Join Date: Mar 2003
Wimbledon is here again! I can't believe that it's come round so soon.
I always get really excited about Wimby in about March, when I realise it won't be that long, then it suddenly creeps up. Not that I'm some patriotic gin-soaked Wimby freak. Well, Wimby freak okay, I admit, but I don't subscribe to all the stuff that gets thrown around by the press every year, about it being "the best tournament in the world" etc. etc. No, I like it because it's here and I can go to it...and the most important reason of all...because you can queue for it! Yes, this is a vitally important fact.
The problems with Wimbledon are known all too well. It's on grass, the tennis is boring, serves are supreme, it rains too much and (for overseas fans) the matches take place in the early hours of the morning. Not to mention the way the British press get some kind of strawberry fever which renders them incapable of seeing British interests in an objective (and therefore pessimistic) light. And the "best tournament in the world" attitude seems to be particularly prevalent in the Wimbledon management committee, which seems to think that since they are Wimbledon everyone else has to change their seeding policy to suit them.
I can really see why some don't like Wimbledon. The only reason why I don't dislike it is because actually going there gives you a whole new perspective which the press, and the Wimbledon committee, don't show to overseas fans at all. And that's what I'm writing about.
Wimby gives out a large part of its tickets by public ballot, for which you have to send them an SAE (stamped addressed envelope) the previous December -- I have never yet been lucky there -- but the rest of the Centre Court, No. 1 and No. 2 tickets are saved to be sold on the day to people queueing at the gate. The thing is that there aren't that many (about 600-1200 for Centre/No.1 each per day, I think), so if you want one, you have to queue overnight for one.
Queuing really isn't so bad, because everybody brings tents, sleeping bags, cards, thermos flasks, mini-TVs, radios, food, and assorted camping paraphernalia, and sets up a little camp on the pavement. The first year I camped was an impulse decision made with my friend Jessica, who wanted to see Henman on Centre while I wanted to see Pioline-Kafelnikov on No.1. We caught the train up to London, then a taxi to Wimbledon, and we arrived at about 1am. Jessica had been moaning at me in the taxi, "This is crazy. We didn't need to do this. No one is going to arrive at Wimbledon at 1am the night before. We're going to be the first ones." I conceded that we might be amongst the first 5 or so.
So you imagine our faces when we got out and saw tents and tents stretching out into the distance, just outlined in the moonlight. It took us 15 minutes to walk to the end of the queue. There must have been 400 tents or so that we walked past, plus people in sleeping bags stretched out in the open air, either sleeping or blinking dazedly at us. We rounded a corner, greeted by a posse of security guards chatting, and finally found the end of the queue. Luckily for us this part of the queue ran through a field, so the traffic noise was distant.
A long night's camping
So, time to set up the tent. Unfortunately I had never put up a tent before, and Jessica cannot see in the dark. So she held the torch while I wrestled with the tent, trying to slot a second pole into a third while the first slid out, and lifting folds of canvas, trying to sort out assorted holes, rings and layers. After 15 minutes or so it was looking more tent-like than canvas pancake-like, and after 20 minutes we had managed to get the inner mosquito net successfully attached.
We sat down. We were surely crazy. But when we looked up all we could see was the shallow canopy of trees silhouetting the navy blue starry sky, and just the next morning a tantalising lineup of tennis would be waiting for us.
The best thing of all is that as an overnight queuer you can not only choose which court you want according to who you want to see, but you can also pick your seats. A ballot ticket holder is just given a day and seat numbers months in advance, way before you know who is playing and where. Jessica was worried because since we had come so (relatively) late, with 450-odd people ahead, we were borderline for Centre Court. (There are two separate queues, North and South). I could be sure though that I would see Pioline on No. 1.
We talked to a group of lads from Newcastle, who invited us over to their camp to play cards. After 45 mins of Black Queen, it was somehow irrationally decided that a 2am trip to go and look at the part of Centre Court visible from outside was absolutely necessary. I trudged with the others, by now very tired. Jessica was bounding around like a mad thing, getting very excited. Okay, we've seen it, now I'm really going to bed.
Rise and shine!
I woke up at 6am. Vague morning-type sounds of newspaper sellers and other queuers wandering around. I unzip the tent blearily, and floods of golden dawn sunshine make me screw up my eyes. The field looked like a school playing field, with an impromptu game of football going on, and a hotdog seller handing out steaming sausages in buns. Ugh. It's far too early. I lie down again.
Suddenly, something bashes the tent and a strong firm voice rings out: "Up and moving in ten minutes, everyone!" I snap out of dozing. There's a blazered steward with a stick or something moving along the line, waking everyone up. It's 6:50, and we have ten minutes to pack this tent, which neither of us have done in our life! Clothes and sleeping bags are flung out, and poles and toggles are unhooked. Ten minutes later we are wide awake and our hearts pumping, but our tent is somehow squashed into its bag, two feet by five inches.
Everyone shuffles along a bit. Jessica and I take turns to go to the toilet and wash. This is the difficult part of the morning, when you really want to go back to bed, but you keep on moving along at 5 minute intervals as all the space between the tents is compressed. The time passes with people going by giving out freebies or selling newspapers, and the occasional news crew or BBC camera doing filming for whatever promotional clip. Every national daily has at least one seller going round, so you can have your pick. Most people buy one and peruse the order of play.
