Monday Page: They also serve who drive - Driving Wimbledon tennis stars
June 22, 1987
Wimbledon fortnight begins today, which means the start of a logistical marathon for Pat Edwards and the team of drivers charged with makeing sure that the star players get to the court on time. Mary Watson reports
At 8am today a series of famous people will be picked up outside a number of plush hotels by a string of anonymous women, some of whom will probably lose their hearts, if only temporarily, to at least one of the men over the next fortnight.
All of which is perfectly legitimate and above board, being one of the less well-known rituals associated with the Wimbledon tennis tournament. As with other types of ritual, prayers have been offered up in advance: that no car shall have a puncture twixt W1 and SW19; that no-one shall inherit the trait of the mercurial Ilie Nastase, who tended to oversleep; and that delays caused by motorists scraping alongside to gawk at the stars shall be at a minimum.
Patricia Edwards, who has organized the drivers for 15 years, is in charge of avoiding such dramas; she also hopes the famous player who left his rackets back at the hotel last year will remember them this, thus avoiding a hair-raising trip back through the traffic.
'I said I couldn't see why the player couldn't use someone else's rackets, but everyone was appalled at the idea,' she says.
Edwards will be at the nerve centre of the operation every day at 7:30am, with no hope of leaving again before midnight. Headquarters is a wooden-walled marquee near the centre court, lined with ruched white fabric and swags of emerald green, which emerald chairs and carpet - a far cry from humble beginnings in 1972, using 'a caravan and a cubbyhole. '
She will send her 116 drivers, all but 20 of them women, back and forth like workers bees to the official tournament hotels, practice courts and other places all over London. Including a high proportion of the 600 players, they will chauffeur 1,000 people a day over the next fortnight.
Wearing white jackets, white skirts or trousers and white t-shirts, they will work either of two eight-hour shifts up till midnight, will earn a minimum of Pounds 250 and have the fun of driving top stars - and even seeing some of the tennis.
Edwards takes it all calmly. With her ash-blonde hair, huge grey eyes and stylish clothes she could be mistaken for a glamorous tennis wife or celebrity. Crowds often puch forward when they spot her in an official car and then exclaim: 'Oh, it's no one.'
Her china doll appearance belies a toughness which commands respect among the young drivers 'We'll be instantly dismissed if we let her down badly,' one told me, and Edwards has indeed had to sack several drivers over the years. 'One kept trying to finish early and another reversed into a car which demolished a wall and then went forward into another car.
'Their cargo is very precious and their job a responsible one. It's PR
job, too - they must sense when to chat and when to shut up, especially if a player has just lost a match.'
'Yes,' interjected one girl, 'when one player lost he sobbed that his life was ruined and that he wanted his mother. I gently tried to reassure him.'
This year the drivers include students, housewives, models, air hostesses and secretaries. Alison Dixon, who was secretary to Princess Michael for two years, is doing her first Wimbledon. Several good drivers are secretaries but often Edwards finds that those who are used to a sedentary 9-5 job are not as good as those used to odd hours.
The men include a sculptor, a doctor, a dentist on annual leave and an Australian salesman who was a chauffeur at last year's tournament; he enjoyed it so much that he has flown back specially.
'We're not after dolly birds,' Edwards says, 'but they have to look pleasant. Over 40, we look at them very closely indeed. Some are in their early fifties, but you'd never know.
'Applicants have a half hour interview and a three-quarters of an hour driving test, conducted by a school of motoring,' says Edwards. 'Many more failed the test this year; on one day all 14 applicants failed.'
Emergencies usually involve either the players or the cars rather than the drivers, but one year a girl was mugged as she was about to reverse. Two workers on a building site rescued her.
Players are said to be quiet before a match and subdued after it, if they lose. But the winners seldom brag. Drivers all say they are hoping they won't get a certain woman player who invariably says she is going to be sick.
Top seeds Navratilova and Becker are unlikely to be passengers; the former, to the surprise of spectators, usually cycles in while Becker comes in his own car.
Everyone is hoping to drive Chris Evert or members of her family because they are always friendly, pleasant and giggly. 'We are sorry McEnroe is not coming,' says Edwards. 'He has not been abusive to us, though many are. Just before going on court he would eat a collosal meal of steak, hamburgers and chips.
'Connors and Nastaste used to enjoy egging on the teenyboppers but Connors has quietened down a lot.'
The girls are not allowed to accept dates with players. 'They all look alike with their suntans, highlighted hair and expensive casual clothes,' said one. 'But most of us have boyfriends and anyway the players are usually too exhausted. They get in the car and say, ''Where can I eat?'' '
Edwards is less than happy that this year, for the first time, the slogan 'Game for Anything' appears on the cars. It does not, she feels, convey the right impression.
'Wimbledon,' she says candidly, 'is something I dread, but it is enormously satisfying to see things running smoothly after five months of planning. And,' adds the woman who for the next couple of weeks will be running the biggest pick-up operation in town, 'it's where I met my husband...'