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Sports Commentary: Why Wimbledon Still Thrills

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Commentator Diana Nyad is just back from two weeks at Wimbledon. She returned with thoughts about what sets this one tennis tournament in Britain apart from all the rest.

DIANA NYAD: Each of the Grand Slams of tennis carries its own unique gravitas and distinct personality. The Australian Open is raucous, fans animated in their unison cheer - Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi. At the French Open, the vibe is understated. There is no central jumbo-screen gathering place where fans bond and break bread together.

Actually, the ironic thing about Roland-Garros is that the food is atrocious. There is one soggy sandwich offered. The French arrive with their own baguettes and bottles of wine. The U.S. Open is akin to a rock concert. It feels big and perpetually buzzing. For my taste, Arthur Ashe Stadium is too big. Seating nearly 24,000, the special intimacy that is the fabric of the sport is lost. Many are there for celebrity-sighting more than for the tennis itself.

When you enter the fabled grounds of Wimbledon, you are greeted by a huge overhang that reads, simply and definitively, the championships. Yes, there is the Royal Box where William and Kate preside and not as yet royalty, such as David Beckham, hold court, posing for lineups of selfies. But there is a mystique here at Wimbledon that wafts across the expanse of the 19 luscious grass courts.

Players across the generations will tell you this is the tournament they romanticize. The Brits themselves consider this tournament a jewel of their culture. And they know their tennis - not just the big names, Murray and Williams. But they know the qualifiers, the rules, the injustices. Taxi drivers and shop clerks all around London know just who's gone through, who's been upset.

I sat next to a woman last week who drove all night from Ireland for the chance to see Martina Navratilova. Marian was her name. At 4 a.m., Marian took her place in Wimbledon's famous public queue and was lucky to get into the small Court Number 3. When Martina came smiling through the gates onto the grass for her legends doubles match, still the champion who once won nine singles titles here, tears flooded down Marian's cheeks. She told me it was the thrill of her life.

To share a match with the non-ticketed crowd on the slope of Henman Hill, delighting over a bowl of the storied strawberries and cream, catching glimpses of John McEnroe or Billie Jean King strolling by, is the stuff of Wimbledon. It's just like Mount Everest or the Tour de France.

Purists may say there are tougher mountains to climb or bicycle races to ride. But to us, the public at large, those are the zenith moments of those two pursuits. And so it goes that Wimbledon is the crowning star of the tennis firmament. As it was for Marian from Ireland, it was a thrill for me to bask in the summer's two-week majesty that is Wimbledon.

MONTAGNE: That's commentator Diana Nyad. In 2013, she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida. Her latest book is a memoir called "Find A Way." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.