Cliff Richard, Wimbledon 1996

Wimbledon 1996: singing in the rain

Extract from Tennis’s strangest matches by Peter Seddon:

A quarter-final match between Dutchman Richard Krajicek and three-in-a-row Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras always promised much but no one could have predicted such a stirring response as that given by the Guardian when it was all over:

“Something magical happened in Centre Court on Wednesday 3 July, an event in its own way every bit as much a testament to the fortitude of the native British spirit as Elizabeth I’s rallying of the troops against the Armada some years back. “

Yet bizarrely it wasn’t the tennis that made this match so strangely memorable, but what happened when the rains came and the tennis stopped.

At a Wimbledon already badly interrupted by inclement weather, the last thing a troubled refeee and the increasingly fractious crowsds wanted was a wet Wednesday. But they got it all the same. After play began at 12.30, games were just 2-all in the first set when the heavens opened yet again. Three hours later, with the green covers raised tent-like over the court, it was still bucketing down.

Sandwiches had been eaten, books read, crosswords finished and British resolve tested to such limits that the bedraggled crowd were beginning to look mighty glum.

Enter Sir Cliff Richard, the Peter Pan of Pop, an avid regular at the Championships.

“Would he, perchance, be prepared to deliver a song or two to raise the flagging spirits of the Centre Court faithful?” ventured a Wimbledon official.

Cliff answered in the affirmative and it was just like the war all over again. Appearing in the royal box with a microphone, the 55-year-old icon began his repertoire with, naturally, ‘Summer Holiday’. With unwavering eccentricity the British fans cast off their dampened spirits and joined in.
‘The Young Ones’ swiftly followed. Then ‘Bachelor Boy’ and ‘Livin’ Doll’. As the scene became ever more surreal, Sir Cliff was joined by a backing group including Martina Navratilova, Pam Shriver, Gigi Fernandez and one-time Queen of All England Virginia Wade.

As the crowd swayed in time to the ditties and Cliff danced with a black lady corporal on royal box security duty, the unthinkable happened. The sun came out and resumption of play was announced.
Cliff left the stage with a cheery

“I never thought I’d play the Centre Court”

and Sampras and Krajicek resumed battle once more. Most of the crowd present that day forget that, between further rain breaks, they saw Krajicek take a two set to love lead before a further shower finally curtailed play just after 8 pm at 1-1 in the third.

Being one of those days, even that fate came courtesy of a Wimbledon oddity as it was a delay in covering the court that finally drew the curtain on this unpredictable affair. Ground staff member Mark Hillaby failed to follow the drill, ending up in hospital after tripping and banging his head during the attempted cover up.

For the record, Krajicek later prevailed over Sampras and went on to win his first Wimbledon crown, but it was Cliff who was that year’s star. His impromptu turn was suely the best Centre Court performance by a British man since Fred Perry completed his hat trick of wins in 1936.

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