Grass Roots Spirit of Wimbledon


Grass Roots

A series of four films celebrating the 125th anniversary of Wimbledon. This programme examines the tournament's beginnings at Worple Road and its subsequent growth.


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Transcript


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What is Wimbledon?

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For 125 years, players and fans have made the pilgrimage to SW19,

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a quiet suburb of London, to try to find the answer.

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You behave almost in a different way when you come here

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because you are aware of what it means to the sport

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and the richness of the tradition of the place.

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At its core lies a simple rectangle, 78ft by 36ft,

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surrounded by 18 other identical rectangles.

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Add some texture, grass -

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out of date in tennis terms but vivid and tactile.

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Who wants to touch clay or hard court?

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Simply the most famous lawn in the world.

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As far as Wimbledon is concerned, it's all about the players.

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What we do is provide the right stage,

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the right environment for them to perform on.

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Now start painting the broad strokes.

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Tradition, pomp, ceremony - quintessentially British.

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Wimbledon is this extraordinary mix of British tradition

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and then the sport at its most modern best.

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Fill in the background. Fans - polite but supportive.

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Jingoistic? Maybe.

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But with no British men's singles winner since 1936,

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give them a break.

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Finally, the masterstrokes - the players.

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Artists and artisans, punchers and counter-punchers.

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All of them seduced sooner or later by its unique aura.

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It's a feeling.

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Some people have it before they even get there

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but those that didn't have it, they certainly get it later.

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It touches everyone.

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But what is in Wimbledon's aesthetic - its DNA -

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that makes this place one of the most enduring and endearing sports arenas in the world?

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In celebrating Wimbledon's 125th anniversary,

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we discover the reasons.

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We begin with the years 1877 to 1939.

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A typical scene for many a young player

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dreaming of one day becoming Wimbledon champion.

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But these four young girls are in fact following in fabled footsteps.

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It was here at Walpole Road, now the playing fields of the Wimbledon High School For Girls,

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that the championships were first played in 1877.

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The game would be recognisable to the first competitors but only just.

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No one could have anticipated how Wimbledon and its Championships

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would come to dominate the landscape of a game first regarded

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as no more than a gentle pastime for the lawns of the country gentry.

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22 players entered the first men-only championships,

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with Spencer Gore, an old boy of Harrow School,

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claiming the first prize of 12 Guineas

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and a silver Challenge Trophy.

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Play.

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The championships probably came and went with very little fuss.

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You have to remember that tennis did not have any working-class roots.

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I think they called it patter.

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This sort of faux sport was not for them.

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You have to give credit to the members

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who actually stuck their necks out

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and decided to go ahead with this completely novel championship.

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It could have remained a marginalised,

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niche sport that fizzled out, like croquet.

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Over the next few years, popularity of the game

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and of Wimbledon grew and broadened,

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fuelled by a women's singles title, first won by Maud Watson in 1884.

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The club came to claim a central position in the world tennis calendar.

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Adopting, if only for a few years,

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the title of the World Championships On Grass.

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It was a day out and people took it quite seriously.

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At this early period it wasn't that the stage

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of getting on to the London social calendar

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like Henley or Ascot or Lord's but there was a presence about it.

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You were beginning to get the cultural aspect

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of being seen at these events.

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Times have indeed changed through the years but not so much.

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A day out at Wimbledon has become a social and sporting necessity.

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A must-do for all walks of life.

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Everyone, it seems, wants to be part of the summer garden party

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which, with its champagne and strawberries,

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is so intrinsically linked to a British summer.

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A tennis tournament, yes, but also a place to be seen and admired.

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Royal patronage, which continues through to this day,

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only underlines its standing.

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You have a sense that it's a very privileged lifestyle

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that you are stepping into and that it's an extraordinarily elegant experience.

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But at the same time it's very inclusive.

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You can walk around the grounds and you'll see people

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from all walks of life and from all over the world

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coming to enjoy the sport.

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So I don't think it's elitist in that respect.

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But you do still have a sense of grandeur

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and that it's a special place to be.

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As Wimbledon became more and more popular at the turn of the 20th century, so did its champions.

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But all were happy to conform to the dress, decorum and attitudes expected of Victorian England.

