Wimbledon (CNN)On a muggy London summer’s day a middle-aged Australian woman looks out at the snaking river of humanity before her. She is perplexed. Never before has she seen an orderly procession such as this.
She animatedly tells those nearby that she has flown from Melbourne to watch her beloved Roger Federer elegantly glide on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, but did not expect to have to camp for two days in a park for such pleasure. Begrudgingly, she accepts her fate and joins the line.
For 24 years this tennis fan would undertake an annual around-the-world trip to watch tennis greats compete in the sport’s oldest tournament, but in the seven years since her last visit to this corner of south west London much has changed.
She is now just one of thousands who set off to England’s capital on a journey filled with tennis hope, joining a queue which is as much a fabric of Wimbledon as strawberries and cream and pristine all-white tennis kits.
Hard as it may be to believe, this seemingly never-ending sluggish line can, at times, be as absorbing as any of the countless volleys, aces and glorious forehands that light up The All England Tennis Club. First-timers will gawp at it, countless camera crews film it and locals just roll their eyes.
The Wimbledon queue is not a mere queue but, as the signs call it, ‘The Queue.’ It is an event, a feature of the championships since the early 20th Century. After all, standing one behind the other is, as they say, quintessentially British.
Although, waiting in line was a phenomena Americans and Britons picked up from the French in the 19th century, with queue a French word meaning tail, which is what people looked like, according to David Andrews — author of Why Does the Other Line Always Move Faster? — when they were waiting in bread lines. But that is another story.
With almost 7,000 people queuing on Monday for tickets to the tournament’s opening day — the first person arriving nearly 40 hours before the start of play, at 1.30am on Saturday — Richard Lewis, Wimbledon’s chief executive, has admitted that The Queue had become a victim of its own success.
Bigger with each passing year, tennis fans have become embroiled in an arms race: a dash to be the first, a battle of strategies to get their mitts on the limited amount of tickets available on the day for Centre Court, Court One and Court Two, the show courts.
Stamina, patience and meticulous planning are required if you want to be top of the pecking order.
Understanding why the masses descend on Wimbledon Park, a grassy parkland which at any other time of the year is an inconsequential suburban recreational ground a stone’s throw from the perfectly manicured lawns of SW19, is relatively straightforward.
It is rare nowadays for ordinary sports fans to purchase on-the-day tickets for prestigious sporting events and so for hours, for days, tennis fans are happy to wait and wait. And wait.
“We’re a bit weird,” admits Elizabeth Verstappen, chuckling.
The 31-year-old set off from the Netherlands on Sunday morning with her friend Michelle Bemelmans to sleep under the stars for two nights, a sacrifice they make with a smile for the opportunity to walk into Centre Court, the sport’s most cherished arena.
Both are Wimbledon veterans and wile away the hours playing cards, reading magazines and chatting to other fans who have set up camp beside them.
“I was up at 3.15am on Sunday morning. I really like the atmosphere and the people are very friendly. This is very special,” says the 35-year-old Bemelmans.
As soon as one tent pops up, another is being assembled. By Monday afternoon The Queue for Tuesday is four rows deep and rapidly growing.
For the uninitiated, there is an early-morning routine for everyone who queues overnight: at 6am they will be woken by stewards and asked to dismantle their tents — empty bottles of Prosecco and pizza boxes will be cleared up too — to form a tighter formation for that day’s queue.
At 7.30am stewards issue wristbands to those in the front of The Queue who want tickets for the show courts.
As a 29-page guide, issued to each member of The Queue, states: “The number of wristbands issued exactly matches the quantity of tickets available for each court on that day.”
Given the effort and wait to secure the wristband it must feel a bit like winning Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. Maybe even better — there were only five Golden Tickets.
The Queue moves at a snail’s pace. Honorary stewards in high visibility vests will bellow orders in polite plumy tones, handing out numbered cards to each new arrival to inform them of their place at the rear of this extraordinary human tail.
On Tuesday, a gentleman joining The Queue at 8am was ranked number 8,850. A ground pass for $32 — giving him access to the outside courts and the famous ‘Henman Hill’ where fans watch the action on a big screen — would be his reward.
