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Why Wimbledon is just so special

By Paul Gittings, CNN
  • Wimbledon is the oldest grand slam dating back to 1877 and steeped in tradition
  • Leading players enjoy the unique atmosphere of the All England Club
  • The famous Centre Court was fitted with a retractable roof in 2009

(CNN) -- Boris Becker says it's the "most important tournament of them all."

For Martina Navratilova "it's like coming home," while Andre Agassi said coming to terms with its traditions marked a "turning point" in his life.

They were all talking about Wimbledon which is unique among the grand slams in being played on grass, and as the oldest, dating back to 1877, is steeped in history and tradition.

It is also highly lucarative, but the $20 million-plus total prize money is comparable to that on offer in New York, Paris and Melbourne, all of which have also staged grand slam tournaments for at least a century. So what stands London's showpiece apart?

Ask most of the top players and their immediate answer is the lure of the 15,000 capacity Centre Court which has been graced by all of the tennis greats in their quest for sporting immortality.

Video: Kim Clijsters on Centre Court
Video: Boris Becker talks Wimbledon

It has also been the stage for a host of iconic moments.

Who can forget CNN Open Court's Pat Cash and his amazing climb into the players' box to embrace friends and family after his 1987 triumph ?

Cash now says his incredible antics were pre-planned.

"About six months before Wimbledon, I was playing pretty well and had the feeling I was going to do well.

"I thought to myself, if I won Wimbledon this year that I would get up there and really hug my coach and my family, that would be the coolest thing to do," he said.

Three-time champion Becker felt so at home on the most famous court in tennis that he once described it as his own "front room" as he dominated in the late 1980s

Other courts such as the Arthur Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadows can house more fans, but it's the unique atmosphere and intimacy of Wimbledon's showpiece court that sets it apart.

"It's just so special, nothing can compare to the history you feel when you are about to step on Centre Court at Wimbledon," said Belgian ace Kim Clijsters, a two-time semifinalist at SW19 and two-time U.S. Open winner.

Seven-time women's champion Graf told CNN that she had visited Wimbledon and Centre Court as a youngster, but said nothing prepared her for the "power and beauty of it" when walking on the hallowed turf for the first time.

Agassi and Graf on Wimbledon Video

In 2009 a retractable roof was installed to protect players and the 15,000 fans from the inclement English weather, and it has proved to be a great favorite, not least with tournament organizers, tired of rescheduling rain-delayed matches.

Graf, Agassi and Clijsters joined British hero Tim Henman in christening the new facility in a special mixed doubles match.

Clijsters was so inspired by the surroundings she later revealed it prompted her amazing comeback to professional tennis later that year.

Of course Wimbledon would not be Wimbledon without the odd shower or two, and although the new roof on Centre Court has helped, it still leaves a lot of players on the other 18 courts kicking their heels.

Wimbledon is where I learnt to wear white, where I learnt to bow. It's where I learnt to accept and appreciate
--Andre Agassi

The most famous, or infamous depending on your musical tastes, rain delay came on July 3, 1996 when -- with no prospect of play anytime soon -- British pop star and tennis nut Cliff Richard intervened.

Interviewed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to fill time, Richards volunteered to entertain the fans with a medley of his favorites, kicking off appropriately enough with "Singin' in the Rain."

Suitably encouraged, Richards reeled off a string of his hits including "Living Doll" and "Congratulations," and was accompanied from the Royal Box by a bevy of tennis stars, including nine-time women's singles champion Navratilova.

All- white rule

Agassi was the center of attention for another memorable Centre Court moment in 1991.

The brash young man from Las Vegas, renowned for his colorful garb and pink bandanas, boycotted Wimbledon for four years, ostensibly because of the rule that insisted on all-white clothing for all players.

On his return, there were hushed tones as Agassi stripped of his track suit -- to reveal a pristine, all-white kit -- and he now waxes lyrical about the experience.

"Wimbledon is a place where I learnt to wear white, where I learnt to bow. It's a place where I learnt to accept and to come to appreciate [the tradition]," he told CNN.

"For me it represents an evolution in my own life. Holding the [men's singles] trophy in 1992 was one of my best feelings on a tennis court."

Agassi's compatriot Anne White kept to the letter, if not the spirit of the rule, by turning up for her first-round match in 1985 in an eye-catching, all-in-one skintight body suit.

After a quiet word with long-time tournament referee Alan Mills -- who ruled the event with a firm grip from 1982 to 2005 -- White consigned the outfit to her wardrobe.

Royal visits

Centre Court is also unique because of the presence of the Royal Box, with British monarch Queen Elixabeth II an infrequent but welcome visitor.

She saw home hope Andy Murray win his second round match on June 24 this year and on her last appearance before that in 1977, in her Silver Jubilee year, was also present to watch Virginia Wade claim Britain's last grand slam singles title.

Navratilova met the queen this year and her incredible career has spanned both her visits.

"She said, 'you have been coming here for a long time' and I said yes, they change it but it still feels the same," she told CNN.

Perhaps Navratilova has summed up the secret of Wimbledon's appeal.

It has moved with the times, but still retains its traditions, like strawberries and cream, the distinctive green and purple tournament livery, the drilled excellence of the ball boys and girls, the sheer pomp and splendor of the whole thing.

Last word goes to former German "wunderkid" Becker, who won the men's title at just 17 years of age in 1985 and is now a respected commentator.

"Wimbledon is obviously the most important tournament of all of them and once you become champion your life changes for ever.

"It's a very special tournament."