This year San Lorenzo Fuoriporta is 45 years old and will have fed nearly every single Wimbledon Champion since the 1960’s. Much about the tennis scene has changed since the early days, but the players have remained, by and large, remarkably humble and uncomplicated.
It’s been an enormous privilege to serve just about every serious Wimbledon contender since the 60’s and, though it only lasts two weeks, the championships are always such an exciting time for us to reconnect with that world. Players change over time, but they all have an unassuming quality about them which, I guess, comes with the experience of dining out regularly all over the world. The old tennis playboys of the 70’s made way for the Bollettieri-minded pro’s of more recent times and each generation of players brings new techniques. Yet the hallmarks of a great champion are always the same: strength, character and determination.
Diets have also evolved. When a 17-year old Boris Becker dined on the eve of his historic win, he ate a Fiorentina (T-Bone steak) at my mum and dad’s. In time, players began insisting on carbs before a match, taking in proteins only on rest days. The night before beating Ivanisevic in the ’92 final, Agassi requested a vegetable soup which we promptly improvised using fava beans and peas. I told him “Look André, that’s the colour of the turf you’re going to win on tomorrow.” I gave him a card signed by all the staff: ‘..to the future Wimbledon Champion’. Brooke giggled as he blushed. The next day, my wife and I were fortunate enough to be invited to the final, and I nearly burst with pride, muttering to her “it was our pea soup!”, as Agassi received his trophy. Nowadays, carbs have to be gluten-free, so we offer the option of gluten-free pasta.
There are so many anecdotes, one could easily write a book. At Navratilova’s retirement party, for instance, KD Lang stood up on a table like a 50’s rat-packer and dedicated a beautiful song to an emotional Martina. Another time, the restaurant was so overwhelmed that Ilie Nastase got up and gave the barman a much needed hand, helping himself to a few glasses of wine along the way. Such fun, spontaneous times...
Still, I’d better get into training again now because the Championship is like a human Tsunami. It’ll batter you for two unrelenting weeks and leave you just as abruptly as it arrived, whilst you lie gasping in its wake like a beached whale, wishing it could have gone on for ever.
You see, the tennis fortnight is really like a summer holiday in a familiar place. You get to see all these old friends just once a year, and you make new friends, but most of these people never stay the course because they get knocked out, so you hardly ever get to say goodbye properly. Every year someone retires, and I especially miss Arantxa Sanchez, who’s family were so pleasant and embracing, Gabriella Sabatini and her wonderful Argentinian entourage, Pat Rafter’s gentle charm, Conchita’s smile, Mark Woodforde’s great warmth, and the almost reclusively sweet Pete Sampras. I still have my old friend, Boris and, occasionally, I get to embrace Steffi and André, Martina or Newcombe, as well as my dear friend Gianni Clerici (the intelligent and poetic ‘voice’ of Italian tennis).
Amongst the modern players, we get to look after Sharapova, Henin, Roddick, Clijsters, Murray, Venus and Serena, the entire Italian Tennis Federation, not to mention the whole apparatus of TV and sponsorship management, from NBC to IMG, the trainers and coaches, and their up-and-coming protégés, stewards and umpires, sports writers, and the corporate debenture holders, the player fans, and tennis lovers. It’s quite a circus, and it’s coming to town again very soon...