A yellow flag with the letter Q, held up by a youthful volunteer, signals the end of The Queue. If the flag moves, the masses have been prodded into action.
Wimbledon would not be Wimbledon without rules and so, unsurprisingly, there are strict do’s and don’ts if you want to become an accepted member of this jamboree.
Barbecues are not permitted, neither are gazebos and tents must only accommodate two people. Music? Ball games? Not after 10pm, please.
There is freedom of movement, but in the steely words of The Queue Code of Conduct: “Temporary absence from The Queue should not exceed 30 minutes,” while queue jumping is akin to eating strawberries without cream. As the Code of Conduct says, it is “not acceptable and will not be tolerated.”
Security has been tightened for this year’s tournament following a number of terrorist attacks in England over recent months.
Concrete blocks have been installed along the queuing zone in the park to protect fans, but despite the visual reminder of the threats posed to a major event such as this there is still a cheerful atmosphere in this makeshift campsite.
The pleasant weather experienced in London this week has helped. Three friends camping overnight in Tuesday’s queue form a circle and are attempting to stave off boredom by throwing a tennis ball at each other.
Behind them a father and son have erected a makeshift net and are playing tennis, while a number of fans are sprawled on the ground, enveloped by exhaustion.
Sitting on a blanket outside his tent while his wife attempts to sleep off a draining journey from Taiwan is 33-year-old Simon Juan.
“We left home on Wednesday (June 28),” says Juan, who joined the queue for Tuesday’s play at around 5.30pm on Sunday afternoon. “It is my wife’s big dream to come to Wimbledon.”
Lying on an airbed which is too big for the tent they ordered online and worrying about their personal hygiene is an American couple, Lindsey Joseph and Justin Shamoun.
“We flew from the States on Sunday night, landed Monday morning, dropped off our stuff at our hotel and came here and have yet to shower,” said Sahmoun, a 23-year-old New Yorker.
It is Lindsey’s dream to attend all four of tennis’ grand slams and this year’s debut ticks Wimbledon off the New Jersey native’s bucket list.
‘Time passes really fast’
Such is The Queue’s celebrity, it has its own hashtag on Twitter, while ViewFromTheQ offers updates and advice to would-be joiners.
“Looking to pitch around 4pm today [Tuesday] for Wednesday queue, any chance of Centre Court or Court One?” asks Robert on Twitter. “No,” comes ViewFromTheQ’s succinct reply.
By 9am on Tuesday morning, Wimbledon was tweeting that The Queue was exceeding The All England Club’s capacity for that day and advising fans not to travel to Wimbledon for the second day’s play.
It will likely be a tweet organizers will repeat daily throughout the fortnight.
But much like Wimbledon itself, a tournament which balances tradition with sport’s commercialization, The Queue has changed over the years.
Giant sponsorship signs line the path to the grounds of the golf club which takes fans ever closer to their paradise, while camping on Church Road, the main throughway to The All England Club, is no longer allowed because of health and safety regulations.
“You weren’t allowed to put your tent up until 6pm and all you could do was sit around, surveying your suitcase, so there was no point to be there too early,” remembers Swiss tennis fan Doris Loeffel.
“It was enough to come by 3pm or 4pm to get tickets for the next day’s play but then they changed the queuing system. It’s more comfortable to camp on this huge lawn and you can stay there all day having a great time.
“It’s the cheapest accommodation you can get in London! I queued for 10 years. One year a friend of mine brought her knitting and was making Christmas gift while she was in the queue. Time passes really fast, you wouldn’t believe it.”
Once tickets have been purchased — with cash only — fans will enter a verdant land. They will walk into an enchanted world, an English country fete where royalty, the rich, the famous and everyday tennis fans watch the best of the best. It is a beguiling mix.
Those fortunate enough to step beyond the All England Club’s threshold will also be able to queue again — for strawberries and cream, for Pimms (the fruity tipple of choice in this prime piece of real estate), for oversized tennis balls, for resale tickets and for access to various outside courts.
Royalty and special guests are excluded from this practice, of course.
But what sort of fortnight would it be without a little bit of queuing?