Wimbledon: The Heritage of Tennis

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The entrance to Court No. 1.

Wimbledon brings a few things to mind—grass (perennial ryegrass if you’re wondering), strawberries and cream, tea, white clothes, rain, pigeons, and, of course, great tennis. Now halfway through the tournament, I thought it would be a nice reflection to look back through history to see why Wimbledon is a great tournament—possibly the best tournament.

Wimbledon head coach Dan Bloxham said it best when he said, “Wimbledon reminds everyone of the heritage of the game.” Wimbledon takes place at the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club. It is the oldest tennis tournament in the world and the only major tournament still played on grass, the game’s original surface. In fact, one ton of grass seed is used each year to furnish the grounds of Wimbledon.

Centre Court

Centre Court

The first tennis tournament at Wimbledon took place in 1877 at the Club’s original location, off Worple Road in Wimbledon, as a way for the club to raise money to purchase a pony-drawn roller used to tend the grass. Players volunteered to compete in the tournament and spectators paid a shilling to attend. Now it costs from 45-130 pounds to attend the tournament.

The first champion was Spencer Gore, as Wimbledon only featured gentlemen’s singles. Now the tournament features gentlemen’s singles and doubles, ladies’ singles and doubles, mixed doubles, and junior tournaments. The tournament moved to Church Road in 1922 when the club bought a large plot of land. Today, Wimbledon features 19 grass courts over 42 acres and a retractable roof over Centre Court, installed in 2009.

Wimbledon Grass

Wimbledon Grass

Emily and I were lucky enough to visit the Wimbledon grounds this past year on our trip to London. During the tour we discovered just how well the grass is treated. The grass is attended to year round, with electric fences and guard dogs to keep the foxes away. Visitors aren’t allowed to touch the grass, and players aren’t allowed to practice on Centre Court and Court No. 1 in order to keep the grass in pristine condition. Each court is re-lined, rolled, and mowed every day during the tournament.

Much has changed at Wimbledon throughout the years but this tournament still encapsulates so much of the history of tennis, from the grass surface of the courts to the all white dress code. It is the site of the longest tennis match ever—John Isner vs. Nicolas Mahut, which lasted 11 hours and 5 minutes. Wimbledon is where Roger Federer won his record breaking 15th Grand Slam championship.

The retractable roof, built in 2009.

The retractable roof, built in 2009.

The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club has hosted tennis greats like Roger Federer, Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Chris Everet, Maria Sharapova, and Serena and Venus Williams. After 136 years, one thing is certain for this historic tennis site: more history is in the making each year.

Paul: A Maison de Qualite

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The inside of the Paul in Washington DC.

In 1889 in the city of Croix, in Northern France, a man named Charlemagne Mayot founded a bakery and café called Paul. 124 years later, there are now Paul bakeries in 24 countries, including the United States. I discovered a Paul bakery in Washington DC several years ago, and it has become one of my favorite places in the world.

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The National Archives and Navy Memorial, located right next to the Paul in Washington DC.

This is partly because I love food. I had a friend observe once that I don’t give directions by street names, I give directions by landmarks. And most of my landmarks are food places. “Keep going past Busboys and Poets. If you’ve passed Franklin’s you’ve gone too far.” Paul is one of my favorite landmarks in Washington DC. The bakery is right by the National Archives and the Navy Memorial and is easily accessible.

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Paul always has a selection of fresh homemade sandwiches that are perfect for picnics.

And have I mentioned the food? The food is incredible at Paul. They make homemade bread each day and use demi baguettes as the base for delicious sandwiches that are perfect for an on-the-go lunch or picnic in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden.

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Some of the amazing desserts Paul offers.

And then, of course, there are the desserts. My favorite desserts include a cappuccino macaroon and a beignet filled with Nutella. These are also made daily and are always fresh and warm.

