A Guide to Touring Wimbledon
Few sporting events transcend the actual athletic competition itself. Those that do—such as the Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Tour de France—are forever embedded into the popular culture. Wimbledon, the Grand Lady of tennis’s four Grand Slams, holds its rightful place among these iconic attractions.
On certain levels, Wimbledon can be as stuffy as an allergic nose in pollen season. However, beyond the required white for players and staid Centre Court, the tournament is a venerable event as regal as the monarchy itself.
So ingrained is Wimbledon into the everyday lives of Brits that even legendary afternoon tea takes a backseat to volleys and 120 mph serves during the tournament’s Fortnight, held annually in the last week of June and first week of July. Cab drivers excitedly discuss the matches and yearn for the day when the boorish but brilliant John McEnroe intimidated meek officials.
As we stood in line (or “queued,” per local vernacular) at 6 a.m. for the chance at tickets during a miserable London morning, the smell of pork sausage permeated the damp air as vendors anticipated a hungry breakfast crowd.
Three hours later, we were delighted to purchase four tickets (each person must be present to buy a ticket). But our excitement turned to disappointment when play never began due to an all-day downpour, not uncommon for Wimbledon. In 2009, Centre Court will gain a retractable roof to enable all-weather play. After 130 years of mercurial weather, fans think it’s about time.
We repeated this whole scene the next day, when hints of sun peeked through the clouds. Patrons should arrive at the grounds no later than 6:30 a.m. for a reasonable chance at getting inside. Those who prefer Centre Court tickets usually camp overnight. Play begins at noon.
Wimbledon remains the only major U.K. sporting event that sells premium tickets the day of the tournament. With the exception of the last four days, 500 Centre, Court 1 and Court 2 prime tickets are reserved for sale at the turnstiles, along with 6,000 ground tickets for courts 3–19.
Most prime tickets are sold in advance through a public mail-in lottery from August 1 to December 15. Check wimbledon.org for details. In 2008, Centre Court tickets ranged £38–91 ($76–182), while queued tickets went for £20 ($40). Unlike sporting events in the states, Wimbledon enforces a strict policy against scalping. so don’t expect to buy a ticket off the street or Internet.
As soon as the bobbies (police) let the crowd enter—after marching everyone toward the courts in a dignified manner—we raced to Court 18 in time to secure front-row seats. The smell of freshly cut grass signified that we were at the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
Henman Hill, named after British tennis star Tim Henman, is a great option for people who don’t have prime tickets. Fans bring food and drink to the hill, located outside Court 1, and watch the Centre Court action on a large TV screen.
Prior to getting inside the gates, it makes sense to decide which players you wish to see by reviewing the day’s schedule. To increase your chances of seeing the top players in person, try attending Wimbledon during the early rounds, when star players are sometimes assigned to one of the outer courts, such as Court 3. These courts also allow for more whooping and hollering, as fans from various countries vocally support their players.
Another little-known strategy for seeing Top 10 players is to head to the practice courts near the back of the grounds, where virtually all players appear at some point to warm up. Bring along your autograph book.
Tennis enthusiasts accustomed to the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament in Queens, N.Y., might experience a bit of a culture shock when hopping the pond. Wimbledon, with its pristine, manicured grass courts and famed strawberries and cream, is conducted in stark contrast to the U.S. Open, which is renowned for its raucous environment and matches that often extend through the night into early morning. Wimbledon offers no night matches, and guests dutifully exit the grounds as dusk settles in.
While fans dress in an array of attire for the U.S. Open, ranging from khakis to camouflage, most Wimbledon guests favor a tidy, casual look. Optimists bring along sunglasses. The grounds of Wimbledon resemble a global food court, with enough choices available to satisfy all palettes. Scones, fish and chips, hot wok, pizza, deep-fried chicken and plenty more are available at reasonable prices. Café Pergola offers a wine bar and light meals.
The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum features a large cinema screen that shows a film about the science of tennis and a walk-through of the men’s dressing room as it was in the 1980s, with McEnroe. (No temper tantrums allowed.)
Since the first championship in 1877, Wimbledon has evolved from an exclusive, eloquent garden party into a must-see tourist attraction for world travelers, and it now draws close to 500,000 people annually. For those escorted to the Royal Box to those who queue, Wimbledon hosts two weeks of pomp and circumstance—not to mention two weeks of bitter frustration for Brits, who still long for their first male champion since 1936. Visiting London in June without attending Wimbledon is considered sacrilegious, and hotel rooms are as coveted as Beatles memorabilia.
However, enterprising travelers can still ensure a trip to the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament, complete with tickets and hotel, through several high-end tour companies. Of course, be prepared to pay top dollar for the privilege of seeing Roger Federer unleash his mighty forehand. Endorsed by the United States Tennis Association, Grand Slam Tennis Tours (grandslamtennistours.com) offers prime tickets, along with exclusive hospitality. Tennis fans can choose from accommodations at the players’ hotel, the Millennium Gloucester or the exclusive Bentley Kempinski. Both are located in the fashionable South Kensington area and offer direct access to Wimbledon and central London.
Wimbledon officials are well aware that hosted events for business travelers help build lasting relationships and are an excellent reason to meet associates face-to-face. As such, Wimbledon has teamed with Sportsworld (sportsworld.co.uk/wimbledon) to pamper discerning travelers. Tours come in all shapes and sizes, and tennis aficionados—or CEOs wooing prospective clients—appreciate the comfort of Fairway Village, a meet-and-greet complex with a controlled-temperature lounge.
Driving to Wimbledon, located seven miles southwest of London, can be a nightmare, so it’s prudent to take the train or underground. A ride on either one takes between 30 and 45 minutes from downtown London. Experienced fans prefer the underground (Southfields on the District Line, South Wimbledon on the Northern Line) because of better schedules and easier access. Since neither the railroad nor underground gets you directly to the tennis complex, located a picturesque 20-minute walk away, taxis and buses wait outside both stations.
To sample Wimbledon’s magnetic atmosphere up close, look for a bed-and-breakfast in the quaint town of Wimbledon itself, within walking distance of the complex. Soak in the sights and frequent the restaurants, pubs, and bakeries, and you’ll likely cross paths with a few players. Stop by Le Piaf for some delectable French bistro cooking, and you might even bump into Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova, who’s been known to dine there.
JEFF LEWIS is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania.