At Wimbledon

William Skidelsky

I’ve been to Wimbledon twice this week. On Monday, I turned up at 8 a.m. and took my place in line for a ticket for the following day. Since each day’s order of play is only announced the previous evening, this was the one way I could be certain of seeing Roger Federer. There were 100 or so tents ahead of me, which meant I was definitely among the first 500, giving me a choice of any court. (When Andy Murray is playing, two nights’ camping is required.) I pitched my tent and spent most of the next 14 hours lounging around outside my tent or, when it was raining, inside it. I was occasionally tempted to sneak off, but a plummy-voiced steward told me that absences of more than an hour were likely to result in expulsion.

At 10.30 p.m. we were told to go to bed. I was woken at 4.45 on Tuesday morning by the honking of geese. (I was camped next to a pond.) Overnight, thousands more punters had arrived, hoping for tickets to the lesser show courts, or just ground passes. By seven we were on the move, shuffling down a kilometre-long walkway that ends up, via a bridge, in the All England Club. I got in at 9.45.

Even then, there was more hanging about. (Play on the outside courts doesn’t begin till 11.30, but I did briefly get to see Federer practising.) Finally, at one o’clock, I took my seat on Court One. Federer was up against Tommy Robredo, who’d beaten him at last year’s US Open. Robredo played poorly, Federer was efficient, and the match was over in no time.

The next day I was back, this time on Centre Court, as a guest of someone who had got hold of two debenture tickets for the day. Debentures are the only type of Wimbledon ticket that can be sold on. They are issued every five years, and give their holders a particular seat for all the tournaments during that period – 65 days in total – and access to a private restaurant and bar area. A block of debentures for 2016-20 was issued earlier this year; each cost £50,000 (or £769 per day). Nice for rich tennis fans, they may be even more attractive as investments: individual tickets can fetch thousands, and the entire debenture can be sold on at any point. As with all Wimbledon tickets, demand far exceeds supply, so even debentures with little time left to run on them can make a profit. One 2011-15 debenture, issued for £27,750 five years ago, fetched £91,000 earlier this year; in effect, the original owner had been paid £63,250 to watch (or not) 39 days of tennis.

I was lucky enough to see Federer play again, against his compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka. It was a much closer, more absorbing match than Tuesday’s had been; Federer won in four sets. I also saw Murray lose to Grigor Dimitrov.

Two days at Wimbledon, two very different experiences. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe the queue as socially mixed, but there was a substantial non-English contingent. Most of the people queuing knew a fair bit about tennis; the debenture ticketholders – when they weren’t chatting about business or checking their work email – seemed flummoxed that Murray had lost. I was on my own in the queue, but I felt like I was part of something. In the debenture area, the point was to feel separate.

Yet on both days, I got the sense that being at Wimbledon was something I was expected to feel privileged about – as if taking part in a great British institution was the whole point of the exercise. British tennis, despite Murray, isn’t doing particularly well. It’s hard not to suspect that Wimbledon may be part of the problem.


  • 5 July 2014 at 11:14pm
    Simon Wood says:
    You have crashed through the French windows onto the stage of the national pysche, zeitgeist and general situation with the classic phrase, "Anyone for tennis?"

    I also use this phrase, in tense family-type situations, along with the similar "Eastenders" and "Archers" stock line, "I'd better put the kettle on."