While the food is delicious, I have a special place in my heart for Paul due to many memories that are attached to the place. Clare would come down to visit my family in Maryland for many holidays throughout the years when she lived in New York, and we loved to go exploring in DC. One place that we always had to go when she visited was Paul. We would get sandwiches and beignets to go and then we would walk around the monuments, the Capitol, or the Library of Congress.

When Clare and I went on our trip to London over spring break this year, we found a Paul bakery right next to Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly. We also took the Eurostar train from St. Pancras International in London to Gare du Nord in France. We had 8 hours to spend in Paris. We went to the Louvre, Shakespeare and Company, Saint-Germain-de-Prés, the Notre Dame, and the Eiffel Tower. We also were able to squeeze in two trips to Paul!

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A Paul on the Rue de Seine, near Saint-Germain-des-Pres in Paris.

When I began to write my Evan story, the novel that I just finished writing, last summer, I spent a lot of time in the Paul in Washington DC. A large amount of the first 1/3 of my manuscript was written in the café, looking out at the people bustling by the National Archives.

Paul will always have a special place in my heart.  Whether it is in Paris or DC, or whether I’m writing or with a friend, Paul is always a necessary stop for an outing. And believe me, once you try the food, you’ll be hooked too.

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Clare and I got chocolate beignets to go in Paris and ate them near the Eiffel Tower.

The Terror and Wonder of Childhood

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Neil Gaiman’s latest adult novel looks back on the wonders and terrors that surround childhood.

Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the story of an older man who returns to his childhood home for a funeral. After the funeral, he begins to drive through his old haunts and winds up on a farm that has been in the area for centuries. A pond behind the farmhouse is eerily familiar to him, and memories begin seeping back into him as he sits by it. He remembers a strange and wonderful girl he knew when he was seven, named Lettie Hempstock. He remembers that she called the pond her ocean. And then, “I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything.”

As the man sits by Lettie’s ocean, he remembers the dark adventure he had the year that he turned seven. It started when his family’s lodger stole their car, drove it to the end of the lane, and died there. That is how the boy first meets Lettie Hempstock and her mother and grandmother–three fantastic, wise, and strong women who protect him as terrifying events unfurl around him. The boy learns what it is truly like to feel frightened, powerless, and, ultimately, brave.

This book is being marketed as Mr. Gaiman’s first book for adults since American Gods and Anansi Boys. The book feels, however, much more in line with the tone of his books for children, Coraline and The Graveyard Book—dark and dangerous, but also beautiful and filled with wonder. While the book is told from the perspective of a seven year old boy, it becomes clear through the subtleties in the book why the novel is marketed towards adults.

While, yes, there are some elements to the book that are distinctly adult, including an evil woman who would give Philip Pullman’s Mrs. Coulter a run for her money, the true reason that the book is for adults is found in the novel’s epigraph. The epigraph is taken from a conversation that Art Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus had with Maurice Sendak, author of beloved children’s books such as Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen. Sendak said, “I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would terrify them.” This book is written for adults, not children, because it is filled with a type of nostalgia and melancholy that children cannot fully understand yet. As the adult narrator looks back on the adventures he had when he was seven, he remembers what it was like to be a child. Lonely, lost in dreams and worlds from books, powerless in the face of the adults around him in a frightening world. But he was also wise, insightful, and, at times, fearless.

This book is seeped in nostalgia, a pain and longing for home. “So what will happen now?” the adult narrator asks one of the Hempstock women at the end of the book. “You go home,” she replies. “I don’t know where that is anymore,” he tells her. The journey back into memories long buried in his mind is hard and painful, but also a piece of the home that he lost long before. The man remembers what it is like to believe in something, to have a deep sense of conviction, and to utterly trust another person even with his life. And as much as the journey hurts, as the man sits by the pond that is Lettie’s ocean, he comes home for a while, able to see into the core of what makes him who he is, both dark and light.

While Gaiman’s new novel is a slender 178 pages, it is powerful because of the honesty with which he tells the story. It is an incredibly personal narrative, one that stays with the reader long after the last page is turned. Gaiman reminds adult readers of what it is like to be a child, and reminds us of how much children truly know. And, as Maurice Sendak said, it is terrifying, but also wonderful.

