WIMBLEDON, England – It was fast approaching 10pm and Richard Hess, an 81-year-old American, sat in his small tent happily preparing for his last sleepless night in the Wimbledon queue.
“You caught me blowing up my mattress,” he said, sticking 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 all English monarchs beginning with William the Conqueror before his first visit to Britain. He has a PhD in Physics from the University of California, Berkeley and played on the California junior track at the same time as Billie Jean King. He has been queuing at Wimbledon since 1978: first queuing on the pavements for tickets and then, beginning in the early 1990s, camping out overnight with hundreds of other tennis fans to snag the best seats on Center Court and the other major show courts.
“When I was a kid, I asked my dad what the most important 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 had spent his last day at Wimbledon watching new Spain star Carlos Alcaraz before returning to his tent and community.
“It’s not just tennis that keeps me coming back; it’s the culture and the people,” said Hess.
One such person is Lucy Nixon, a 42-year-old from Norfolk, England, who met Hess on her first day in line in 2002 and is now so close that she invited Hess and Jackie, his wife of 60 years, to attend has , to her wedding.
This year’s Wimbledon was a chance to reconnect after the tournament was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic and went live without a queue in 2021 for health and safety reasons.
There were doubts it would return. In a world of online ticketing, the queue is clearly an anachronism, but Wimbledon – with its grass pitches, all-white dress rule for players and artificially low-priced strawberries and cream – is an anachronism on a grand scale.
“Some people are traditionalists,” Nixon said. “And it’s like this, we’ve always done it this 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 lives on, although many other Wimbledon traditions don’t.
“The queue is gone because we’ve just always done it,” said Sally Bolton, chief executive of the All England Club. “The queue is here because it is about the accessibility of the tournament. It’s really part of our traditions.”
Nixon, who has had plenty of time to ponder these issues after 20 years of waiting outside the club’s gates, has a “love-hate relationship” with the queue.
“I’ve been to other tennis tournaments in Europe and Indian Wells and as a normal person I could go online with my normal phone and book tickets with my normal bank account,” she said. “It was a lot easier. You have to work for your Wimbledon tickets, so it’s kind of like, are they really that progressive and inclusive? Or do they make the little people work hard for the crumbs they will get, which is a whopping 1,500 tickets out of how many thousands are available for the main courses?”
The All England Club, which operates an annual ticket lottery and also has season ticket holders, has a daily capacity of around 42,000. It reserves around 500 seats on Center Court, No. 1 court and no. 2 Court for those in the queue paying face value for tickets. The seats on Center Court and No. 1 court is located at the bottom near the action.
“That’s the real appeal,” Hess said.
If you’re among the often thousands in the queue who don’t get a ticket for the main square, you can still buy a terrain ticket for access to the outdoor courts, although there can be long waits if you wait in line or are too long another night in a tent if you want to try again for a seat on the main court.
It’s not exactly clear when the queues started at Wimbledon, but according to Richard Jones, a British tennis historian and author, in 1927 there was news of fans queuing for tickets at 5am. In the 1960s there were nightly queues, which grew in popularity with Borg and McEnroe, and for about 40 years this happened on what the Brits call “the pavement”.
“I was always waiting for someone to get run over,” said Hess.
In 2008, the nightly and increasingly polyglot queue became rural: moving to Wimbledon Park, the vast green space that sits across Church Road from the All England Club. The tents stand in numbered rows on the grass near a lake. It’s more peaceful but heavily controlled, more trailer park than adventure. There are food trucks, unisex toilets, a first aid centre, security guards and plenty of stewards walking around to keep order and position the flag to indicate the end of the queue for new arrivals.
Volunteers start waking campers just after 5am to give them time to pack their gear and check it in the huge white camp tent before queuing well before the All England Club opens at 10am .
“Four or five hours of sleep is a good night’s sleep,” Hess said.
Prospective ticket holders will be given a card with a number on arrival at Wimbledon Park. The lower the number, the higher your priority, and on June 26, the first night of queuing at Wimbledon in almost three years, 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 air mattress and spent Friday night on the pavement and Saturday night in a nearby field in a group of about 50 before the queue officially opened at 2pm on Sunday. It paid off with a guaranteed seat on Center Court.
“My dad loved watching Wimbledon and he passed away in 2017 and he never lived to see that, so I think it’s especially important to make sure I get to center court every year,” said Pham, the one The print bears a photograph of his father Huu, who goes to the site with him every day. “So at least his spirit is capable of being at Wimbledon,” he said.
In a normal year, it would have been almost impossible to get out of the queue and into Center Court every day, but the number of queues dropped significantly in the first four days of this year: to about 6,000 a day instead of the usual 11,000. Possible factors included lower international visitor numbers, runaway inflation, changing habits due to the coronavirus and rain. Then there is Roger Federer. The eight-time Wimbledon champion is not playing in men’s singles for the first time since 1998.
“During the Federer years there were a lot of people who camped two nights to see Roger,” said Hess. “They saw his match, came out right away, pitched their tent – there could be 200 of them – and slept two nights to get to his next match.”
Hess has queued more than 250 nights and will register 10 more this year. A long time ago, he set himself the goal of standing in line by the time he was 80. The pandemic delayed the milestone, but it made it.
“Now I’m reassessing,” he said before returning to his under-inflated air mattress. “But I expect to be there again next year.”