How to Survive the Wimbledon Queue in the Rain
LONDON, England (28 June, 2014)—Simply put, trying to navigate the Wimbledon ticket system is a pain in the arse. And even if you are lucky enough to score the elusive tickets, they cost a bloody fortune!
But an opportunity presented itself in the summer of 2014. I realized that I would happen to be in London during the time when The Championships Wimbledon was in progress. I could smell the grass and taste the strawberries and cream all the way from Alabama. I had to be there!
Since my travel companions would rather eat a big bowl of terre battue than spend a day watching tennis, I only needed one ticket for one day. How hard could it be?
About four months before the trip, I began the hunt.
I went to the Wimbledon website—sold out. Ticketmaster—nothing. Stub hub—a total bust. It was pretty painless to get tickets to the U.S. and French Opens, so I was a bit bewildered. A little panic set in, but I fancy a good challenge so I got on the phone and began dialing like a maniac.
I went through my mental rolodex like the scene from Jerry Maguire when Tom Cruise tells Bob Sugar he’s going to steal all his clients. In a few frantic hours, I think I called every human being I know who ever played tennis, watched tennis, heard of tennis, lived or worked in or around London…and well, I called everyone I knew. No luck. Come on…SHOW ME THE TICKETS!!!
Through much painstaking research I discovered there are only a few ways to score Wimbledon tickets. But there are so many rules, regulations and scenarios, reading the Wimbledon website is like reading stereo instructions in Japanese. Perhaps I can spare you a small portion of this fine-print torture that practically made my head explode. Here are a few options.
1. Debenture Tickets are purchased five years in advance. Five years! Who has five years to plan a day at Wimbledon? And they are not for the average tennis fan on a budget. The 2016-2020 Centre Court debentures were priced at £50,000. Crickey!!! The 2012-2016 No.1 Court debentures were priced at £13,700. Debenture holders can sell tickets for individual days and they get between £2,500 and £4,500 a pop. That price should include afternoon tea with the Queen. Strike one.
2. Official hospitality packages are available, but only from two brokers, Keith Prowse and Sportsworld. Other than Ticketmaster, the AELTC does not have any authorized ticket-only agents who sell tickets on the Internet. Already sold out. Strike two.
3. The Public Ballot has been around since 1924 and is still regarded as the fairest way to distribute Show Court tickets. It is open to everyone, but because of huge demand, it remains “substantially oversubscribed.” These are registered for a year in advance and are like a lottery. Too late for me. Strike three.
4. Several hundred Centre Court and No.3 Court daily tickets are sold online on the day before play via Ticketmaster. Details are communicated to registrants of the regular Wimbledon e-newsletters. I was not a subscriber and these tickets often sell out immediately once available. Strike four.
5. An easy way to score tickets is to be a tennis star, movie star, soccer star or British royalty. Strike five. Strike six. Strike seven. Strike eight.
How many strikes do I get before I’m out?
Then my luck took a turn. I got a hit from my frantic Jerry Maguire calling spree. A work colleague from New York told me he took his daughters to Wimbledon the previous year and recommended a special experience—The Queue.
He explained it to me simply. Stand in line for a little while, wait your turn, take your chances on admission and spend somewhere between 8 and 50 pounds (as long as you didn’t want to be on Centre Court, any of the show courts or attend the last four days of the tournament). More fine print. These grounds admission passes allow access to unreserved seating and standing on Courts 3-19.
Ok, so I won’t get to see Roger Federer play on the Centre Court lawn. But, I can stand. I can wait. I can afford between 8 and 50 pounds. We have a winner!
I woke up at the crack of dawn, navigated the Tube, minded the gap and made my way to the historic All England Lawn & Tennis Club.
I found Turnstile 3 and entered the famous Queue. Yay!! I’m here!
A very polite, distinguished British gentleman handed me a piece of paper and told me to not lose it. No worries! I got this.