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The full text of Art Spiegleman’s conversation with Maurice Sendak about childhood. (Click to enlarge the text.)

Much Ado About Whedon

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Amy Acker, Jillian Morgese, and Emma Bates

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing doesn’t feature Kenneth Brannagh or Laurence Olivier, and there may be no elaborate sets or costumes, but both Whedon fans and Shakespeare enthusiasts can enjoy Joss Whedon’s production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy.

In Much Ado, Whedon, the creator of popular television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and the director of the blockbuster hit The Avengers, turns his attention to the story of witty rivals Benedick and Beatrice. In the context of an impending marriage between two other characters, Claudio and Hero, the characters of Much Ado decide to make Benedick and Beatrice fall in love, while the play’s villain, Don John, attempts to foil any happiness.

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Joss Whedon directing Amy Acker in his kitchen.

Whedon filmed Much Ado at his home in Santa Monica during a two-week production break. The movie is filmed in black and white, and the small home setting provides an intimate feeling and a chance for creativity, which Whedon certainly seizes upon with artful cinematography.

One of the most enchanting aspects of the film is the cast. This is perhaps the greatest allure to Whedon’s fans. Much Ado feels like an all-star game, featuring actors who have all appeared in previous Whedon productions. Amy Acker, from Angel, Dollhouse, and Cabin in the Words, is witty and funny as Beatrice, with Alexis Denisof, Buffy, Dollhouse, and The Avengers, as her rival turned lover Benedick.

Much Ado also features Whedon-alums Fran Kanz, Reed Diamond, Clark Gregg, Sean Maher, and the incomparable Nathan Fillion. All of the actors give stellar, and often funny, performances. The actors all have good chemistry with each other, whether they are conspiring with each other or romancing someone. Though Shakespeare can be difficult to follow, the actors make the scenes very understandable.

On a more edgy note, Whedon makes a previous sexual encounter between Beatrice and Benedick the reason for their animosity at the beginning of the film. Whedon changes Conrade into a girl who is involved with Don John, and the characters are also almost always drinking alcohol, which certainly makes the love scheming more believable.

There was really nothing I did not enjoy about the film. I really like the physical comedy, executed mostly by Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, and Nathan Fillion. The music, consisting of the original songs from Shakespeare’s play adapted by Joss Whedon’s brother as well as some piano music, made the play feel modern despite the original language. I am glad, though, that they kept the original language and I thought the actors handled it well.

As a fan of both Shakespeare and Joss Whedon, I enjoyed seeing some of my favorite Whedonverse actors bring the bard to life in a creative, artistic, and humorous way. If you are a fan of Firefly, Dollhouse, Buffy, or The Avengers, then Much Ado About Nothing is a must-see.

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Tom Lenk and Nathan Fillion

Mr. Gaiman Went to Washington

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Neil Gaiman signing books in Washington DC. (Photo by MICHAEL DOUGHERTY 2013)

Last Friday was the summer solstice, the longest night of the year, but I sat unaware in the Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University, waiting for Neil Gaiman. Neil Gaiman is the author of the Sandman comics, the Newberry Award-winning The Graveyard Book, writer of Doctor Who episodes, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, among other things. Gaiman was kind, gracious, and personable, and his repartee with the audience sparkled with the wit and quick humor that have garnered him so many fans over his wide and varied career. He read chapter four of The Ocean at the End of the Lane to a hushed audience. The person sitting next to me told me after, “That is an experience I will never forget. His voice is magic.” After the reading, Mr. Gaiman pulled out a pile of index cards with questions written by people in the audience. And here is what we learned from Neil Gaiman himself:

