Whether one is a tennis fan or not, there’s an undeniable allure to the annual summer spectacle of Wimbledon: the grass courts, the white clothes, the stone walls covered in ivy, the strawberries and cream – and of course, the oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament in the world.

The two-week event has been held at the All England Lawn Tennis Club every year since 1877, except during the two world wars and the pandemic year of 2020. Over that time, it has grown to transcend tennis as one of the most recognizable exports of British culture. Along with a few popular period dramas, it’s among the best-known embodiments of old-world Englishness before the public.

Beneath Wimbledon’s trappings and traditions lies a subtext that would not have been lost on earlier generations of spectators, reared as they were in a Judeo-Christian ethos. But that subtext has become lost on contemporary audiences – which may explain the nostalgic affection with which Wimbledon continues to be embraced each summer.

The cathedral of tennis

In recent times, this sense of nostalgia has taken on an almost worshipful aspect. During the fortnight of the competition, journalists and presenters refer to Wimbledon’s Centre Court as the cathedral of tennis, the most hallowed spot on earth for those who follow the sport. The final rounds on TV are prefaced with beautiful short films, narrated by famous British actors, portraying the tournament in reverential – and even religious – language.

It’s doubtful whether Wimbledon’s earliest audiences would’ve felt comfortable with such idolatrous overtones. For them, tennis wasn’t a religion and Centre Court wasn’t a church. In fact, one of the tournament’s longest traditions – discontinued as of 2022 – was to shut down on the middle Sunday, giving players and spectators the chance to rest and attend worship services, if they chose.

Hallways through the past

Wimbledon may not be a cathedral in the literal sense. Nevertheless, its awareness of space and time is unique among tennis tournaments, indeed among all sporting events. Players aren’t just thrust onto the court from the change rooms. In the final rounds, they pass through the long, elegant halls of the All England Club, surrounded by old wood and burnished brass. They’re led by an usher past mementos and portraits of past champions, some of them long dead. Their bags and racquets are carried by attendants, and the female players are presented with a large bouquet of fresh flowers before being introduced.

The purpose of the ritual is to show all due honour to the players for their achievements. But beyond that, it also communicates to them – and to the audience – that they’re not merely individuals standing alone in this, their moment. They belong to a history and to a community that’s far larger and older than themselves.

An understated celebration

This sense of occasion, tempered with dignity, is underscored as the players step onto the court. They’re ushered in with polite applause and little fanfare. The atmosphere during the match remains orderly and respectful, for the most part; there are few displays of bravado or individualism. Afterward, celebrations on court are kept simple and understated. The players return the way they came, through the halls of the All England Club, mingling with family, friends, dignitaries and other members of the club.

From beginning to end, the subtext remains consistent: the tournament is to be enjoyed, the success of the players celebrated, but neither is to be worshipped. Both are of the moment, threads in a larger tapestry of tradition. Their passing glory points to a weightier, lasting reality that would’ve been familiar to biblically informed audiences of eras past.

Grass trampled into dust

Wimbledon is one of the few remaining tennis tournaments played on grass. Each year, the groundskeepers work their meticulous art to ensure the lawn courts are lush and green for the event. And so they are for the first few rounds. But over the fortnight they get worn down, trampled under the incessant pounding of the players’ feet. By the end, large swaths of the green courts are reduced to brown-grey patches of dirt and dust.

For tennis fans who are also followers of Jesus, it’s not a huge leap from the visual imagery of Wimbledon’s lawns to the poetic imagery of King David:

“As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16).

The prophet Isaiah concurs:

“All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8).

Temporary and eternal beauty

“Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in; aim at earth and you will get neither,” wrote C.S. Lewis.

Sadly, newer generations reared in a secular context have thrown off the idea of heaven and replaced it with things of the earth. They’ve taken good and worthwhile pleasures – like Wimbledon – and treated them with near-religious ardour.

Yet on some level, they suspect that it was never meant to be so. They yearn with affection for something elusive that was perhaps more evident to their scripturally attuned forebears – a principle reflected in the wisdom of King Solomon:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

As God’s image-bearers, we humans are capable of creating good and beautiful things. But by nature, the beauty of these human creations is temporary, like the grass at Wimbledon and the glory of its champions. None of it was designed to be enjoyed solely for its own sake, but with a view to the eternal beauty of one who is the source of all good gifts.

This truth has been whispered down through the years by the various traditions of Wimbledon. It would’ve been intuited by the tournament’s spectators in earlier generations. And it’s past time that current audiences begin to hear it once again.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2017 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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