The wisdom of Wimbledon: Our days are like grass

By Subby Szterszky | July 21, 2017

Whether one is a fan of tennis or not, there’s an undeniable allure to the annual summer spectacle that is 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 and Croquet Club every year since 1877, except during the two world wars. Over that time, it has grown to transcend tennis as one of the most recognizable exports of British culture. With the possible recent exception of Downton Abbey, it remains the best-known embodiment of old-world Englishness before the public eye.

But beneath the trappings and traditions lies a subtext that would not have been lost on earlier generations, steeped as they were in a Judeo-Christian ethos. Sadly, that subtext has indeed become lost on contemporary audiences – which may explain, paradoxically, the nostalgic affection with which Wimbledon continues to be embraced.

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 sometimes even religious – language.

It’s doubtful, however, that Wimbledon’s earliest audiences would’ve felt comfortable with such frankly idolatrous overtones. For them, tennis wasn’t a religion and Centre Court wasn’t a church. In fact, one of the tournament’s enduring traditions is to shut down on the middle Sunday, giving players and spectators the chance to rest and, if they so choose, to attend worship services.

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 simply 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 bigger 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 no brazen displays of bravado or excessive individualism. Afterwards, celebrations on court are kept simple and understated. The players return the way they came, through the halls of the All England Club, mingling as they go with family, friends, dignitaries and other members of the club.

From beginning to end, the underlying message remains the same: 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 much larger tapestry of tradition. Their passing glory points to a weightier, lasting reality that would’ve been familiar to Biblically informed audiences of earlier times.

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, they’re largely reduced to brown-grey patches of dirt and dust.

For tennis fans who are also believers, 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

As C.S. Lewis observed, “Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth thrown in; aim at Earth and you will get neither.”

Sadly, modern people in general have thrown off the idea of heaven and replaced it with things of the earth. They’ve taken good and worthwhile pleasures – such as Wimbledon – and begun treating them with near-religious ardour.

And 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 acute 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, humanity is likewise 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.

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