IF YOU'VE NEVER BEEN TO WIMBLEDON, HERE'S A LOOK
Scripps Howard News Service
Friday, June 26, 1992
For 50 weeks every year, the town of Wimbledon sits placidly on the southwest outskirts of London, a quaint, upscale bedroom community filled with commuters who ride 30 minutes on the subway to downtown.
The locals enjoy slow living, good schools, tree-lined streets and friendly pubs. The place is so down-home that the mayor's name is "Slim."
"It's an attractive little town," said Carol Black, a woman in her mid-30s who has lived here since she was 12.
"It's commutable. The tube connections are good. It's just a nice place."
It's also real estate's version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For two weeks each year starting in late June, the place goes absolutely bonkers. The quiet town of 50,000 suddenly becomes a bustling showpiece as the Wimbledon tennis championships take over.
An invasion of 30,000 outsiders a day stalls traffic, fills pubs to overflowing and turns the area into a tourist attraction. It's a veritable Euro-Dizzy.
The locals, with experience from 106 of these fortnights, know exactly how to deal with the commotion: They leave.
Call it the Augusta Syndrome. Every year prior to the Masters golf tournament, residents of Augsta, Ga., follow the same script, escaping and renting their houses to visitors.
Here, a nice house near the courts can go for $2,000 a week, a price only top tennis players and big business can afford. Two-bedroom flats -- apartments to you -- go for $150 a night. Prices vary by location and quality.
"You've got a nice residential area that you wouldn't recognize when the tournament's going on," said Jane Cousins, a real estate agent. "For two weeks the world descends on it and puts it under a big spotlight. The town is transformed dramatically. Quite a lot of people just leave. They rent out their flats and go on holiday. Unless they're avid tennis fans, I don't blame them."
To get to Wimbledon, you don't go to Wimbledon, unless you have so much money that your chauffeur stops the Rolls outside the gates. The commoners who live or stay in London take the subway to Southfields, a small town about a one-mile walk from the courts.
The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club sits on the edge of Wimbledon, maybe two miles from the town center. The Wimbledon tube stop, last on the District line, is nearly three miles away, too far for most to walk. Southfields, with a fleet of taxis and special buses waiting outside the station, is more convenient.
The walk is pleasant, past row houses and then along a tree-lined stretch with individual family homes, many hidden behind walls and high hedges.
A streetcleaner pushing his cart and picking up trash passes by.
Local residents sell food and drink on their front lawns.
If you drove along this road any other time of year, you might miss the tennis club. Like Augusta National, where the Masters is played, the All England Club is hidden by hedges and a fence. Club property extends along Church Road for about a mile.
Club grounds, which include parking lots, is 42 acres.
Instead of seeing the gate to the tennis club, more than likely your eye would be drawn to the golf course across the street or the spires from homes and churches on a hill in the distance. You'd half expect to see Mary Poppins floating down from the clouds.
This time of year, the scene is unmistakable. Lines of fans begin forming just after dawn, stretching halfway back to Southfields. A limited number of tickets are held each day for the public and more become available as patrons leave.
The golf course is transformed into another parking lot. Only nine holes are available for play during the fortnight. At least they don't put cars on the greens.
Police and marshalls are everywhere along the outside of the tennis club property. So are ticket scalpers. But tougher restrictions have significantly reduced their number.
Everybody tries to make money out of Wimbledon, and many do. St. Mary's Parish of the Church of England, located about a block from the club, adds thousands of pounds to its coffers by converting the grounds into a parking lot and by selling baked goods.
Gouging rental prices is another tactic. One player began staying at a house for a reasonable price before she hit it big. When the owner figured out who she was, the rent quadrupled.
Said the player, "I don't care how rich I am, forget this."
The restaurants and pubs in town swell with business, particularly in the evening. At 9:30 on Wednesday, 10 policemen were working one of the busiest intersections, which is flanked by seven eating and drinking establishments. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper.
"We do double, maybe triple business," said a waiter at the Spaghetti Western, an Italian restaurant.
Adds owner Luigi Ferrara, "Looks like the recession is over."
Ferrara welcomes the influx because of the new and sometimes famous faces. Gabriella Sabatini, the women's third seed, was among the patrons.
"When the residents get out of town, it's good for us," said Ferrara. ''It's a change of pace. We get tired of seeing the same faces. This is nice."
Wimbledon is located in Merton Borough (similar to a county) which has a population of 166,000. Katheline Lambert, a borough official, says no economic impact figures are kept but that the monetary benefits are obvious.
The only people not too happy about the tournament are shopkeepers. Parking restrictions and traffic jams hurt their businesses. Some even close.
Most of the complaints concern traffic. A few residents close to the club are given grounds passes (which exclude seating in the main courts) to make up for the inconvenience.
"One year," said Black, "a lady complained that the TV lights from BBC were too bright in the evenings. She said she had to draw her curtains, something she didn't normally do.
"There are one or two people who will complain in every situation. I don't care for tennis that much, but there is an air of excitement that comes over the town that I really enjoy."
Said Lambert, "The tournament's been going on for so long, they've learned to put up with it."