August 12, 2022

WIMBLEDON, England — It was nearly 10 p.m. and Richard Hess, an 81-year-old American, was sitting in his small tent, happily preparing for his last sleep-deprived night in the Wimbledon queue.

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

Hess is an Anglophile from Rancho Palos Verdes, California who memorized the names of every English monarch beginning with William the Conqueror before his first visit to Britain. He holds a doctorate in physics from the University of California at Berkeley and played on the California junior tennis circuit at the same time as Billie Jean King. He’s been queuing at Wimbledon since 1978: first lining the pavements to buy tickets, then, from the early 1990s, camping overnight with hundreds of other tennis fans looking for prime seating on Center Court and other main performance grounds. .

“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 watched Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe play first-round matches, and Hess had 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 the culture and the people,” Hess said.

One such person is Lucy Nixon, a 42-year-old woman from Norfolk, England, who met Hess on her first day in the queue in 2002 and is now a close enough friend to have invited Hess and Jackie, his wife of 60 years. , at his wedding.

This year’s Wimbledon was an opportunity to reconnect after the tournament was canceled due to the pandemic in 2020 and was held without a queue in 2021 for health and safety reasons.

There was a doubt that he would return. In a world of online ticketing, the queue is clearly an anachronism, but Wimbledon – with its grass courts, white-clothes rule for players and artificially cheap strawberries and cream – is an anachronism writ large. .

“Some people are traditionalists,” Nixon said. “And it’s like we’ve always done it that way, we’ve always had a queue, we’ll always have a queue. And then there are other people who are just 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 is gone because it’s just something we’ve always done,” said All England Club chief executive Sally Bolton. “The queue is there because it’s a question of accessibility to the tournament. It’s really part of our traditions.

Nixon, who has had plenty of time to think about these issues in 20 years of waiting outside the club’s doors, has a “love-hate thing” with the queue.

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

The All England Club, which runs an annual ticket lottery and also has subscribers, has a daily capacity of around 42,000. It reserves approximately 500 seats each on Center Court, Court No. 1 and Court No. 2 for those queuing, who pay face value for tickets. Center Court and Court 1 seats are low, close to the action.

“That’s the real appeal,” Hess said.

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

It’s unclear exactly when the queue started at Wimbledon, but according to British tennis historian and author Richard Jones, there were reports in 1927 of fans queuing at 5 a.m. for tickets . Night queues were happening in the 1960s, became more popular as did Borg and McEnroe, and for about 40 years it happened on the sidewalk that the British call “the pavement”.

“I was always waiting for someone to get run over,” Hess said.

In 2008, the overnight and increasingly polyglot queue became bucolic: moving into Wimbledon Park, the sprawling green space that sits opposite the All England Club across Church Road. The tents are pitched in numbered rows on the grass near a lake. It’s more peaceful but heavily controlled, more of a trailer park than an adventure. There are food trucks, unisex toilets, a first aid center, security guards and many stewards who work to maintain order and position the flag which indicates the end of the queue for new arrivals.

Volunteers start flushing out campers shortly after 5 a.m. to give them time to pack up their gear and check it in the huge white storage tent before entering the queue well ahead of time 10 a.m. opening time of the All England Club.

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

Potential ticket holders receive a card with a number when they arrive at Wimbledon grounds. The lower the number, the higher your priority, and on June 26, the first queuing night at Wimbledon in almost three years, the person who was in the front row and holding the “Queue Card waiting 00001” was Brent Pham, a 32-year-old former 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 around 50 people before the official queue opens at 2 p.m. on Sunday. This paid off with a guaranteed seat on center court.

“My dad, he loved watching Wimbledon, and he died in 2017, and he never got to experience that, so I think it’s really important to make sure I’m on center court every year,” said Pham, who wears a print. photo of his father, Huu, with him in the park every day. “So his spirit at least is capable of being at Wimbledon,” he said.

In a normal year, entering Center Court each day from the queue would have been nearly impossible, but the number of queues has dropped significantly in the first four days of this year: around 6,000 per day instead of the usual 11,000. Potential factors included falling international visitor numbers, runaway inflation, changing habits due to coronavirus and rain. Then there is Roger Federer. The eight-time Wimbledon champion is not playing men’s singles for the first time since 1998.

“During the Federer years, there were a lot of people camping two nights to see Roger,” Hess said. “They would see his game, come out straight away, set up their tent – there could be 200 of them – and sleep two nights to get in for his next game.”

Hess has spent over 250 nights in the queue and will record 10 more this year. Long ago, he set himself the goal of queuing until he was 80. The pandemic delayed the milestone, but it made it.

“Now I’m reassessing,” he said before returning to his underinflated air mattress. “But I expect to be back next year.”