I held the piece of paper like an egg—afraid it would break if I gripped it too tightly. I glanced down and realized it actually was not a ticket. Wait a minute... It was just a piece of paper—a piece of paper with a number on it—number 7,125. And of course, more fine print.
That’s a long line!
“How many people will get in today to see live tennis?” I asked the British gentleman in my sweetest Southern drawl. “About 8,000 Queue tickets could be distributed today,” he replied.
“So, I’m in, right? I’m number 7,125. That’s less than 8,000. I will get to watch tennis and eat strawberries and cream and smell the grass! Right?”
“Perhaps. Kindly move forward and be sure to stay with your Queue Steward.”
“Ok, so I may not get in?”
“Move forward. You are holding up the Queue.”
I wouldn’t want to do that.
Let me make one thing clear. The English love to queue. And let me assure you, they are experts. This system was like a well-oiled machine of carefully organized straight lines containing 8,000 tennis fans perfectly coordinated across a massive yard the size of about four American football fields. I imagine an aerial view looks like a very advanced Excel spreadsheet.
And there I was….only 7,125th in line just outside another queue that leads to the airport-like security check that leads to another queue to actually purchase the ticket (IF any are left when you get there) that leads inside the grounds of the historic All England Lawn & Tennis Club to actual live tennis.
On one corner of the huge field there was another Queue. This was a line of camping tents with thousands of other people. These guys were not part of my little club of 8,000. These guys had been camping for a while and still had eight days left before their Queue would begin to move. They were in the Queue for the Championship Match. This means at least eight days of camping in the queue, most likely in the rain, and still no guarantee of getting a ticket.
So, I obediently followed my Queue Steward and the other tennis fans in the 7,100 range to a stopping point where we were no longer moving. The Queue Steward politely but firmly told us to sit. So we did. In perfect unison. This must be what it feels like to be in the British military.
Once all 8,000 lucky tennis fans were in the yard and in perfectly coordinated lines, the party started! A few vendors opened along the far edge of the yard (opposite end of the camping tent Queue) selling coffee and tea, biscuits and burgers. Frisbees started flying through the air, and mini soccer matches broke out. And of course, the people who knew what they were doing opened their picnic baskets and coolers and pulled out their books, magazines and computers.
They were prepared because they knew something I didn’t…We are going to be here for a while.
All I had was my piece of paper with number 7,125 printed on it.
People were leaving their spots to join the party, but I was afraid to move. I didn’t have a Queue companion and was afraid the Queue Steward mafia would kick me out if I abandoned my post.
The four 20-something college students behind me were from the Czech Republic. I asked them if they would hold my spot so I could visit the Porto-Loo, but they didn’t understand English and just smiled and handed me a beer. Cool!
The group in front of me were from New Zealand, France, Essex, Spain and London. They spoke English and offered to save my spot. But they warned me to keep an eye on our Queue because it might move. You see, the Queue Stewards get bored sometimes and decide to play musical chairs with their lines. They would randomly make us get up and march in a single file line into another row. “Does this mean we are closer to getting in?” I would ask. “No, settle in,” the seasoned Queue’ers told me. “We are going to be here for a while.”
I efficiently visited the Porto-loo, grabbed a quick geocache just off the walking trail that circled the huge field, and obediently returned to my post.
About two hours in Queue, in typical London fashion, it started to rain. The Queue Stewards passed out ponchos. They were prepared. I was so grateful…I didn’t want my precious, valuable piece of paper with number 7,125 to get wet.
By hour three, I was well involved in the Queue party. The Czechs continued to share beer from their bottomless cooler, and the Stewards kept passing out little gifts like blow up beach balls and coffee samples. About once every 30 minutes it would rain for about 10 minutes and we would all stand up. When it stopped and the ground dried a little, we would all sit back down. The whole thing was very well choreographed.
We all talked about tennis and told stories of our work, our travels, our children, our lives. Each story would begin with, “It’s a long story….but…. we have time, so…” That joke never stopped being funny.
