In line at Wimbledon, waiting is fun, and that’s the point

Wimbledon, England. It was about 10 p.m. and Richard Hess, an 81-year-old American, was sitting in his little tent and cheerfully getting ready for his last sleepless night in line at Wimbledon.

“You caught me blowing up my mattress,” he said, sticking his gray head out of the tent and offering his guest a seat in a folding chair.

Hess is an Anglophile from Rancho Palos Verdes, California. He memorized the names of all the English monarchs, beginning with William the Conqueror, before his first visit to Britain. He has a PhD in physics from the University of California at Berkeley and played in California junior tennis at the same time as Billie Jean King. He has been queuing at Wimbledon since 1978, first queuing up on the sidewalks for tickets, and then camping with hundreds of other tennis fans starting in the early 1990s in search of the best seats on Center Court and other main courts. .

“When I was a kid, I asked my dad what was the most important tournament in the world and he said, ‘Well, it’s Wimbledon,’” Hess said.

On his first day, he and his eldest daughter saw Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe play their first round matches, and Hess spent his last day at Wimbledon watching new Spanish star Carlos Alcaraz before returning to his tent and his community.

“It’s not just tennis that keeps me coming back; it’s culture and people,” Hess said.

One such person is Lucy Nixon, a 42-year-old from Norfolk, England, who met Hess on her first day in line in 2002 and is now a close enough friend that she invited Hess and Jackie, his wife of 60 years . for her wedding.

This year, Wimbledon was a chance to reconnect after the tournament was canceled due to the pandemic in 2020 and played out of line in 2021 for health and safety reasons.

There were doubts that he would return. In the world of online ticketing, the queue is a clear anachronism, but Wimbledon — with its grass courts, the all-in-white rule for players, and artificially low prices for strawberries and cream — is an anachronism in general.

“Some people are traditionalists,” Nixon said. “And it’s like we’ve always done it this way, we’ve always had a queue, we’ll always have a queue. And then there are other people who just say, well, let’s do what all the other Grand Slams do, just sell tickets online and get it over with.”

For now, the queue is alive, although many other Wimbledon traditions are not.

“There is no longer a queue because we have always done this,” said Sally Bolton, chief executive of the All England Club. “The queue is here because it is about the availability of the tournament. It’s really an integral part of our traditions.”

Nixon, who has had enough time to ponder these questions in 20 years of waiting outside the club, has a love-hate relationship with the queue.

“I have been to other tennis tournaments in Europe and Indian Wells, and as a normal person, I could go online with a regular phone and book tickets from my regular bank account,” she said. “It was much easier to do it. You have to work for your Wimbledon tickets, so in a way it’s like, are they really that progressive and inclusive? Or are they making little people work hard for the crumbs they are going to get, which is a measly 1,500 tickets out of the many thousands available on the main courts?

The All England club, which runs an annual ticket raffle and also has season ticket holders, seats around 42,000 people a day. He reserves about 500 seats each on Center Court, No. 1. 1 court and no. 2 Judgment for those who stand in line, who pay the face value of the tickets. Central Court and no. 1 The seats in the court are low, close to the scene.

“That’s the real attraction,” Hess said.

If you’re often one of the thousands of people in line who don’t get a main court ticket, you can still buy a grounds pass to access the outside courts, although this can be a long wait if you’re in a deep queue or one more night in a tent if you want to try again for a spot on the main court.

It is unclear exactly when the queues began at Wimbledon, but according to Richard Jones, the British tennis historian and writer, in 1927 it was reported on the news that fans were lining up at 5 am for tickets. Night lines appeared in the 1960s, became more popular as Borg and McEnroe did, and for about 40 years it took place on the pavement that the British call “sidewalk”.

“I always expected someone to get hit by a car,” Hess said.

In 2008, the nocturnal and increasingly polyglot line turned bucolic as they moved to Wimbledon Park, a sprawling green space opposite the All England Club on the other side of Church Road. The tents are arranged in numbered rows on the grass by the lake. It’s a more peaceful but tightly controlled place, more like a trailer park than an adventure. There are food trucks, men’s and women’s toilets, a first aid station, guards and a lot of stewards hanging around to keep order and plant a flag that indicates the end of the queue for new arrivals.

Volunteers start roasting campers shortly after 5am to give them time to pack their gear and check it out in the huge white storage tent before queuing well before the All England Club opens at 10am.

“Four or five hours of sleep is a good night,” Hess said.

Potential ticket holders are given a card with a number when they arrive at Wimbledon Park. The lower the number, the higher your priority, and on June 26, the first night of queuing at Wimbledon in almost three years, the first in line and holder of the 00001 Queue Card was Brent Pham, a 32-year-old property manager from Newport Beach , California.

Pham arrived in London on the Thursday before Wimbledon, bought a tent and an air mattress, and spent Friday night sleeping on the pavement and Saturday night sleeping in a nearby field in a group of 50 before the line officially opened at 2:00 pm on Sunday. It paid off with a guaranteed spot on Center Court.

“My dad loved to watch Wimbledon and he passed away in 2017 and he never got to experience it, so I think it’s especially important to get to Center Court every year,” said Pham, who wears a printed photo of his father Huu, who every day goes with him to the territory. “At least his spirit can be at Wimbledon,” he said.

In a typical year, it would be almost impossible to get into the Central Court every day from the queue, but in the first four days of this year the number of queues was significantly reduced: about 6,000 per day instead of the usual 11,000. Potential factors included a decrease in the number of foreign visitors, galloping inflation, changing habits of for coronavirus and rain. Then Roger Federer. The eight-time Wimbledon champion has not played in the men’s singles for the first time since 1998.

“During the Federer years, there were a lot of people who stayed two nights to see Roger,” Hess said. “They will see his match, they will immediately go out, pitch their tent – ​​there may be 200 of them – and sleep two nights to get to his next match.”

Hess has spent more than 250 nights in line and will register 10 more this year. Long ago, he set himself the goal of queuing until age 80. The pandemic delayed that milestone, but he did it.

“Now I overestimate,” he said, before returning to his under-inflated air mattress. “But I fully expect to be back next year.”