Wimbledon 1996: a winning streak
Extract from Tennis’s strangest matches by Peter Seddon:
The apparent obsession of the All England Lawn Tennis and Crocquet Club with the state of dress or undress of competitors was completely put in the shade on the sunny afternoon of Sunday 7 July 1996 when someone employed within the very grounds of the club itself finally went all the way.
A touch of ankle, no stockings, shorts for women, shorts for men, mini-dresses, halter-neck tops; thus progressed over the yeas the gradual erosion of dress-code ‘decency’ so highly valued by Wimbledon’s self-appointed arbiters of good taste.
By the time Anne White took the all-white rule to its logical conclusion by appearing on Court 2 in 1985 in a figure-hugging, neck-to-ankle white body-suit there was surely little left for the players to try.
Miss White, by the way, was censured for her action as, to coin a phrase first used by the Wimbledon authorities in 1949 over the Gussy Moran panties saga, her costume ‘drew too much attention to the sexual area’. Anne agreed to cover up, later musing,
“I didn’t want to put anyone off their strawberries and cream.”
So what next? Competitors playing naked? Not even Wimbledon were yet fearful of that one, but as a good second best there had been talk for a number of years of the likelihood of steakers defiling the sacred greensward.
Ever since Michael O’Brien had his embarrassment covered by a policman’s helmet in a rugby match at Twickenham in 1974, sport had experienced a streaking epidemic. In 1982 Erica Roe bounced on to the scene, again at Twickenham, and since then no sport has been safe. Cricket leads the way but even the more theatrical setting of snooker and the sedate conservatism of bowls have been hit.
No one had dared to try it on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, but prior to the 1996 Championships William Hill bookmakers were offering just 4-1 on a streaker interrupting Centre Court play during the men’s final. It was almost bound to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, although when it did the spectacle was reserved only for the match preliminaries.
Men’s final, Sunday 7 July 1996. Fourteen thousand spectators on Centre Court and a packed royal box. Finalists Richard Krajicek and Malivai Washington pose for photographs at the net prior to warm-up.
Enter 23-year-old blonde London student Melissa Johnson, taking a break from her summer-holiday catering duties in the grounds to leap over a barrier and run the length of the court waering just a minuscule maid’s apron. Sporting a huge smile, Miss Johnson lifted her apron to give both players an eyeful and then proceeded to do likewise for the royals before being led away by a gentleman of the law.
Would the royals be offended? The Duke and Duchess of Kent and Prince and Princess Michael of Kent were visibly amused. Seventeen-year-old Lord Frederick Windsor looked as if he hadn’t enjoyed a tennis match so much for years and the knock-up hadn’t even begun.
As for the players, they laughed too. Malivai Washington walked back to the baseline to begin his warm-up, lifted his shirt to reveal his bare chest and received a huge ovation.
The streak was, in its way, both the most sensational and remarkably unsensational event in Wimbledon’s 119-year history. All over in a flash and scarcely an offended soul to be found.
The club that had held its breath filled with dread for so long issued a formal statement:
“Whilst we do not wish to condone the practice, it did at least provide some light amusement for our loyal and patient supporters, who have had a trying time during the recent bad weather.”
Melissa was taken to Wimbledon police station for the duration of the final and released without further action.
As for the match itself, we mustn’t forget, that Krajicek became the first Dutchman to win Wimbledon, sweeping aside the unseeded American 6-3 6-4 6-3 in 94 minutes.
It was the day the Wimbledon ice was finally and irredeemably broken. Even the beaten finalist shrugged his shoulders and gave a disarming interview:
“I look over and see this streaker. She lifted up the apron and she was smiling at me. I got flustered and three sets later I was gone; that was pretty funny,” said Washington, clutching his loser’s cheque for £196,250.