I look back along the line and note smugly how there are hundreds of people behind us just in our vicinity. The end of the queue is out of sight, but I knew from previous experience of same-day queueing that 10am is about as late as you can safely leave it if you want a ground pass. The queue stretches for aaaaaages. It's insane.
Approaching the promised land
The next exciting part of queueing is when you finally go up the wooden bridge crossing the road next to the grounds, and the iron wrought walls of Wimbledon with the entirely green Centre Court looming above come into view. You can sense the excitement levels increase from the general chatter around you. People start getting more lively.
Then they start handing out the tickets. What they do is a couple of stewards come over to the start of the queue armed with a variety of brightly coloured wristbands and a dangerous-looking clicky thing. Each court has a different colour. They move their way down the queue person by person, asking which court they would like, then clicking the wristband into place. Court 1 is silver today, while Centre is fluorescent green. I admire my shiny silver wristband. Jessica just misses out on Centre, by about 3 people, so joins the silver banded people. The green-banded people ahead look happy and smug, or at least they do to Jessica, who decides to sulk for the rest of the day.
Then all you do is sit and wait till 10:30am, when they open the gates. Official Wimbledon people come round with rolls of large "I Queued at Wimbledon 1999" stickers and little freebie programmes to give out. The Mr Kipling man arrives, dressed in a Mr Kipling cake costume and gives out sixpacks of strawberry cakes to everyone who looks hopeful as he goes past. The Mr Kipling freebies are a feature of every Wimbledon queue. Six cakes per person is too much for anyone, even me, so you find lots of abandoned ones everywhere, but despite the rubbish it's a nice thing to have when you've not yet had any breakfast.
The freebies are great. We also get Robinsons drinks, orange juice, rain macs, varieties of baseball cap, newspapers, and even bananas. That was last year when I camped with another friend, and suddenly we all heard the sound of steel drums. Then a truck came into view, carrying a steel band on the back plus people holding bunches of bananas, throwing them at random people in the queue. Some people shouted out "over here!" and were rewarded with more bananas. It was surreal. Then the Banana Wagon disappeared out of sight, and I never did get a banana myself.
Finally they let you in at 10:30 or so. You go to tables to have your bags searched, then you're let to your ticket gate to pay and to choose your seats.
All the way the stewards are there to help people, to tell them where to go. These stewards manage the flow of people into the ticket area, but others wander up and down the queue, giving directions to late arrivals, and stopping to answer questions or just have a chat about the weather. They are typically dressed in Wimbledon navy blazer with green pinstripes, a rimmed peaked cream hat, shirt and tie with obligatory Wimbldon badge. 99% of them are old wrinkly gentlemen who look like they have had a long soak in the gin, but they are very polite and helpful, and they all look like they are enjoying themselves. The ticket guy shows me his plan of the courts, and I plump for the first row, right behind the players.
We made it!
We're in!! Finally we can get rid of our bags, which are quite numerous. We go to the toilets under Centre to change into clean clothes, and queue up at Left Luggage to have our tent stuff filed away on shelves. It's free, I think, and you can get rid of all your clobber for the whole day.
This is where you look around and remember why you did this. Wimbledon is remarkably big, and busy, and above all it really is green everywhere. Except when it's purple. The canvas, the massive wall of ivy, the uniforms, the stalls, the ticket stands, the flower boxes, all green. You all know this. But it's more impressive when it surrounds you entirely. Even the flowers were purple. They have a massive order of play 12 foot tall in the central area (also green), with people milling around peering up at it and muttering to each other whether to see Goran Ivanisevic on Court 13 or the doubles with Federer on 18.
We wander round to Court 3. The atmosphere is something like a big tennis/strawberries and cream themed garden party. It's relaxed and open, but there is also the tinge of expectation about the dramas that will unfold on 19 courts at once in just an hour or so. This is especially so around the outside courts, which are as far from the Wimby unfriendly, elitist, Brit-centric stereotype as you can get. It feels more like a street market, with narrow pathways between small courts with only a little seating and wooden benches around the sides, packed with people clapping for Basuki vs. Po or Ulihrach vs. Voltchkov.
They have about 9 courts all next to each other, all separated by canvas. Next to Court 13 the canvas is so high beside the stands you just end up weaving past other fans in a mysterious maze of dark green canvas, and you suddenly emerge beside Court 6. I love this bit. I love wandering round all the courts, absorbing the atmosphere. Another great thing to do is get a takeaway stirfry from the lovely restaurant under Centre in its little carton and go and eat it with your freebie chopsticks on the big hill, watching whatever is happening on Centre on the big screen with the other picnickers.
That day with Jessica I did see Pioline-Kafelnikov. It was a lovely hot sunny day. Court 1 is okay, but the outside courts are the most fun. Court 2 is small and intimate, and my favourite of all because it creates an arena of drama but you are so close to the players.
Wimbledon is a lot of fun to go to, and it's actually pretty egalitarian with its ticketing policy and cheap prices (£12 for a ground pass, cheaper than any of the British ATP events); it's contrary to the stereotype in lots of ways. The best bit is, I leave to do this all again tomorrow!!