This article is part of a guide to tennis from FT Globetrotter
Arriving in Wimbledon Park at the start of the tournament, you wonder if you’ve somehow died and gone to British purgatory. There are thousands of people gathered here, some lounging on camping chairs, others parking themselves on picnic blankets framed by a double line of tents that runs along the north side of the field. People nap like drowned bugs. Although it’s impossible to say where it begins, everyone is somehow part of the same queue and no one is guaranteed what they came for.
Other major sporting events generally use online ticketing, but Wimbledon maintains a more traditional approach. Tennis fans have been queueing here for more than 100 years, hoping to claim one of the limited number of tickets not given out to wealthy debentures or corporate clients. One man tells me he’s been coming here since 1970. Conservatively, that’s a combined six hundred hours of waiting.
Most queuers are just here for a grounds pass, which allows viewers entry into all courts apart from 1, 2 and Centre. According to the official guide, if you arrive in The Queue by 9am, you should be fine. However, tickets to Centre Court, No 1 Court and No 2 Court will mean staying overnight, sometimes days in advance. Only 500 of each are made available each day, distributed on a first-come-first-served basis.
It’s the first Monday of the tournament, and some, like Catherine Keutgen, who travels here every year from Belgium to see Andy Murray, have been merrily experiencing the passage of time since Saturday morning. “We met in The Queue years ago,” she says, gesturing to a group of friends on camping chairs, “and every year we meet here again.”
Like many, Keutgen enjoys the autonomy Wimbledon gives its most dedicated fans to choose exactly where they want to sit, down to whether or not they will be in the shade. Although, post-pandemic, things have started to change: “It was perfectly fine until after Covid and now it’s a mess . . . Last year they tried to force us to buy whatever ticket was on sale at the turnstile, but that’s not why we queue for days — we want to sit in a precise spot, in a precise corner.”
A lot has been written about the Britishness of the Wimbledon queue and of queueing in general. It’s supposedly something we love to do and, though this isn’t really the case, Brits go along with the myth as it helps them to see the rest of the world as disorganised and impatient. However, there is a quintessential Britishness here, mostly accounted for in the following key distinctions.
First is the blind deference to a neatly uniformed administrative power. People here are all looking forward to a promised land of strawberries and cream, but that dream is contingent on obeying certain rules. No drunkenness, no ball games or takeaway-food deliveries after 10pm, no smoking, no vaping, no loud music, no camping stoves, barbecues, and so on — all enforced by wandering stewards who understand that if you wear a clean enough shirt and a posh-looking hat, Brits will roll like obedient terriers.
The second indicator of Britishness is The Queue’s fundamental dedication to upholding a strict, rigid social structure based on where and when you arrived. To avoid queue-jumping, everyone is given a number that becomes more important than your own name. Occasionally, the intensity of this depersonalisation becomes too much for some. “What do these numbers even mean!” one queuer asks in a scene straight out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
Finally, there is the ability to quietly and impotently complain — a well-honed British skill, and one the Wimbledon queue gracefully allows for. Today, due to enhanced security, the All England Lawn Tennis Club is experiencing a backlog. Many are realising that, having arrived at 6am, they are not likely to see any tennis until the evening. “We haven’t moved one little bit,” one soul tells me after politely rounding on a steward. “I came to The Queue last year and managed to get in just before 11 o’clock. This year, it’s almost 1pm and we’re nowhere near.”
Higher up The Queue, past smaller, meta-queues for £14 pizzas and some kind of Barclays chill-out zone (Wimbledon must have ignored recent celebrity calls to drop the bank as a sponsor due to its climate record), you reach the lucky minority with show-court wristbands, distributed to those at the front of the queue. These people are all overnighters. Most are tourists, retired or work the kind of job where taking the day off to attend a sporting event is acceptable.
Even if you put over 12 hours into The Queue, it still isn’t clear until the final moment whether you’ll be close enough to secure the desired ticket. Ophelia Parker came all the way from Seattle just to see Venus Williams play in what could be her last Wimbledon. “Venus is here,” she says, “and all the greats are retiring and I just thought, ‘I have to go.’” Parker looked on helplessly as the bundle of Centre Court wristbands slowly began to diminish. When she got the penultimate one, she cried.
Other than the suspense, another thing that unifies the overnighters is their shared experience of a terrible night’s sleep — most bring tents, others prefer shivering under blankets. “Awful” is Parker’s pretty standard response to the question of “How was your night?” Apparently, snoring is rampant and a brutal cold settles on the park at dawn. The best-slept person I meet had barely entered REM by the time the stewards came at 5am to move everyone along.
One group of Australians who’ve been waiting 18 hours seem excited to vent their frustration. “We have 100,000 people every year to the MCG [Melbourne Cricket Ground] for the AFL Grand Final, and we get ’em in in an hour,” says one of them. “This is farcical, mate — just archaic crap they veil with tradition . . . It feels like Ashton Kutcher’s about to jump out from one of the bushes because we’re being Punk’d.”
By the time I leave mid-afternoon, strawberries and cream are fast becoming an abstract concept — just a mantra that people here endlessly repeat to themselves. Never before have I seen so many people behaving so well. There’s something almost malevolent about it, I think to myself as I turn back to look at the park one last time, spotting rain clouds overhead.
Have you done The Queue at Wimbledon? Share your experiences in the comments below. And follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter
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