First and foremost, I am a tennis fan and nothing if not an extremely lucky one, having been fortunate enough to complete the Career Spectator Slam. Yes, I've swigged a brew in the raucous (by tennis standards) stands in Melbourne, I've quietly munched a baguette alongside the almost Martian red clay of Paris and for years I took week-long staycations, trekking out the 7 Line to the US Open, my hometown major, but it was only a year ago that I could finally cross Wimbledon off my tennis bucket list. What follows is a little bit on why it took so long, how I finally got it done and why you should embrace the queue.
A little clarity, the Big W, if we're parsing technicalities, was actually the very first major I visited. As a college student, I was in London in March and dragged a few buddies to SW19 on an appropriately rainy day to take a tour of the Wimbledon Museum and eat strawberries and cream. It was the only time I'd see Centre Court pre-Roof and the day as a whole remains a cherished memory. That said, attending the actual Wimbledon tournament thoroughly intimidated me, despite being a tennis fanatic and seasoned traveler, before I finally took the plunge last summer.
The biggest issue had always been the tickets. London wasn't the daunting travel challenge (aka Numb Butt Syndrome) that Melbourne was, but the ticket buying process had always seemed opaque. The province of the landed gentry and a few lucky campers. To buy tickets, there was a BALLOT, for the right to buy tickets. For Paris, Melbourne and of course, NYC, you go online, you buy your ticket, no fuss, no muss. Wimbledon required me to go the Post Office twice (they and my landlord are the only institutions to pull this off) and then they would provide me a Ceasar-like thumbs up or down a few months hence on whether my money was good enough to take. Not to mention, the tournament has vigorous anti-scalping and aftermarket policies that could leave an unaware ticket buyer without both the money they spent and access, despite holding a genuine ticket to the event. Sure, I knew about the queue, I've surely seen Pam Shriver out there enough to e aware (or is it wary) of it. That said, I'm a city boy, my idea of roughing it is a Motel 6. Plus. Specifically, what if, after sleeping under the stars (and it's London, so let's be honest and say drizzle), I didn't get in, or just got a grounds pass when my favorites were on the show courts? It wasn't enough for me just to be there, I wanted to be able to see it on my own terms, as I had the Opens. As much as I extol the virtues of side court matches to any fan, I didn't want to fly all the way to London and be simply barred from any chance of seeing the showcourts without recourse. All told, it seemed like a game of crap(s) on top of a flight into one of the most heavily taxed airports on the planet (Heathrow) and hotel rates that rival, and often exceed, that of my adopted hometown. If that was my goal, I could've just gone to the Monte Carlo Masters instead.
Last year though, after conquering the other majors, I bit the bullet. It was time. Come hell or high water, I was going to Wimbledon. I didn't win the ballot, but I was going to bite the bullet. I would queue multiple days if necessary to get the experience I wanted. Turns out, it didn't require nearly the hearty constitution I'd expected. Here was a shock to me, after all the research I'd done pointed to the contrary, for a fan, Wimbledon is actually the most egalitarian of the majors.
If you recall, Last year delivered a lopsided men's draw with Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and local hope Andy Murray all clustered in the bottom half. This wound up to be a bit of a blessing in disguise for me. I heard reports on the local news at dinnertime the day prior that the queue was already full for the bottom half's first round matches, they implored "Don't bother showing up." After all of my internal motivational speeches and “Yes, I Can” moments as I booked flights, here was the reality. It seemed like I was going to have to put in a lot of time sitting in a field for my reward. I sulked a bit, but thanks to an ESB or three, I steeled myself to queue for the Djokovic half the next day, but on my own terms.
At 5AM (let's try crack of dawn before we do the overnight thing, shall we?), I made my half-awake way to the queue, found the entrance (after a false start or two) and got my queue card, signifying my place in line. People waiting in the queue can buy any of the 500 passes each to Centre, No. 1 or No. 2 Courts, or grounds passes. I had assumed grounds passes at best, but luck smiled down, I was actually among the first 1400 in line, I was guaranteed a show court, mathematically it would be Court No. 2, but hey, a show court was more than I'd hoped given the day prior. What I learned after a couple of hours of watching small hordes of newspaper touts and taking down a breakfast roll was that I was heartbreakingly close to getting a seat for No. 1 Court. Apparently, hundreds of people started queueing even earlier than myself for grounds passes, bless their time-wasting souls. The last seat for No. 1 Court went maybe 15 people ahead of me. The lesson, if Murray isn't playing, you might not have to even queue overnight to get a show court ticket.
The second lesson I'll share is actually one of my very favorite things about the event and one I would HIGHLY implore every other tournament to follow suit on, the resale queue. Yes, the Brits love themselves a queue and this wonderful one is where fans with an extra 5 or 10 GBP, can buy something even better than the famed Wimbledon towel...tickets to the showcourts after the original ticket buyer has left for the day. You, see, upon exiting Wimbledon, you're asked to drop off your tickets to be re-sold to other spectators. This means someone even lazier than myself who jumps in the queue at 8AM (or doesn't have the cash to shell out for showcourt seats), can theoretically be twenty rows back from the net post on Centre Court by the third match on. Why's it great? The fans can pay a nominal fee for a massive upgrade, the showcourts ALWAYS look full on TV and even more, the proceeds of the re-sale tickets are donated to charity. If anyone from the US Open is reading, GET ON THIS!
For all the research I'd done, tennis I've watched and events I've attended, I had NO CLUE that Wimbledon with all of its byzantine ticket buying regulations would be such an easy event to navigate. As far as being there, yes, it is the cathedral of tennis. The All England Club is as regal and as majestic as sporting venues get and the best facility in the game, bar none. But that's not why I'm writing this, I'm writing to let you know that if you've ever dreamed of Wimbledon and it's seemed out of reach, it might not be quite as far as you'd think. It wasn't for me.