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Then someone tore up the rule book.

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I think every now and again along comes somebody special in sport

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who transforms it

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and widens its appeal.

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Certainly Suzanne Lenglen was such a person.

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Before the modern tennis superstar,

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before Chrissie, Steffi or Serena, came Suzanne Lenglen.

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Flamboyant, flighty and feisty.

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Such was her reputation that spectators trampled over the hedges

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to watch her debut in 1919 on court four at the old Walpole Road.

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The fact that Suzanne was really the first great, electric woman player

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meant so much to Wimbledon.

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To come out and see this extraordinary

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female athlete.

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She was a wonderful personality.

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Not a very pretty girl but a very vivacious one,

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and her personality won over people. With this beautiful, balletic grace,

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moving so wonderfully on the court.

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And her accuracy and control of the ball was second to none.

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Lenglen may have won six singles titles

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but it was a French sense of style

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and her diva's temperament that she was best known for.

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While outside the courts the suffragettes were fighting for women's rights,

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inside Wimbledon the fortunes of the fairer sex were far more advanced.

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Lenglen led the way, with dresses a trifle shorter,

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a little flimsier and a lot more risque than everyone else's.

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Her dresses were copied as women's fashion and sold in the shops.

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French women would buy them

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and thought how wonderful they looked in Suzanne dresses.

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She was a character like we've never had, certainly.

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I'm not so sure there's ever been a woman athlete like her.

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She would entertain the press after a match in her bath tub.

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I assume there were soap bubbles but maybe not.

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She was a very fluid tennis player.

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You see the pictures of her jumping and so forth.

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It was not uncommon for one breast or the other to fall out of her outfit.

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On the French Riviera they even named her breasts Mary and Jane.

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Wise guys would say, "Who do you think we are going to see today, Mary or Jane?"

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It did not bother Suzanne one bit.

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She'd tuck it back in and go right on playing.

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Lenglen may have laid the foundations of fashion at Wimbledon

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but it was designer Teddy Tinling

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who raised the hemline to another level.

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His outfits for Gussie Moran - not Wimbledon's greatest player -

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still managed to raise eyebrows around the world in the 1940s.

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His creations continued to inspire on court fashion trends

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for the next 30 years.

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Wimbledon became a fashion parade almost as much as much as a tennis tournament,

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as players and clothing companies

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began to capitalise on the best catwalk in the sporting calendar.

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It is a very personality-driven game.

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It's a very individual sport.

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I think their personalities show through with what they're wearing.

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I think that the world of Nike and Adidas

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and Lacoste and everybody else has realised that,

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and more and more with new fabrics and new designs,

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they're realising this can be just so important for their brands

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through the young men and women that are wearing them on court.

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We think always about the backdrop. That's the colour of the court

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or of the baseline walls behind them,

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whatever the advertising or lack of advertising might be.

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At Wimbledon it's so pure and clean.

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So it forces you to be more clever

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with cut lines and with the neckline or something that might look more dramatic

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just in white as opposed to relying on a bright colour

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fighting against a court backdrop.

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Fashion statements had become stronger and more daring.

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Sometimes too strong, too daring.

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But the All England Club's predominantly white clothing rule

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is just one way that Wimbledon asserts its uniqueness

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over every other tournament in the world.

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It feels like its own environment. The rules are set in stone.

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There's no getting around them and there's no bending them.

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It runs a certain way.

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You feel like you're part of something that's much bigger

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than not only you but in many ways it feels bigger than the sport.

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There is a very hefty apparel manufacturing guidebook

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showing what is and is not acceptable.

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There are certain specific asks

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and one of them is that the back of the garment should be all white.

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So we definitely pay attention to that and design into those rules.

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But you never quite know until you get to that point

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whether or not the apparel will pass.

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Instead of restricting choice,

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the all-white rule has created an aesthetic, a simplicity

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that only adds to the glamour and sex appeal at the heart of the game.

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I think when you're watching tennis at its highest level, it's like watching ballet.

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They are so elegant and athletic at the same time,

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that it's a celebration of men and women's bodies.

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I think that's become much more prevalent,

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say, in the last five or ten years,

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when there's just so much more exposure for the game.

