They come for me when I sleep. Thousands of them. Attacking from all sides. Glowing in the darkness, they whistle past my head. With the instantly recognisable “thwack”, the Slazenger “Wimbledon Ultra-Viz” are out to get me. I wake from my dreams as the alarm chirps on the bedside table. Yes, I’m deep into coverage of the 125th Wimbledon Tennis Tournament.
After being taken off Glastonbury duty this year and assigned to cover a sporting event, I managed to enter the record books with the world’s longest solo sulk/grumble. However, once it had started, I had to admit that it was actually quite a fun assignment.
Being virtually ignorant of tennis and how to shoot it, I had recently been sent to cover the AEGON Classic and International tournaments in Edgbaston and Eastbourne. This gave me the chance to realise a number of things such as how fast the players move, how hard it is to shoot on anything other than a wide lens and how hard it is to get clean backgrounds. If I managed to get one thing right, one of the many other factors would be cruelly giggling at me, as the umpire’s head grew out of the player’s arm, the ball was cut neatly in half by the edge of the frame or the player’s shoulder was pin sharp. Thankfully, I managed to work the main difficulties out quickly and could slowly become braver with my lens choices. The men truly are sorted from the boys when it comes to shooting the nearest player on a fixed 400mm. The standard hit-rate drops severely unless your eye and timing is bang on. The top players move with some serious speed, so it’s incredibly hard to fill the frame with every one of the “Three B’s”, as I’ve just this moment decided to call them (ball, bat and bonce).
One of the first things to learn when covering Wimbledon is how to get around quickly. During those first few days, you’ll be expected to be shooting and covering two or three games that are happening simultaneously. This would be a challenge anyway, but add the general populous in there too and it becomes seriously tricky. Dividing up the courts are little alleyways and passages that seem fine before the gates open but once matches are under way, they become jammed solid. Thankfully, the place is full of little rat-runs, cut-throughs and even a private tunnel that connects some of the main buildings and courts.
As Getty colleague Oli Scarff tweeted early in the fortnight, it’s very possible to test the body’s tolerance to copious quantities of Robinson’s orange cordial, thanks to big tanks of the stuff being positioned in the press centre. With the prices upstairs in the canteen being on the extreme far side of laughable, any chance to find cheaper/free food and drink becomes of major interest. It’s never good to rely on a conversation in the back of a taxi with a stranger as fact, but my co-passenger on one of the first mornings told me that the annual running costs of the whole tennis club are made back within the first two days of the Wimbledon tournament. This could quite easily explain those small £2.80 bottles of orange juice. Sheesh…
As is the norm at these events, Nikon and Canon are on hand to clean, service and loan equipment out, free of charge, so my sensors are currently so shiny that the images are at risk of slipping off them. My favourite new discovery is the Nikon 200-400mm f4 lens. While long zoom lenses usually have the air of the cheap “lazyboy” to them, this really does hold up very well and seems to be the perfect tennis lens. While the more seasoned sports shooters will opt for the prime 300mm and 400mm, those of us with a slightly lower hit rate can be helped along with the ability to zoom out a little when it gets a bit fast and furious! While the one that I used was razor-sharp and relatively lightweight to lug around, it’s interesting to note that I was using the mk1 version, with the mk2 now being available. I’ll certainly be interested to give the current version a go!
One issue that can be a problem with equipment loans at these events is that the loans are officially on a 24-hour basis but unfortunately, you do get some who turn up with very basic kit, loan a big pile of kit and keep it for the duration. This is fine if it’s just a body or a lens but when it’s a whole range of gear, it removes the chance for other shooters to experiment with new toys and gear. Boooo to greedy types.
As with any of the events that are attended by Nikon and Canon, a clear indicator of the individual photographer’s boredom level can be directly charted by how quickly he or she borrows either a fish-eye or a tilt/shift lens. I hold my hand up to breaking out the tilt/shift as you can see on this blog, but that’s the danger of having all of these goodies made available to you. Why shoot that game all regular and straight when I can screw it up with a massively distorted focal plane? Yay! With Alex O’Brien and Rob McNeice leading Team Nikon and Frankie Jim’s top squad at Canon, there was masses of free help and advice on everything you could possibly want. I can now apologise to them for becoming such a regular but when you have such a valuable resource available to you throughout the day, it’s dumb not to soak up as much knowledge while you can.
