Want to see the world’s most famous tennis tournament in person?
Get in line.
It’s called the Wimbledon queue, and it’s a tradition unlike any other at the highest level of professional sports. There’s no waiting in line for Super Bowl tickets, no tent city at Augusta National for a chance to see the Masters.
But outside the gates of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, a line of spectators snakes down Church Road, across a pedestrian bridge and serpentines through a massive grass park on the other side of the street. With all the twists and turns, the line is at least a half-mile and might be closer to a mile long. Some fans have camped out for days to be one of the select few who get to see, say, Roger Federer at Centre Court.
“You’re living out of a tent for a couple days, you can’t shower, but it’s worth it,” said Josh Rhodes of Kent, England, who for the fifth year in a row secured tickets — called ballots — to see the Wednesday men’s quarterfinals with his friend, Jack Weston. They arrived on Monday.
There are firm rules. Spectators bring their own tents, which are arranged in orderly rows in several large park-type fields, and are assigned numbers on cards to save their spot in line. Stewards monitor the campgrounds around the clock, making sure no tent is left unattended for more than 30 minutes. Campers are awakened at 6 a.m. and the day’s line is formed.
There are food trucks and portable toilets on the site, and usually music in the air. People are relaxed and happy; they choose to be here, eagerly anticipating a prime bucket-list experience.
“Tent people get to know each other quite well,” said James Okoli, in his first year as a steward. “They come from all over the world, people from Canada, Asia, different corners of the U.K. It’s a hotbed of different people, so it’s like everyone has come to your doorstep.”
To pass the time, the fans arrange cricket games in the open spaces, and even a tennis tournament of their own, using tent poles and tape to fashion makeshift nets.
“It’s a very jolly atmosphere, very happy,” said fan Avi Shatzkes of London. “Everyone seems to be in a good mood. People come and enjoy it. Once you start queuing, you stand around for a bit, but you have times when you move quite quickly.”
Most people in line secure grounds passes at face value ($25), which allow them inside the ivy-covered walls of Wimbledon and the chance to watch tennis everywhere but in the marquee venues — Centre Court, and Courts 1 and 2.
“I was tempted to stay two nights, but my wife said, ‘I’ll disown you,’” said Nikhil Bubna, who made the trip from Mumbai, India. “She said, ‘No way. No camping business.’”
But Bubna, an ardent Federer fan, said he intends to come back.
“The lines are one big happy family,” he said. “The U.S. Open doesn’t have anything like this. Everywhere else, you buy the tickets and there isn’t any chance to get something on the day.”
Each of the first 500 people in line can buy a prized Centre Court seat ($200), the next 500 on Court 1 ($168), and the next 500 on Court 2 ($50). By comparison, on the secondary market, the least expensive Centre Court seat Wednesday was $1,122.
Both Federer and defending champion Novak Djokovic had separate quarterfinal matches Wednesday on Centre Court. No tickets were hotter. So a large number of the first 500 people in line strategically said no to Tuesday ballots, instead holding their place in line and camping out another night for seats on Wednesday.
“A lot of people will come to just be in the presence of Federer,” Shatzkes said. “Just to be on the grounds when he’s there, especially with the fact that it’s coming up to the end of his career.”
Alex Halls and Lindsay Pickett made the 2½-hour drive from Bath to camp out for a couple of nights, and they successfully wound up with those metallic-blue wristbands for Centre Court.
“We’ve been eating crisps and stuff for two days,” Halls said. “Maybe next time we’ll bring some more fruit.”
Wimbledon does sell strawberries and cream. Never sweeter than at Centre Court.