Old-style fruit cordial holds hallowed place at Centre Court; players take a bye
Robinsons squash is provided on all the courts at Wimbledon. Most players prefer modern sports drinks. PHOTO: JORDAN MANSFIELD/GETTY IMAGES
July 8, 2016 10:45 a.m. ET
LONDON—At the Wimbledon tennis finals this weekend, four bottles of a fruit-flavored drink commonly known as “squash” will stand on a shelf beneath the chair umpire’s seat in Centre Court. No one will touch them.
Robinsons squash is a prewar-era British cordial, a concoction of fruit juice, sweeteners and, occasionally, barley flour that, when diluted with water, makes a slightly sticky drink that tastes like childhood. It’s on every court and in locker rooms, and can be found for sale on the grounds of the All England Club, where Wimbledon is held.
Robinsons lemon barley water
Chris Evert, a three-time Wimbledon singles champion and ESPN commentator, drank Robinsons during matches in the 1970s, but didn’t know it was still available until earlier this week, when she peered out the window of the network’s lounge, which overlooks Court 18. There the bottles stood, untouched. “I liked the yellow,” she said. “I don’t like it now, I liked it back then.”
Bob Bryan, the American doubles star who has played at Wimbledon every year since 1999, had never heard of it. “Robinsons barley water—what’s that?” he asked. “It’s on the court?”
Robinsons, in fact, was created at Wimbledon. Matthias Robinson patented it in 1823, but the modern version was introduced at the tournament to give tired players a boost. Today’s flavors include orange, summer fruits, lemon, apple and blackcurrant, and pink grapefruit. Robinsons is also sold in super-concentrated, pocket-size containers called Squash’d that mix up to 20 drinks. A sponsor since 1935, Robinsons is one of just six brands displayed, in discreet lettering, inside Centre Court, along with Slazenger, Rolex,IBM, Evian and Jaguar.
“We used to sip it and swill it around, sometimes you’d drink it and sometimes you’d spit it out,” said Fred Stolle, the Australian who played in three Wimbledon singles finals in the 1960s. “There was no Gatorade.”
For Billie Jean King, who won six Wimbledon singles titles, Robinsons had foreign allure. “I drank it because it was British,” she said. “I wanted to learn their customs, see what they like.”
For today’s players, Robinsons has gone the way of wooden rackets and flannel trousers. They pack their own carefully calibrated pick-me-ups that contain electrolytes, sodium or other nutrients. They suck down energy gels from pouches. Mike Bryan, Bob’s twin brother and doubles partner, recently started sipping a half-and-half mixture of coffee and water during matches.
No one drinks Robinsons on court. Those who try it in the locker rooms usually don’t come back for seconds.
“It was too sweet,” said Jelena Jankovic, the former No. 1 ranked player from Serbia. “This drink is for when you’re just sitting around doing nothing. But when you have to run around, you’re not going to get anything from that.”
A stand at Wimbledon’s Queue offering free samples of Robinsons this week. PHOTO: TOM PERROTTA
France’s Caroline Garcia, whose team won the women’s doubles title at the French Open, nearly took a sip of undiluted Robinsons in the locker room last year. An attendant intervened and told her that she needed to add water.
“I was curious, there were so many bottles, so many colors!” Ms. Garcia said. “It was OK, nothing special. I didn’t have it again.”
Ms. Mattek-Sands had warned her husband not to try it, but he didn’t listen. “It’s disgusting,” Mr. Sands said. “I don’t want to even call it juice—that’d be a slap in the face to other juices.”
Brits, Aussies and South Africans who grew up with cordials can’t agree. For them, Robinsons brings back sweet memories of bygone days. Retired British tennis pro Tim Henman has starred in Robinsons commercials, including one with a young Andy Murray.Robinsons said British people drink three million glasses a day.
“We grew up with it,” said Leon Smith, the captain of Great Britain’s Davis Cup tennis team. “I still buy it for my children, it’s still in my cupboards at home.”
Jonathan Marray, a Wimbledon men’s doubles winner in 2012, doesn’t drink Robinsons while he is competing, but at home he prefers it to soda. “If you don’t want an alcoholic beverage, and you don’t want a really sugary drink, it’s nice to have just a bit of water with a bit of something in it,” he said.
Pimm’s, a gin-based drink served with garnishes, is the champion of Wimbledon’s beverages among spectators. Last year the tournament sold 320,000 servings, almost as much as tea and coffee combined (330,000 cups). Fans bought 230,000 bottles of water, 110,000 pints of beer and 29,000 bottles of Champagne.
Bottles of Robinsons on an umpire’s chair at Wimbledon. PHOTO: ANDY RAIN/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
The All England Club and Britvic PLC, which owns Robinsons, declined to provide Wimbledon sales figures. Mick Desmond, the All England Club’s commercial and media director, said the partnership wasn’t about on-site sales, or even what Robinsons pays to appear on Centre Court.
“It’s not always about money,” he said. “Robinsons is synonymous with the championships.”
On a drizzly day early in the tournament, a crowd gathered at Henman Hill, the grassy slope where those who don’t have Centre Court tickets eat, drink and watch tennis on a giant television screen. From 1:30 p.m. to 2 p.m., the Hill’s refreshment stand sold 50 large cups of Pimm’s (£8.30 each, or about $11), one small cup of strawberry Pimm’s “with a hint of mint” (£6.20), three bottles of Champagne and one bottle of white wine. The cashier gave away one free cup of ice. Those who asked for beer were directed to another stand. No one bought a “Robinsons Squashy,” a slushy cup of crushed ice flavored with orange or lemon (£3.50).
Robinsons is more popular when it is free, as it is at a stand in the golf course across the street from Wimbledon, where fans camp out and queue up for tickets. Analette Abesamis, in from Manila, drank a sample cup of orange squash on Tuesday on her way to the tennis.
“I’m from a tropical country and this is really close to the real thing,” she said. “Western juices tend to be more thick.”
Occasionally, even a player is convinced. When Bob Bryan was brought a cup earlier this week, he took a tentative sip—then another.
“That’s pretty good,” he said. “It’s like a melted orange Skittle.”