Meanwhile, my travel companions were having a blast. They sent me photos from Stonehenge, then Oxford, then, well, everywhere else in London. I was still in my same little spot, but it was ok. I was surrounded by tennis fans and on the precipice of seeing the most famous and historical grass in the world. Hopefully.
After six hours and 12 minutes of Queue party, the line actually started to move. It was exhilarating! Our Queue Steward informed us all show court tickets were already sold out, and even though there were many rain delays, tennis was being played. Game on!
The moving Queue went on for about another hour and we were finally approaching the security checkpoint.
Along the way, vendors handed out little goodies with their logos. I felt right at home—like I was at a trade show. One vendor gave us a deck of cards. I thought to myself, “This would have come in handy six hours ago when we were sitting on the wet grass in the Queue yard.” Maybe I could have made some money playing Texas Hold ‘Em with my new Czech mates.
My favorite giveaway was a sticker that reads, “I’ve Queued in the Rain, Wimbledon 2014.” It features a cartoon image of green English country wellies. A badge of honor.
Ok, another hour goes by, but we got through security and then through the Queue to the ticket gate. I enthusiastically purchased my ticket for 20 pounds. I was in!!!
The sun was shining. First thing’s first. Strawberries and Cream!
Wow! I really am here! At Wimbledon! And it only took four months of ticket searching and about eight hours in the Queue!
I took it all in.
I went to the first court I could find. Court 15. That’ll work!
Of course, another Queue was needed to wait for my turn to score a seat. Now, the deal on these open seat outer-court ground passes is simple. Seats are first come, first served. Someone gets up to go to the loo or move to another court, and the Court Steward will promptly escort the next person in line to that seat. You get up, you lose your seat.
Since I was a Party of One, it quickly became my turn. They put me on Row 2! I could finally smell the grass, and I could almost touch it! I was practically on the court, and it didn’t matter to me who was playing! Finally, live tennis! A ladies doubles match was in progress between teams from Japan and Russia. American John Isner from Georgia was up next on Court 15. Perfect!
All I have to do is enjoy the ladies doubles match, not get up, and I can keep this seat and cheer on my fellow Southerner.
I snapped a selfie with the court in the background for proof that I finally made it, and then I settled in for tennis heaven!
After 20 minutes and five games (not five sets, not five matches…five GAMES), the sky turned black and it began to pour! It was not the polite little English spatterings we had experienced all day in the Queue. This was a monsoon!
The courts were efficiently covered in about 2.5 seconds, and tennis on the outer courts was officially cancelled for the day.
So I slipped into a little gift shop and loaded up on purple and green Wimbledon souvenirs, including a purple and green umbrella.
Then I went to the edge of the grounds to legendary Henman Hill. My favorite player, Rafa Nadal, was playing on Centre Court—the only court at Wimbledon with a closed roof. The match was being broadcast live on a ginormous screen. I watched the rest of his match in the rain with thousands of other drenched tennis fans and had a blast!
Yes, it would have been great to see more live tennis, but I wasn’t disappointed or sad. For the bargain price of 20 pounds, the Wimbledon Queue experience was totally blooming worth it!!!
Post script: The Wimbledon website includes pages and pages of rules with endless fine print about what you cannot do on the grounds during the most polite sporting event in the world. In a nutshell, some of the highlights include…you cannot use foul or abusive language, clap above a normal noise level, use obscene gestures, remove your shirt, speak above a whisper, use cellular devices or flash photography, display posters or signs, listen to a radio without ear plugs, bring in more than the minimum amount of alcohol (explained in more fine print), climb onto any building on the grounds, use wheeled footwear, display “barmy” or “beastly” behavior…the rules go on and on.
It is such a different experience from the rock concert that is the U.S Open. Please read my blog about my two trips to Flushing Meadows for a completely fun adventure!
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