Working conditions vary drastically from court to court with the smaller ones allowing photographers to gracefully crawl around on their hands and knees behind the umpire, switching sides as the winner begins to become clear. With the celebration usually being the key photo, it’s important to try to predict which side the player will be on when they eventually reach match point. For some reason, the powers that be have decided to put this bloomin’ great net thing in the middle of the grass, ruining our pictures if something of note happens on the opposite side. You’d think someone would have pointed this out by now…
On the exhibition courts, life is very different indeed. Photographers work from pits on either side of the court that leave the camera’s field of vision close to ground level. Wooden benches, power points and LAN points are the only creature comforts so a long five-setter results in some serious aches and pains. With the opening stages being a free for all regarding seating, a strict system is introduced from the semi-final stages onwards. Being one of the big agencies, AFP are granted two positions in good spots on opposite sides of the court. Working like this is reasonably simple during the quieter matches, but when it gets to the key matches, and media interest is high, it becomes a bit of a challenge. If you want to shoot the chap on the left and the person to your left is following the chap on your right… Well, you can see how we end up in this weird stacked system with photographers shooting under, over, around, behind and in front of each other to allow everyone the chance to get the shot they need.
A challenge that I thankfully didn’t have to spend too much time on was celebrity spotting. With the newspapers often more likely to run a picture of a famous person in the crowd than the actual tennis, some of the photographers on assignment for them will have to spend the whole match scanning the crowds for worthy targets. With a daily list being produced on the guests that will be seated in the Royal Box, that leaves the rest of other seats that are unlisted ie, every other seat. With a 600mm, the photographers have to sweep the thousands of faces until eventually someone of note is identified. While the presence of the recently-married Duke and Duchess of Cambridge was widely known, Kate’s sister Pippa turning up was high on the list of faces to look for and fifteen minutes into one of the matches, word went round the pit that she was coming. AFP doesn’t rush to follow the celebrity crazes but the US interest in all things Middleton means that this was of interest to me too. Sure enough, after some top spotting from photographers along the line, she was picked out, sitting with her family, up in the top levels. Some of the newspaper guys then proceeded to ignore the game and concentrate solely on every toss of the hair or smile while I had to shoot the match but make sure I had enough of her too. Needing completely different focal lengths, every break in play saw frantic scramble as we all dumped our sports lenses for our 600mm lenses. Not much fun at all.
An interesting aspect of the tournament that I hadn’t considered before, is the strange phenomenon of there being less for the spectators to see as the fortnight progresses. In the opening days, every court is in use and there is the chance for everyone to see some really top-level tennis. As the tournament progresses, these openly viewable games are rapidly reduced. While those with tickets for Centre Court and Court One can sit in their allocated seats and enjoy the match, many of those that pay for ground passes dash along the paths when the gates open in the morning to go and sit on the hill and watch the day’s events on the big screen. While it’s good to get the communal experience, it’s quite an odd way to spend the day.
I didn’t get to shoot (or even see) Rafa Nadal during Wimbledon fortnight, however, I did get to shoot some of the other stars of tennis, including Roger Federer. Having been warned that he was hard to shoot, I had an idea what to expect but even with the heads-up, I was still amazed at how hard it was to get a frame. His incredible abilities on the court mean that he never really seems to be stretching himself, so while others are grimacing and gurning as they reach for the ball, Fed has a look of total calm on his face. This often even includes having his eyes shut as he hits the ball. Combined with a very low swing that rarely sees the racquet close to his face, it results in very dull pictures. The fact that he’s a lovely man doesn’t change the fact that being a rabid fan of his seems to me to make about as much sense as cheering on your fridge for chilling your food. He seems to do the job so methodically and clinically that he just becomes a machine.
Despite this, every game he played was packed full of travelling fans waving banners declaring that “India loves Roger” and “Taiwan loves Roger”. While I may be confused about their obsession, I have to admire the fact that they’ve asked a whole nation for their thoughts on Switzerland’s ball-hitting appliance.
Saturday saw my chance to take to the hallowed turf of Centre Court as I shot the Women’s Singles final. With everyone assuming that Maria Sharapova would cruise to victory, it was an upset to picture editors everywhere as they were denied the chance to use a big picture of Shazza, when Petra Kvitova took the title.
If you think that I’m being cynical here, you only needed to look at the next day’s front pages for confirmation. Two ran with a story about a television star’s relationship, some ignored it altogether and one ran with my picture of US actress Anne Hathaway in the crowd until pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge came through from the US and bumped the story off the front altogether.
While I’d hoped to get access to the big finale, I knew in my heart that I probably wouldn’t get to shoot it, and my guess was proved correct on the final Sunday morning. With sports specialists Carl De Souza and Glyn Kirk taking the reins, I was on features duty, but thankfully got the chance to shoot Novak and his new cup as he stood on the stairs of Wimbledon tennis club.
With Wimbledon ‘n’ dusted, I rang the Mrs to say goodnight from the flat AFP had rented in Wimbledon and we discussed the day’s play. It was only after fifteen minutes that Kirsten pointed out that we’d actually had a reasonably detailed conversation about sport. Crikey. Who would have thought that was possible? With the 2012 Olympics drawing ever closer and the time to start pushing for our personal choices of sport to cover, maybe I’ve unexpectedly found the answer.