WIMBLEDON, England – It was nearing 10 p.m., and Richard Hess, an 81-year-old American, was sitting in his small tent cheerfully preparing for a sleepless night in the Wimbledon queue.
“You caught me blowing up my mattress,” he said, poking his gray head out of the tent and offering his guest a seat on the folding chair.
Hess is an Anglophile from Rancho Palos Verdes, California, who memorized the names of every English monarch, starting with William the Conqueror, before his first visit to Britain. He has a doctorate in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, and played on the California junior tennis circuit with Billie Jean King. He has been queuing at Wimbledon since 1978: first on the sidewalks for tickets, and then, starting in the early 1990s, camping overnight with hundreds of other tennis fans in search of prime seats on Center Court and other major show courts. .
“When I was a kid, I asked my dad what the most important tournament in the world was, and he said, ‘Well, it’s Wimbledon,'” Hess said.
On her first day, she and her eldest daughter saw Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe play their first-round matches, while Hess spent her last day at Wimbledon watching rising Spanish star Carlos Alcaraz before returning to her tent and community.
“It’s not just tennis that keeps me coming back; It’s the culture and the people,” Hess said.
One of them is Lucy Nixon, 42, of Norfolk, England, who met Hess on her first day in line in 2002 and is now close enough friends to invite Hess and Jack, his wife of 60 years. at her wedding.
This year’s Wimbledon had the opportunity to reconnect after the tournament was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic and was held without a row in 2021 due to health and safety reasons.
There was doubt that he would return. In the world of online tickets, the queue is clearly an anachronism, but then Wimbledon – with its grass courts, all-white dress code for players and artificially cheap strawberries and cream – is a great anachronism.
“Some people are traditionalists,” Nixon said. “And that’s the way it is, we’ve always done it, we’ve always had a queue, we’ll always have a queue. And then there are other people who are like, you know, let’s do what every other Grand Slam does and just sell tickets online and be done with it. “
For now, the queue continues, although many other Wimbledon traditions do not.
“The queue isn’t here yet because it’s what we’ve always done,” said Sally Bolton, chief executive of the All England Club. “The lineup is here because of the availability of the tournament. It’s really an integral part of our traditions.”
Nixon, who has had plenty of time to think about these things during 20 years of waiting outside the club’s gates, has a love-hate streak.
“I’ve been to other tennis tournaments in Europe and Indian Wells, and as a normal person I could go online with my normal phone and book tickets with my normal bank account,” he said. “It was a lot easier to do. You have to work for your Wimbledon tickets, so in a way it is, are they really that progressive and inclusive? Or are they making the little people work for the scraps they’re going to get, which is 1,500 tickets out of the thousand available for the main courts?”
The All England Club, which holds an annual ticket draw and also has season ticket holders, has a daily capacity of around 42,000. It reserves about 500 seats in the Center Court, Court No. 1 and Court No. 2 for those in the queue who pay the nominal cost of the tickets. Center Court and Court No. 1 seats are downstairs, close to the action.
“It’s a real appeal,” Hess said.
If you’re one of the often thousands in line who doesn’t get a Main Court ticket, you can still buy a pass to access the outer courts, although you may have to wait a long time if you’re in line for another night in the tent if you want to try the main court again.
It’s not clear exactly when queuing began at Wimbledon, but according to British tennis historian and author Richard Jones, in 1927 there were news reports of fans lining up at 5am for tickets. Night queues took place in the 1960s, became more popular as Borg and McEnroe, and for about 40 years it took place on the pavement, which the British call “the pavement”.
“I was always waiting for somebody to get run over,” Hess said.
In 2008, the nocturnal and increasingly polyglot line-up went bucolic: they moved to Wimbledon Park, a vast green space that lies opposite the All England Club, on the other side of Church Road. The tents are spread out in numbered rows on the grass near the lake. It’s more peaceful but tightly controlled, more trailer park than adventure. There are food trucks, unisex restrooms, a first aid center, security guards, and plenty of stewards ready to keep order and put up a flag to signal the end of the line to new arrivals.
Volunteers start breaking camp just after 5am to allow time to pack gear and check it into the huge white storage tent before queuing up for the 10am opening time of the All England Club.
“Four or five hours of sleep is a good night,” Hess said.
Prospective ticket holders are given a card with a number on arrival 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 person in line holding ‘Queue Card 00001’ was Brent Pham, 32. A former property manager from Newport Beach, California.
Pham arrived in London 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 group of about 50 in a nearby field before the queue officially opened at 2pm on Sunday. This paid off with a guaranteed center court spot.
“My dad loved watching Wimbledon and he passed away in 2017 and he never got to experience it, so I think it’s very important to make sure I get to be on Center Court every year,” said Pham, who has a printed photograph of his father Huw with him every day. “So his spirit can still be at Wimbledon,” he said.
In a normal year, it would be almost impossible to get through the queue at the Central Court every day, but the number of queues decreased significantly in the first four days of this year: about 6,000 per day, instead of the usual 11,000. Potential factors included a decline in international visitors, galloping inflation, changing habits due to the coronavirus and rain. Then there’s Roger Federer. The eight-time Wimbledon champion is not playing in the men’s singles for the first time since 1998.
“During the Federer years, there were a lot of people who would camp out for two nights to see Roger,” Hess said. “They would see his match, come out, set up a tent – maybe 200 of them – and sleep for two nights to get to his next match.
Hess has spent more than 250 nights in the queue and will do 10 more this year. A long time ago, he set himself the goal of staying in line until the age of 80.
“Now I’ll reassess,” he said before returning to the inflated mattress beneath him. “But I fully expect to be back next year.”