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Obviously since it's a game that's really driven by young, very attractive people,

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fashion goes hand in hand with that particular group.

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Fittingly, Suzanne Lenglen hit the very last ball

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on the old Centre Court at Worple Road.

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The crowds that tennis' first celebrity attracted,

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meant Wimbledon had to find a new, bigger home in 1922.

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The chosen sight, just four miles up the road at Church Road, SW19.

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When Lenglen flounced off court in 1926,

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after an argument about her punctuality, she was unbeaten.

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She turned professional, a hint of troubles to come,

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and never returned.

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But, by then, Wimbledon, with its new Centre Court modelled on the old,

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and its broad acres, could live without Lenglen.

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The championships and the game had developed a life of its own,

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finding new ways to thrill each year.

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For me, Wimbledon has always been a very special place,

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ever since I came here as a junior.

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I remember walking through the main gate and up the main concourse

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and thinking, wow, I'm going to be playing on the courts at Wimbledon.

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Woh, what a thrill.

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In the '20s and '30s, overseas players

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began to dominate the tournament.

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Strapping Americans like Bill Tilden, with his booming serve and blistering ground strokes.

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The French Musketeers, Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet, and Rene Lacoste.

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The red-headed Californian, Don Budge,

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who perfected the attacking backhand stroke

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and won the first ever Grand Slam of major titles in one year.

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-What do you think of our English summer?

-Well, I think you had that last week!

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Ever-growing crowds flocked to see the insatiable American,

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Helen Wills Moody, winner of eight Wimbledon singles titles,

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a feat that would not be beaten for over 50 years.

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But the best remembered among the home crowd, Fred Perry.

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The last British men's singles winner, who claimed three straight championships in the '30s.

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I am very pleased to think that I have at last fulfilled

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the trust placed in me by the Lawn Tennis Association.

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and carried off the title at Wimbledon.

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In so doing, I have achieved my own life's ambition.

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By the start of the Second World War, the pattern was set.

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Champions no longer made Wimbledon, Wimbledon made champions.

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The bond has only strengthened over the decades.

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You try to transport yourself in time to the '20s,

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to the '30s, to the '40s, imagine all those great players playing there,

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and you just feel it.

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So you feel very much alone, but at the same time,

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surrounded by history and surrounded by all those people

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that had played there, whether they're alive or not.

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But, for every winner, there has to be a loser.

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The list of great players to have never won Wimbledon

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is a very long one.

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To many, an eternal blot on their careers.

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Someone could win five French Opens, ten Australian Opens, six US Opens,

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but if they didn't have one Wimbledon, they wouldn't quite feel

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as though they were fulfilled.

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Game, set and match, Cash!

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CHEERING

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You win that one and, baby, that's all you need.

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I can still see Cash, the first one, going up,

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left the court and went into the stands.

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He started that whole tradition. If he had done that,

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if he had won the US Open and done that,

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I don't think it would have been embedded in my memory like that.

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And likewise, if you don't do well at Wimbledon, you go to your grave.

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Someone saying, yes, he was a great player, but.

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But he didn't win Wimbledon.

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'All I wanted to do was win that Wimbledon title.'

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That's all I ever concentrated on.

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I didn't care about the money,

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I didn't care that the girls, well, I cared about the girls!

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I didn't care about fame. All I wanted to do was win Wimbledon.

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While champions come and go, Wimbledon has to balance past, present and future.

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I think we're very conscious that the whole image of Wimbledon is based on tradition

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going back to 1877,

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keeping those things that are of vital to us,

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grass-court tennis, white clothing,

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limited amounts of advertising around the grounds.

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But in the same breath, we are in a competitive sports event business

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and we need to innovate as well and to change as the years go by.

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From the construction of Church Road on,

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the club has tried to improve and expand.

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Sometimes the changes are too discreet to even notice.

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But there is no hiding the march of time.

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In 1997, the old Number One court was demolished and replaced

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by a new, state-of-the-art, 11,000-seater stadium.

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The client doesn't so much define the restrictions,

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its other things that come into play.

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And at Wimbledon, it's the site, it's the history of the grounds.

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When you go into to a club like that, you've got be very careful

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about what you do so that it doesn't detract from it.

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If anything, hopefully every time we touch a piece of it, it is just that little bit better each time.

