Sports

A Grand Slam tour of the tennis world

Following the bouncing balls at all four of the majors

Clockwise from top left: Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open; balls lined up at the French Open’s Court Philippe Chartrier; Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open; and Centre Court at Wimbledon.
Photos: Getty; AFP/Getty; AP
Clockwise from top left: Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open; balls lined up at the French Open’s Court Philippe Chartrier; Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open; and Centre Court at Wimbledon.

Not surprisingly, sleeping on a street in the rain was not highlighted in any of our London tour guides.

Yet, on the advice of veteran world traveler and longtime Globe tennis writer Bud Collins, that’s where my son and I found ourselves in June 2007, huddled under a couple of British Airways blankets, trying to stay warm and dry on a chilly London night.

And we were soaking up every minute of the experience.

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We were queued overnight on Church Road in the London suburb of Wimbledon, awaiting our 6 a.m. wake-up call (as if we were going to sleep) and the promise of Centre Court tickets for opening day of the Wimbledon championships.

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While we didn’t realize it at the time, we were halfway to completing a once-in-a-lifetime journey to the world’s four greatest tennis tournaments. What began in 2000 as a last-minute, end-of-the-summer trip to New York City and a night at the US Open ended in January, some 12 years, three continents, and more than 38,000 miles later in a well-choreographed journey to Melbourne and the Australian Open.

Although tennis was the common thread in our trek, the off-the-court moments provided just as much entertainment and memories as some of the great matches we witnessed.

The US Open was a staple on our August calendar from 2000-09.

A fellow journalist from Minneapolis joined us for our 2003 trip and asked if I could arrange a meeting with Collins. Before I brought Bud out of the media room, we tried to explain to my son Nicholas that while Bud was a longtime sportswriter and television analyst, he is known worldwide as the tennis historian.

Bud Collins, right, with Nicholas Pantages at a Grand Slam stop.
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Bud came out, posed for a few pictures, and engaged Nicholas in a bit of tennis conversation.

“Do you know any tennis players?” Nicholas, then 11, asked.

As if on cue, nearby elevator doors flashed open and out stepped a tan, fit man.

“Alex,’’ called out Bud. “C’mon over here, there are some friends I’d like you to meet.

“Nicholas, this is Alex Metreveli. He played in the 1973 Wimbledon final and lost to Jan Kodes.”

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Bud then spotted another familiar face off in the crowd and quickly gave us another Twitter-like career rundown.

We talked a bit more tennis and fashion (Bud’s salmon-colored pants and matching dress shirt were the topic) before thanking him for taking time to meet us.

“Wow, that was cool, wasn’t it?” we asked Nicholas.

“Yeah,’’ he said with a look of mild disappointment. “But does he know the Williams sisters?”

A sister? Missed her

It’s not possible to write a tennis story without mentioning the Williams sisters. (I think their father had that written somewhere into the WTA bylaws.)

Venus and Serena Williams burst into Grand Slam prominence in 2000, and we got a chance to catch a bit of their brilliance along the way.

One of our best US Open memories was being part of the tournament-record crowd of 23,157 that attended the opening-night matches in 2007 that honored the late Althea Gibson. Aretha Franklin sang and Venus and Serena took center stage at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

The sisters are among the select few players on tour (men’s or women’s) who have rock star status. Side courts at the majors are the best place to get up close and personal with players. But the Williams sisters are rarely scheduled to play there.

Want Max Mirnyi’s autograph after a tough loss? Just walk right up to him as he steps off one of the back courts.

A moment with a Williams sister is much tougher. They never travel anywhere on the grounds without an entourage of four or five very large security personnel.

That didn’t stop Nicholas from trying.

At Wimbledon, Venus’s first-round match against Alla Kudryavtseva was assigned to Court 2 — known as the graveyard of champions because of its history of upsets. The sisters, and father Richard Williams, expressed their displeasure with tournament officials that Venus wasn’t on one of the show courts.

(It should be noted here that Richard appears to be the scariest man in tennis. Dressed as if he is ready to take on all comers on any tennis court and armed with a camera that would make most professional sports photographers jealous, he is anything but warm and fuzzy. We’ve seen him at the US Open many times and also at the French — never talking to anyone, and always with a scowl.)

Nicholas peeled away from Centre Court to watch a bit of Venus’s tight, three-set victory over Kudryavtseva in which she fought back from two match points to win, 7-5, in the third set. He scouted the court’s exits and decided to wait for the Venus entourage to pass by for his paparazzi moment.

