Tuesday, 30 June 2015

England – The wonders of Wimbledon

29-30 June

Hello everyone!

Another year of teaching has been finished, leaving us to enjoy the sweet splendour of summer. We have two months of gallivanting to look forward to; our first stop, however, is arguably the most exciting. It’s certainly something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. One of the highlights of a British summer: Wimbledon.

The tournament at the spiritual home of tennis starts at the end of June and lasts for two weeks. Usually the first week coincides with the last week of the school year and the second week is almost impossible to get tickets for. From this year though the tournament has been shunted back a week to give the players more time to prepare. It also lets me, for the first time, visit the hallowed turf of the All England Club.

Of course, Wimbledon is an immensely popular tournament and tickets are difficult to obtain, yet what is great about these championships is that you can get tickets if you put some effort in. By effort, I mean camp overnight in a queue. Four of us – myself, Hannah, Helen and Carl – arrived at Wimbledon Park shortly after nine in the evening to see that a small village had been constructed, all in ordered sections. A queue card is collected and then tents are built.

A photo from section 4 of the queue, where our tents were pitched

After a couple of issues building our tent, we settled down to enjoying our late-night pizza and wondering about the players we would be watching the following day. The atmosphere amongst the tents was completely cheerful and positive.

You’re woken up very early the following morning – if you’re not awake before, marshals get you up at 5:30am – and have an hour to disassemble your tent and leave it in storage. You then reform in line according to the number on your queue card and wait for the stewards to say to you what court choices are available.

Many people were awake from 4:30 am

Wimbledon awaits...after progressing through a long, snaking queue

Wimbledon has three show courts: Centre, 1 and 2 (in that order of importance), and 500 tickets for each court are made available every day for hardy queuers. We were close to the 1300 mark. Centre was hosting Federer & Murray; Court 1 had Nadal. We thus had to settle for Court 2.

A queue card is traded for one of these wristbands

The queue at 7am

Not that this was a bad thing. On the contrary, we now had tickets to see Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (one of the tour’s great entertainers) and Caroline Wozniacki (very talented, very beautiful). These tickets would also let us roam the grounds and watch all of the other courts, featuring many famous names and possible stars of the future. We were therefore still incredibly excited as we patiently waited in line to enter the grounds of SW19.

Denmark's hottest tennis property

We were dressed for the occasion, patriotic flags and hats blowing in the slight morning breeze. Surprisingly to us, such paraphernalia was a rare sight, meaning that we attracted quite a lot of attention before play began. Hannah and Helen were interviewed on ITV’s morning show sporting Union Jack hats and face-painted strawberries. They were also snapped by freelance photographers and their photo appeared in the Evening Standard, London’s local paper. The following day we were also informed that they had appeared in Wednesday’s edition of The Times newspaper.

Preparations for ITV's morning broadcast from Wimbledon Park

Hannah and Helen in the Evening Standard

Hannah and Helen in The Times

Most impressively, they were also included on BBC’s Wimbledon 2Day coverage. Carl and I were filmed for this as well but didn't make the final cut. Life lesson if you’re going to Wimbledon and want to be seen: wear a plastic UK hat and be a pretty girl. Stereotypes, eh…

This was just in the queue. Upon arriving through the gates of the All England Club we were interrupted by a camera crew representing ESPN who asked us to pose for their coverage. Shortly after this, we were invited to take part in a live radio interview with Radio Wimbledon, in which Carl and I were quizzed on our tent-building skills, amongst other trivial matters. All of these media experiences just added to the sense of occasion and ceremony about the place, not to mention making us feel incredibly important.

Preparing for a live interview on Radio Wimbledon

You could almost forget at this point that we weren't the main event and that we were here to watch the tennis. Soon enough, the security cordons were relaxed and we were able to amble around Wimbledon for a while before matches started. What’s lovely is that players are doing this to, as well as spending time on the practice courts. I spotted a Czech player, Radek Stepanek, and shouted at him. Clearly my Czech accent still isn't fully honed as he responded with a bemused wave.

First up for us was the entertaining Frenchman and thirteenth seed, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who was playing against a man who is undoubtedly Luxembourg’s most famous current sportsman: Gilles Muller. Well, how many more are there? Our seats were incredible; the second row behind one of the ends.

Court 2

Some people may not want to be this close to the action for fear of their own safety. Indeed, one mishit return by Tsonga whizzed inches past my head. My hand raised to catch the ball about a second after it had almost decapitated me. Tsonga looked back and smiled, before knuckling down to business and winning the first set on a tie-break.

The Frenchman's serve regularly exceeded 130mph

Tsonga won the first set 10-8 on a tiebreak

It was a glorious, scorching day in southwest London. Factor 70 was being applied to pinking skin and water was guzzled at a rapid rate. After the second set finished we had to escape the clutches of the sun to find some shade. Well, that was the plan anyway. We ended up with strawberries and cream watching Britain’s finest on Aorangi Terrance. You may know it as Henman Hill or Murray Mount…

A staple of Wimbledon: strawberries and cream

Andy Murray, 2013 champion and carrier of the hopes of a nation once again, was in action on Centre Court. People congregate on the terrace to watch his matches on a giant screen. The atmosphere was surprisingly flat, possibly owing to the heat and it being an early match, but the volume was ratcheted up during the second set tie-break.

Murray beat Mikhail Kukushkin in straight sets

Incredibly, our first match on Court 2 was still going on. We returned to watch Tsonga and Muller duel in a final set showdown. To the delight of the vast majority in the crowd, the Frenchman prevailed. He responded to a French lady’s shouts by giving her his towel.