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It was the notorious British weather,

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one of Wimbledon's more enduring if unwanted images,

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which led to the biggest architectural change

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in recent years.

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When the All England Club decided to build a retractable canopy on Centre Court in 2006,

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many thought it would have been far cheaper to build

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an entirely new structure than to install a roof

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on a stadium built in 1922.

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But remember, this IS Wimbledon.

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What they did with Centre Court

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is quintessentially English.

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What they could have done was build a 50,000-seat, purpose-built arena

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with lots of corporate hospitality facilities

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and the latest state-of-the-art technology, but they didn't.

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What they did is they simply took what they already had

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and they accentuated it.

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I think the public response to the roof

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has been nothing other than positive.

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We've had a lovely situation where the sun's shone ever since we built it,

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and long may it stay that way.

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But the reaction to taking an existing building,

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remodelling it, bringing it up to date,

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putting a roof on it, I think has been a better option for us

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than having to relocate.

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Entering the grandest of stages in the game on Finals Day

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remains one of life's seminal moments.

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OK, boys, let go.

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Good luck to you both.

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The walk onto the hallowed turf of Centre Court.

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The glance at that famous quote.

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The sense of anticipation.

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The players feel it,

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the fans do, it's palpable.

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There's that lovely moment when you can't see them

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but you know they're coming because some people can see them.

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That applause gets louder and louder and louder,

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and suddenly they actually come into your view.

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The hairs still stand up on the back of your hands.

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The day that doesn't happen is that they should go off and be a grave digger.

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No other 21st century sports arena has the same intimacy

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or dignity as Centre Court.

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No scoreboard telling fans to clap.

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No public announcer, no rock music.

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No cheerleaders. No mascots.

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No need.

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It's a great feeling to be there

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and to see the court that as a kid you grew up watching.

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I just love the whole atmosphere

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of the echo of the ball and just the quietness that they have before the point.

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It is the most unique place I've ever played.

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Ready. Play.

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No vista on Centre Court appears by chance.

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Everything is designed a certain way.

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Even when you're sitting at the back of the stadium,

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the roof slopes down so much that you can't see the rest of the stadium.

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All you can see is this very tight green slot

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where the players are playing on that pristine piece of grass.

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So the building focuses the attention to that one intense moment,

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one man playing against another, one woman against the other.

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And I think the building helps that experience, it helps that intensity.

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It's tradition, it means something around the world,

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it's the well-cut English lawns.

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The sense of fair play,

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not shouting, not swearing,

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making sure that you're respectful to your opponents.

0:23:430:23:46

This is all part of the package, it's all part of the deal.

0:23:460:23:50

And I think in many ways it harks back to an England,

0:23:500:23:53

certainly of the 19th century, possibly the 20th century,

0:23:530:23:57

but it's an England and a world where these kind

0:23:570:24:00

of values and these qualities are no longer present.

0:24:000:24:02

Even though the court has changed in its construction,

0:24:040:24:08

the way it looks over the years,

0:24:080:24:10

there is still that sense of this is the epicentre of tennis.

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A champion's back garden and a challenger's distant land,

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never rough or raucous, insistent yet sympathetic,

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claustrophobic and very public.

0:24:250:24:28

There is nowhere to run, no place to hide on Centre Court.

0:24:280:24:31

Just a place to try and claim as their own for a while.

0:24:330:24:36

Knowing that no matter who they are,

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they're all just passing through.

0:24:390:24:40

The years 1877-1939 laid the foundations of Wimbledon

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and tennis in general.

0:24:500:24:51

The period after the Second World War

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turned the sport into a business.

0:24:550:24:57

Professionalism arrived and it was the All England Club

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who was first to act.

0:25:010:25:02

Why just tennis players can't be paid? It didn't make any sense.

0:25:040:25:09

And that ultimately was the stroke, the lightning that changed

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the whole game, because all of a sudden, and it was Wimbledon,

0:25:130:25:16

looked and said this is insane.

0:25:160:25:19

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:25:430:25:46

The first in a series of four films celebrating the 125th anniversary of Wimbledon, this programme examines the tournament's beginnings at Worple Road and its growth into the greatest tennis tournament in the world.


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