His plan worked perfectly and he joined in lockstep behind the last of the security guards. He raised his camera, poised for a candid moment with one of his favorite players . . . and then hit the off button instead of the shutter.

Game, set, match.

Famous faces

Part of the fun of attending a Grand Slam tournament is the game of star search that occurs in the venues’ massive promenades.

At the US Open, Nicholas ran down Summer Sanders, then a sideline reporter for the USA Network, near the food court, stalked Pam Shriver in the US trophy room, and sidled up to Guillermo Vilas in the stands for photographs and autographs.

We were impressed the first time we spotted Nick Bollettieri — who is credited with helping develop the careers of Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova, and Monica Seles, among others — doing an interview. As the years passed, though, it seemed Bollettieri would carry on a very public interview with anyone carrying a camera.

During a rain delay at Wimbledon, Nicholas spotted television analyst Mary Carillo chatting with a small group near one of the side courts.

“Hi, Mary,” he said, introducing himself as a big fan. “May I have your autograph?”

Carillo, a former French Open doubles champion who doesn’t seem as comfortable in her role as a public figure, quickly deflected the attention to a gentleman standing beside her. “You don’t want my autograph,” Carillo politely said. “You want this guy’s autograph.”

The man turned, sized up my son, and asked where he was from. After a brief volley of questions and answers, the man took Nicholas’s notebook and said he’d be happy to sign.

“To Nicholas. Oh my! Dick Enberg.”

Overnight sensations

Simply put, there is no better-run sporting event than Wimbledon.

I make that bold statement based on many assumptions, because, frankly, I haven’t been to every world sporting event.

But our Wimbledon experience was unparalleled.

It began at midnight when we joined the ticket queue. Every year, Wimbledon holds back 500 tickets for each of its three show courts for the general public to purchase the morning of play.

We were met by Wimbledon stewards and directed to one of two queues on Church Road. As soon as we dropped our blankets and claimed our parcel of sidewalk, another steward passed by and handed us numbered queue cards. The cards, Nos. 198 and 199, assured our spots in line, and we were told, come morning, we’d have our pick of the show courts.

The street had a party atmosphere, with veteran campers parking their cars nearby to unload tents, sleeping bags, food, and drink. But this was not your Gillette Stadium tailgating experience. Fans were respectful of the nearby neighborhood, noise and drinking were held to a minimum, and everyone cleaned up after themselves in the morning.

Peter Schroeder
Centre Court at Wimbledon lacks the modern flair of many other stadiums.

Wimbledon — and the exceedingly polite Brits — wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sleep was at a minimum in the cold mist, but we were roused by stewards at 6 a.m. Fans quickly packed their belongings, and by 7:30 we were moving at a rapid pace toward the main Wimbledon entrance.

Before we reached the gates, another more official-looking Wimbledon steward greeted us, holding hundreds of wristbands separated into three colors. He checked the number on our queue card, punched it, and asked what court we wanted. Naturally, we picked Centre Court, and he attached pink wristbands to our arms.

We quickly were led to another queue at a ticket window and our seven hours of life on the streets in the rain vanished when we purchased opening-day seats (Row K) for about $71 apiece.

Great, Britain

Centre Court at Wimbledon opened in 1922, and much like Fenway Park (1912) and Wrigley Field (1914), I hope they never tear it down.

Ashe Stadium in New York is simply massive. The Indians and Pirates could play their home games there and still have room for a few thousand friends. With more than 23,000 seats, it is far and away the largest tennis-only stadium in the world.

It is a fabulous, state-of-the-art venue with some 90 luxury suites and five restaurants. But it will never have the homey feel of Wimbledon’s Centre Court (15,000 capacity) or the French Open’s Court Philippe Chatrier (14,840).

At Wimbledon, there were no high-def television screens, no piped-in music during changeovers, and no advertising surrounding the pristine patch of grass. The Hawk-Eye line system debuted in 2007, one of the few nods to modern technology inside the stadium.

History seeps from every nook and cranny of the old park.

Unfortunately, so did rain.

The court was undergoing a multimillion-dollar makeover in preparation for the installation of a retractable roof (opened in 2009), so we were at the mercy of the elements. Naturally, it rained. And rained.

After a 2½-hour delay, four-time defending champion Roger Federer finally stepped onto Centre Court and brushed aside Teimuraz Gabashvili in straight sets. We then got a taste of British patriotism as hometown hero Tim Henman, playing in his last Wimbledon, faced Carlos Moya. They battled for more than three hours before play was suspended by darkness; no stadium lights, another nod to limited technology.