  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane was written with his wife, Amanda Palmer, in mind while she was in Australia recording an album and Neil missed her. The book started out as a short story and kept growing and developing until, suddenly, he realized he had written a book. The novel is very personal, as the main character is in some ways based on Mr. Gaiman and the world that surrounded him as a child. He wrote the first draft of the novel by hand, in fountain pen, and then he typed the novel up and read it all to his wife at night.
  • The best mistake he ever made as a writer was writing a letter to a young girl named “Caroline” but accidentally spelling the name “Coraline”. He thought to himself, “Coraline is a name too.” And that was the beginning of the spunky titular character in Coraline.
  • When someone asked how he has researched all of the mythology that appears in his work, Mr. Gaiman told us that he read as many books on mythology as he could when he was a child. So the research for books such as American Gods started decades ago and never really stopped.
  • Working on Doctor Who was “enormously fun.”
  • Many people have noted that there are many characters in Gaiman’s books that have the surname “Hempstock.” Gaiman noted that this was a.) planned and b.) started many years ago when his mother mentioned that a neighboring farm was mentioned in the Domesday Book, a survey of England and Wales compiled for William the Conqueror in 1086. Neil was fascinated with the idea of a family living in a place for more than a thousand years, and he came up with the Hempstock family in his teens. He decided that some family members would, of course, leave the farm, and that is why Hempstocks appear in Stardust, The Graveyard Book, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
  • When asked if he would ever return to the universe of Neverwhere, Mr. Gaiman told us that there would be a short story called “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back” in print in an anthology called Rogues, compiled by George R.R. Martin.
  • Neil’s advice to people who write: “Sell your writing and share it.”
  • When asked what he is afraid to write, he noted that there was one scene in The Ocean at the End of the Lane with a bathtub that he was dreading to write for two weeks. But when he got there, he had to buckle down and write it.
  • He plans to revisit the idea of a film version of Anansi Boys.
  • He generally decides whether a book will be for children or adults before writing it.
  • When asked why his lead characters often find themselves in a reality that existed around them but were blind to it before, he replied that absolutely everyone starts out in that way.

After reading from his new book and answering questions, Neil began a marathon signing of over 1,500 books. I waited for several hours, but when Mr. Gaiman signed my books, he was kind and appreciative of everyone. When I finally left the auditorium, the sun had set long ago on the longest day of the year, but the smile on my face remained.

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My new copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane and my newly signed copy of The Graveyard Book!

Wimbledon Preview

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On Monday, June 24, the fortnight of tennis begins—Wimbledon. For the next two weeks, the greatest tennis players in the world will compete on the famed grass courts, where some of the best tennis matches in history have taken place—the epic Nadal/Federer final in 2008, the John Isner/Nicolas Mahut match (the longest in tennis history), and Federer’s record breaking 15th Grand Slam win, to name a few. In anticipation of this thrilling sporting event, here is an outline of the players to watch for the men’s singles tournament for Wimbledon 2013.

Roger Federer: One of the most dominant tennis players ever, the Swiss Roger Federer has a record 17 Grand Slam titles and has held the No. 1 ranking for 302 weeks. Known for his excellent form, particularly his base strokes, Federer has been to the Wimbledon final eight times, winning seven of those matches. The last Grand Slam final he won was Wimbledon in 2012, and with grass as one of his favorite surfaces, you can count on Federer to demonstrate some excellent tennis, despite being 31 years old (over the hill as far as tennis goes). Federer is currently ranked No. 3 in the world.

Rafael Nadal: Coached by his uncle, Nadal lives with his family in his hometown on Mallorca, Spain. Considered Federer’s great rival (likened to the McEnroe/Borg rivalry), this Spaniard plays with a raw intensity unparalleled by any of the other top tennis players. Nadal is coming off of a French Open win, his first major showing after struggling with knee injuries. Nadal has won 12 Grand Slam titles and held the No. 1 ranking himself, though he goes into Wimbledon ranked No. 5. Despite his recent injuries, Nadal has a winning record against Federer, Djokovic, and Murray, and he is always a contender.