Tsonga eventually prevailed in a five-set thriller

Rather than stay for the next match, we opted to wander around the smaller courts, hoping to see familiar faces or ends to epic matches. We watched one of my favourites, Germany’s Dustin Brown, smash his way to victory before spotting other notable names such as Sam Stosur and Viktor Troicki.

Germany's Dustin Brown

Action from the men's doubles

We’d already seen the biggest name whilst meandering to Court 2. This Swiss master happened to be practising on a smaller court…

Roger Federer

After watching and supporting a couple of Brits on smaller courts, Carl and I returned to Court Two to watch Gilles Simon, seeded 12, finish his match with ease.

Nicolas Almagro, who Gilles Simon comfortably defeated

We then received a phone call from the girls. Somehow they had snaffled tickets to the biggest stage of all: Centre Court. Being nice, they’d also got some for us as well. We raced across the grounds to enter one of tennis’ most famous venues. Caroline Wozniacki had been moved there from Court Two. It is cavernous.

Wozniacki being congratulated by Saisai Zheng

It was a very long, breathtaking and brilliant day, something I’ll never forget. The mystique and aura of Wimbledon was in full abundance. Watching on the television doesn't do the place justice.

Our trip to Wimbledon, and everything that encompassed it, was one of the best experiences I've had in a long time. From the fun and friendly vibes of the queue to the fierce hitting of forehands and backhands, it was everything I’d dreamed of and more. As I told Josh Widdicombe when he interviewed us (again, didn’t make the cut!), I spent the whole day being giddy with excitement.

Josh Widdicombe preparing for our interview

A wonderful time at Wimbledon

Love you all


Sunday, 21 June 2015

Czech Republic – Watching footballing stars of the future

June 20

Hello everyone!

I like my football. Most people know that. I particularly like international tournaments such as the World Cup and European Championships, even though so far these have all been enjoyed as a neutral. Maybe Wales will qualify next year: fingers crossed! I’ve had great experiences of these tournaments abroad, from fan parks in Austria to massive screens in South Korea.

Unfortunately these tournaments occur in even years, meaning that this is a relatively fallow footballing summer. I could stay up late and watch the Copa America, South America’s version of the Euros. I could also watch the Women’s World Cup. However, a much better alternative has arrived on my very doorstep!

For those who don’t follow football as ardently as me, international matches also take place across age ranges. The most prestigious matches obviously involve the senior sides, where age is no limit, but these are closely followed in importance by Under-21 teams. A European Under-21 Championship takes places every odd year and this year is being hosted by…you guessed it…the Czech Republic!

Eight of Europe’s brightest young sides are converging on the Czech Republic during the second half of June to fight it out for the crown of European (U-21) champions. Games are taking place in Olomouc (way east), Uhersk√© Hradiste (I had to look it up, it’s that innocuous) and Prague. Some of Prague’s matches are taking place at the relatively new Eden Stadium, which I’d never been to before. As you can see below, the outside of the stadium doubles up as a hotel. I don’t know how much it is to sleep there but with tickets selling for 100Kc (just a squeak over £2.50), it would be silly not to get involved and watch some of football’s finest young talent.

Dark skies greeted us as we entered the stadium just in time to hear the anthems of the two competing nations, Denmark and Germany. The latter are widely seen as favourites for the competition; for this reason, we entered with the view to enthusiastically supporting the Danes. This was until we found our seats…smack bang in the middle of the most vociferous German fans in the stadium, complete with Rudi Voller wigs.

We were also sat in close proximity to the travelling Danish fans. One great thing about this game, which I’m assuming applies to the tournament as a whole, is that security and fear is less apparent than at a senior match. There are negatives to this, shown by the amount of time a pitch invader was allowed to wander around towards the end of the game before being dragged away.

There was no buffer between the two rival fans yet there was never the threat of tempers boiling over, in spite of the hilarious chants being roared by the Danes (singing ‘You only sing when you’re winning’ in English being a particular favourite).

I hadn’t really heard of the Danish players, which contrasted markedly with the young German team. Their goalkeeper, Marc-Andr√© ter Stegen, played in goal for Barcelona two weeks before in the Champions’ League final. Players from Liverpool and Arsenal were also involved for the Germans. ter Stegen took a bit of stick near the end of the game because he held his nose after a robust Danish challenge. Danish fans roundly booed his every touch for the next 20 minutes, whilst the German contingent simultaneously roared his name.

Denmark actually started the game brightly and had the Germans wobbling for the first quarter. Soon enough, however, the favourites were stamping their authority on the game and struck just after half an hour.

1-0 at halftime became 3-0 within ten minutes of the resumption, a delightfully dispatched free kick being followed by a thumping header. Denmark huffed and puffed, and their fans admirably kept outsinging the Germans, but never looked like scoring.

The match finished 3-0 to Germany. It was an entertaining game to watch, remarkably friendly in its nature (senior sides could learn a thing or two about the lack of arguing about decisions) and taking place in a boisterous, amiable atmosphere. The fact that Germans and Danes were mixing by the end of the game was a reminder that the tribal nature of football should only be temporary.

As for future stars? Germany’s striker, called Kevin Volland, scored twice and looked impressive, whilst their tricky winger Amin Younes constantly dribbled past his hapless marker and delivered teasing crosses. Remember the names!

The tournament is much more compact than most sporting spectacles, with the final occurring next weekend. It was great fun and value to watch some of football’s bright young talents strut their stuff, though I’ll be crossing my fingers that the Germans lose their next game. They’re playing the Czechs, after all…

Love you all