In general, Wimbledon is like Jimmy Johnson’s hair — there’s nothing out of place.

Purple and white petunias (the tournament’s colors) cover nearly every inch of landscaped space, and Henman Hill is a large green space that features picnic tables and a theater-sized TV screen where folks can hang out and watch the day’s best matches.

We dined on perhaps the best fish and chips London had to offer, and topped off the experience with Wimbledon’s signature dish of strawberries and cream (complete with an interview with a London TV crew that stopped to ask us about our day).

Red all over

We added the French Open to our travelogue in 2010, and with it came a new barrier: language.

It seems four years of studying the language in high school weren’t enough to make Nicholas feel comfortable with conversational French.

Michel Euler/AP/File
The red clay that Rafael Nadal and others play on in France is very distinctive.

As a result, we spent the first part of our day at Court Suzanne Lenglen in the wrong seats. An usher glanced at our tickets, said something rapid-fire, and made a gesture that we took to mean, “Yes, that’s your row right there, take a seat, s’il vous plaît.” (I did understand that last part.)

Turns out that wasn’t what he said. We found our real seats — some 15 rows closer to the court, actually — when some helpful folks who spoke a bit of English clued us in, in time for the court’s highlight match: Andy Murray vs. Richard Gasquet, another hometown favorite.

Unlike most of Paris, where everyone including little old ladies carrying footlong baguettes are hurrying down a sidewalk or running to catch the Metro, Roland Garros moves at a more leisurely pace. Perhaps it’s the slow red clay.

The Murray-Gasquet match, a five-setter that probably ranks as the best Grand Slam match we’ve ever attended, took 4 hours 4 minutes. Rallies lasted 18, 20, 25 strokes, and Murray rallied from two sets down to pull out the victory.

The red clay is the dominant feature of Roland Garros, and the courts take on an almost art-like quality as players’ strides morph into brushstrokes of tennis genius.

If tennis served as our main course, then the appetizers were what each Grand Slam city offered.

It’s hard to beat Paris’s lineup of the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, Versailles, the Eiffel Tower, and even the Catacombs.

London has Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the Tower Bridge, and Stonehenge as its highlights.

The US Open, technically in Flushing, N.Y., falls a bit short in that category, with LaGuardia traffic above and auto-body shops surrounding the USTA Center.

The Australian again broadened our borders, this time by some 10,500 miles, and brought us in touch with koalas, kangaroos, the Harbor Bridge, Sydney Opera House, and the Great Barrier Reef.

Landing down under

What if they held a party complete with live music, food, play stations for kids, and a massage station, then invited 256 of the world’s best tennis players? You’d have the Australian Open.

PANTAGES FAMILY PHOTO
Nicholas and Marty Pantages didn’t need a guidepost (such as this one at the Australian Open) to find their way to all the tennis Grand Slam events.

Melbourne Park is part Grand Slam tennis event, part music festival for two weeks during the heart of summer in January.

Wimbledon is prim, the French is proper. The US Open is big and brash — a place to be seen and to dress to impress.

The Aussie? It’s oi! oi! oi! all the time.

Tennis is the draw, but Aussies flock there to support the team. Teens, parents, and grandparents swarmed the grounds dressed head-to-toe in yellow and green to back their hometown heroes.

Over the years, we’ve seen Pete Sampras, Agassi, Henman, and Gasquet play on home soil. But nothing compared with the home-court advantage Sam Stosur had in her opening match at Rod Laver Arena this year. She was cheered, serenaded, and emotionally picked up as she struggled to victory.

Laver is a multipurpose facility, more TD Garden than tennis garden. Concourses are carpeted, seats have a theater-like quality to them, and while the retractable roof is left open for the majority of the tournament, it is an odd sensation sitting in shade while the court itself is bathed in warm sunshine.

The Australian also gave us a new angle — baseline seats (a much better view than from the upper reaches of Ashe) — and perhaps too close of an appreciation of the decibel level of Sharapova’s shrieks.

.   .   .

As parents, we always want to provide our children with new experiences, new opportunities. And sometimes, we’re lucky enough to tag along for the ride. Such was the case in our 12-year journey.

Travel time in cars, planes, trains, and buses was spent exploring each other’s generation: I learned about Destiny’s Child, and he discovered the Beatles. Or dissecting long-running debates: We made our cases for Borg and McEnroe or Sampras and Federer, Evert and Navratilova or Venus and Serena.

Recently, a new subject has arisen: Just what is the fifth major, and when can we go?

Marty Pantages can be reached at mpantages@globe.com.