Andy Murray following the long traditional formality in which the Duke greeted ball boys and ball girls and tournament officials.

    He also presented the women's trophy to Marion Bartoli, although the most memorable royal moment may have come in 1993. That is when the Duchess of Kent presented the runner-up trophy to Jana Novotna, then held Novotna in her arms as Novotna sobbed on her shoulder after blowing a 4-1 lead in the third set and losing to Steffi Graf in the finals.

2. White Attire

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    Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press

    The age-old tradition of players wearing white clothing at tennis tournaments disappeared years ago at every event...except Wimbledon.

    Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam event in which players are required to wear predominantly white attire. In 1963, Wimbledon introduced a rule that required players to wear "predominantly white." That was replaced by a more restrictive rule in 1995 that directed players to be clothed "almost entirely in white," according to an article on the Wimbledon website.

    Near the end of the 19th century, which is when the Wimbledon tournament came into existence, the rich in America and England had adopted summer white as a symbol of their leisure, according to The Atlantic. Tennis was also a representation of wealth at the time, thus the convergence of white attire and tennis. In 1890, Wimbledon mandated all-white attire for participants.

    These days, clothing choices are submitted to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club for comment earlier in the year, and the referee determines whether attire is suitable on the day it is worn.

    Guidelines, according to the Wimbledon website article, include: no solid mass of coloring; little or no dark or bold colors; no fluorescent colors; preference toward pastel colors; preference for back of shirt to be totally white; preference for shorts and skirts to be totally white; and all other items of clothing, including hats, socks and shoes, to be almost entirely white.

    There have been breaches and near-breaches, and the last directive on the list of guidelines got Roger Federer into some trouble, albeit minor.

    After Federer (pictured above) wore sneakers with bright orange soles in a first-round match last year, Wimbledon officials told him he could not wear those shoes again because they violated the dress code.

    He did not don the colorful sneakers again, but the photos and media attention directed at the shoes were a boon for Nike. Less than two days later, that style of orange-soled shoes was sold out on Nike's online store, according to USA Today.

    Andre Agassi boycotted Wimbledon for three years, claiming he was unhappy with the all-white dress code and did not have anything suitable to wear, according to an ESPN article. He returned in 1991 with proper clothing and won the event in 1992.

1. The Grass

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    Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam event still played on grass, which was the original surface of tennis and was once the dominant surface of the major events.

    When Don Budge completed the first Grand Slam of tennis in 1938, three of the four major events were played on grass. Both of Rod Laver's Grand Slams in 1962 and 1969 were accomplished with three of the four titles coming on grass courts.

    However, the difficulty in maintaining grass courts, as well as the scarcity of grass venues, have made grass-court tennis a rare commodity.

    The U.S. Open switched from grass to clay in 1975 and switched again to hard courts three years later. The Australian Open departed from its tradition of grass-court tennis in 1988, turning to hard courts and experiencing a rise in prestige thereafter.

    The United States Lawn Tennis Association dropped the "Lawn" reference in its title in 1975 because it was no longer applicable.

    But Wimbledon will have it no other way at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. The first Wimbledon tournament in 1877 was played on grass, and its 128th edition this year is being played on grass.

    The grass at Wimbledon is 100 percent Perennial Ryegrass and is cut to a height of eight millimeters (a little less than one-third of an inch), according to the Wimbledon website.

    It is the only court surface that changes significantly over the course of a tournament. Smooth, albeit slippery, at the start of the event, the courts become worn by the later rounds, creating more bad bounces.

    There is a general feeling, as expressed by Peter Bodo in a 2013 Tennis.com article, that the grass courts at Wimbledon are slower now than they were several years ago. That gives baseliners a better chance to compete, although grass remains the fastest surface and one that benefits aggressive play that includes volleying.

    Although most people have never played on a grass court, the most prestigious tennis event in the world is played on that surface. And always will be.