Andy Murray: Despite the fact that Murray is actually Scottish, the English have adopted this 26-year-old tennis player as their own. This year, Murray did not compete in the French Open in order to rest an injury before Wimbledon. With 1 Grand Slam title, from the 2012 U.S. Open, Murray is looking to become the first British man to win the Wimbledon singles title in 77 years (since Fred Perry in 1936). Murray came close to accomplishing this in 2012 against Roger Federer, and after winning the Olympic Gold Medal at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open title, and resting during the French Open, you can bet Murray is out to win this title.

Novak Djokovic: Djokovic had the unfortunate timing to come of age in tennis right in the middle of the Federer/Nadal era. For quite some time, Djokovic hovered at No. 3 or 4, right underneath Federer and Nadal, and he was unable to break into that top circle. However, after winning the Australian Open in 2008, and more importantly winning Grand Slam titles in 2011 and 2012, Djokovic proved himself to be more than a contender, but a champion. Currently ranked No. 1, Djokovic will definitely come into Wimbledon looking to win.

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The Big Four (from left to right): Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, and Murray.

Other Contenders: While the previously mentioned tennis players are the most familiar faces around Grand Slam tournaments, there will be some other players to watch as Wimbledon gets underway. Spaniard David Ferrer, at age 31, reached his first ever Grand Slam final at the recent French Open. Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has proved to be an aggressive match for some of the top-seeded players. Thomas Berdych of Germany has been hovering under the top 4 tennis players for some time, and Juan Del Potro of Argentina has won a Grand Slam title before.

All this said, Wimbledon is always home to a few upsets and some exciting tennis. Tune into ESPN and the Tennis channel from June 24th to July 7th to catch some of the action.

A Writer of All Trades

The Ocean at the End of the Lane marks the publication of Neil Gaiman’s first adult novel in a decade, since he published American Gods and Anasi Boys. While this is the first book that Mr. Gaiman has published in a while, he has hardly been idle. Recently, Gaiman wrote episodes for the BBC television series “Dr. Who”, The Doctor’s Wife and Nightmare in Silver, and had two books, Coraline and Stardust, adapted into movies. He’s also published comic book series and graphic novels, such as his hit series “The Sandman.” And that’s only to name some of the things Mr. Gaiman has been up to during his career.

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Image from “The Sandman”

Neil Gaiman’s career has included a wide variety of creative endeavors, from writing young adult novels, graphic novels, and TV shows. In a world of increasing specialization, Mr. Gaiman shows writers that they can experiment in different forms of writing. Most writers stick to one medium, such as novels, and the majority of those writers always write in the same genre, such as mystery or fantasy. Neil Gaiman, however, has written in many different genres for a variety of mediums.

As a writer with diverse interests of my own, I find this very encouraging. Neil Gaiman has engaged in all the forms of writing that interest me—novels, television, movies, and comics. He is, in a sense, a jack-of-all-trades, and those are hard to come by these days. Some of the greatest writers of our time, however, have demonstrated their greatness through different genres. Neil Gaiman is an obvious example, but he is not the only one. Melina Marchetta’s books have ranged from contemporary fiction to fantasy, and she writes the screenplay adaptations of her novels.

All this is to say that I think it is healthy, artistic even, for writers to expand their comfort zone and experiment in different mediums. They may discover they have a talent for a new genre or experience a new way of developing plot or presenting characters. They will also grow as writers overall, as new experiences and practice will develop their writing as a whole.

Writing for different mediums shows a talent not just for writing novels, per say, but also for writing for its own sake. With The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman has demonstrated his mastery of the art the novel, but throughout his career, Mr. Gaiman has shown that he has an unrivaled mastery for writing in any form.

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Matt Smith as The Doctor in “Nightmare in Silver”

I look forward to reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and hopefully to watching more “Dr. Who” episodes written by Neil Gaiman. I look forward to seeing what new endeavors Neil Gaiman takes as a writer as he keeps inspiring me to experiment as I develop as a writer.