WIMBLEDON, England — It was nearly 10 p.m. and Richard Hess, an 81-year-old American, was sitting inside his small tent, merrily preparing for his last night of sleep deprivation in Wimbledon row.
“You caught me blowing up my mattress,” he said, poking his graying head out of the tent and offering his visitor a seat on a folding chair.
Hess is an Anglophile from Rancho Palos Verdes, California, who memorized the names of all the English monarchs beginning 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 at the same time as Billie Jean King. He has been lining up at Wimbledon since 1978: first queuing on the sidewalks to buy tickets and then, in the early 1990s, camping out overnight with hundreds of other tennis fans in search of prime seats on Center Court and other main courts. .
“When I was a kid, I asked my dad what the biggest tournament in the world was and he said, ‘Well, that’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 spent his last day at Wimbledon watching rising Spanish star Carlos Alcaraz before returning to his shop and community.
“It’s not just tennis that brings me 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 line in 2002 and is now such a close friend that she invited Hess and Jackie, his wife of 60 years. . to your wedding.
This year’s Wimbledon has been an opportunity to reconnect after the tournament was canceled due to the pandemic in 2020 and held without a queue in 2021 for health and safety reasons.
There were doubts that he would return. In a world of online ticketing, queuing is clearly an anachronism, but then Wimbledon, with its grass courts, white-clothes rule for players, and artificially low-priced strawberries and cream, is an anachronism all the same.
“Some people are traditionalists,” Nixon said. “And it’s like, we’ve always done it this way, we’ve always had a tail, we’re always going to have a tail. 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 lives on, although many other Wimbledon traditions do not.
“The queue isn’t here yet because it’s something we’ve always done,” said Sally Bolton, chief executive of the All England Club. “The queue is here because it is about accessibility to the tournament. That’s really an integral part of our traditions.”
Nixon, who has had plenty of time to reflect on these issues in the 20 years of waiting outside the club’s doors, has a “love-hate problem” with his tail.
“I have 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. “It was much easier to do that. You have to work to get your Wimbledon tickets, so in a way, it’s like, are they really that progressive and inclusive? Or are they making the little people work hard for the crumbs they are going to receive, 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 season ticket holders, has a daily capacity of around 42,000. Reserve about 500 seats each on Center Court, Court No. 1 and Court No. 2 for those in line, who pay face value for tickets. Center Court and Court No. 1 seats are low, close to the action.
“That’s the real draw,” Hess said.
If you’re one of the thousands in line who don’t get a ticket to the main court, you can still buy a pass to access the outer courts, though it could be a long wait if you’re in line or another night in a tent if you want to try again for a spot on the main court.
It is unclear precisely when the lines began at Wimbledon, but according to Richard Jones, a British tennis historian and author, in 1927 there was news of fans lining up at 5am to buy tickets. Overnight queues occurred in the 1960s, became more popular as Borg and McEnroe did, and for some 40 years they occurred on the sidewalk the British call “the pavement.”
“I was always waiting for someone to get hit,” Hess said.
In 2008, the overnight and increasingly polyglot queue turned bucolic: moving to Wimbledon Park, the vast green space that sits opposite the All England Club on the other side of Church Road. The tents are set up in numbered rows on the grass near a lake. It’s more peaceful but heavily controlled, more of an RV park than an adventure. There are food trucks, unisex restrooms, a first aid center, security guards, and many butlers milling around to keep order and flag newcomers to the end of the line.
Volunteers start waking campers up 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 before the All England Club opens at 10 a.m. A.M.
“Four or five hours of sleep is a good night’s sleep,” Hess said.
Prospective ticket holders receive a card with a number on it when they arrive at Wimbledon Park. The lower the number, the higher your priority, and on June 26, the first night in line at Wimbledon in almost three years, the person who was first in line and who had “Queue Card 00001” was Brent Pham. , 32 years old. 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 nearby field in a group of about 50 people before for the line to officially open at 2 pm on Sunday. He paid off with a guaranteed seat on Center Court.
“My dad loved watching Wimbledon, he passed away in 2017 and never got to experience this, so I feel like it’s really important to make sure I’m on Center Court every year,” said Pham, who carries a printed card. picture of his father, Huu, with him on the grounds every day. “Then his spirit can at least be at Wimbledon,” he said.
In a normal year, getting onto Center Court every day from the queue would have been nearly impossible, but the number of queues dropped significantly in the first four days of this year: about 6,000 a day instead of the usual 11,000. Potential factors included fewer international visitors, runaway inflation, changing habits due to the coronavirus, and rain. Then there is Roger Federer. The eight-time Wimbledon champion has not played in the men’s singles for the first time since 1998.
“During the Federer years, there were a lot of people camping out for two nights to see Roger,” Hess said. “They would watch his game, go out, pitch their tent, there could be 200 of them, and sleep two nights to get into his next game.”
Hess has spent more than 250 nights in the queue and will log 10 more this year. Long ago he set himself the goal of queuing until he was 80 years old. The pandemic delayed the milestone, but it did.
“Now I’m reassessing,” he said before returning to his deflated air mattress. “But I hope to be back next year.”