by Simon Mundy
Despite having watched Wimbledon on TV since the 1960s I have never managed to go in person. This year, on the first day, for once the diary was clear and I was in London – free to get up early and join the line for a ground pass, with the prospect of several great matches on the outside courts to give me the true flavour of the greatest tennis show of all. I was out of the flat and on the tube well before six, arriving at the gates of Wimbledon Park at 6.23, the morning sun cheering the day.
As were were channelled into lines it became clear that the park was already busy but after twenty minutes or so I was given a small book called A Guide To The Queue (‘the most British thing I’ve ever been given,’ the woman in front of me said) and a card with my queue number on it – 5818: obviously not the first but a number that gave reasonable expectation of getting in to see the start of play at 11. That was the high point. My thoughts turned to coffee and a bacon roll for breakfast. I joined another line but it was obvious that, with only three pop-up fans offering food and drink, there would be a wait: nearly two hours and £11.50 later I emerged triumphant with the roll and a can of coke (no coffee – already run out or join another queue, by now even longer).
Retaking my place in the main line behind a sign saying K9 the hours began to accumulate. At about ten o’clock all seemed to be going swimmingly as we were ushered forward a hundred yards or so. The gates had opened. ‘Settle down,’ a steward said, ‘you’ll move again in half an hour, maybe an hour.’ Ominous – and I would certainly miss the start of Harriet Dart’s match out on Court 12. She has been so impressive over the last season or two and it was tiresome that she had been scheduled so early in the day but, hey ho. That is the life.
Then the action froze. To my left were five lines of people, between 500 and 700 in each. We sat or, in my case, leaned against a stake holding a rubbish bag. Nothing happened for another two hours. There was no information. The stewards knew no more than the rest of us, even with their black ear pieces. At around midday the furthest line on the left started moving but with agonising slowness. In all that time people had kept streaming into the park, probably another 15000 of them. There was hardly any point unless they were waiting for Thursday’s games. Strangely, no TV news crews or photographers were evident in Wimbledon Park. Were the BBC warned off by the Club officials?
Behind me a group of four women plus a boyfriend were celebrating one of their number’s birthday (another Harriet), had spread out a rug and opened hampers that would have graced Glyndebourne, full of strawberries and dips. Somewhere about the third bottle of prosecco this Harriet said, ‘I don’t care if I don’t get in now – I’m not at work; I’m in a park drinking bubbly in the sun with my best friends’.
I was not and by 1.15, with another four lines in front still to move, my forbearance ran out. There was no way I would get into the gates before evening. Rain was forecast and I did not feel like paying the full asking price of £27 for only a couple of hours play. At the gates, a steward shrugged and muttered the dread word, ‘security’. Apparently the searchers were taking too long and had slowed the process to barely a crawl. The All England Club had clearly underestimated the task in a bid to prevent Stop Oil protestors getting in.
The managers had not anticipated the need for flexibility. They could have used more gates to serve the queue, opening them at 7.30 instead of 10am, using mobile ticketing machines to move along the line instead of waiting for people to reach the walls. Most of all they could have informed their own stewards so that they could advise people of the delays and likely entrance times. Proper food outlets could have been laid on and bottles of water handed out. All sensible reactions to a developing problem involving many thousands of people but Wimbledon just shrugged and let its reputation for efficiency shrivel. The club was lucky that tennis supporters do not react like football ones. There was no trouble but there was plenty of fury building up.
I was lucky enough to be at Lord’s the previous Saturday for the Ashes test match. The MCC had the same problem with protestors and also had to let several thousands into its grounds. There, though, I was through the ticket checks, was searched by security and in my seat within ten minutes. I still want to go to Wimbledon but never again to be treated with such complacent contempt.
The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) were invited to comment for this article but had not responded by time of going to press.