If I was to list two activities I am not particularly keen on – it would be sleeping in a tent and watching tennis. However, in glorious summer sunshine in London last year, I did just that and enjoyed every minute of it.
To most Irish people, Wimbledon is one of the quintessentialy British social and sporting events. It’s strawberries, cream and champagne.
I felt I would stand out like a sore thumb – being more comfortable watching Galway hurlers (usually getting beaten) on a summer’s day in Semple Stadium.
However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. To its eternal credit and, what the ordinary punter might not know, is that Wimbledon remains one of the few largescale global sporting events where members of the public can queue up and get premium tickets on the day of play to watch the greats of the game like Roger Federer and Serena Williams play on Centre Court.
What tickets you are allocated depends on how early you queue. That’s where the camping part comes in.
Every year, thousands of people make a social event out of queuing for more than 24 hours to get a chance to grab tickets for Centre Court or one of the other show courts.
Last year, with my girlfriend and sister, I was one of thousands of people from all over the world who made the trip to camp at Wimbledon.
We had so much fun, we plan to make it an annual event.
The trick with camping for tickets is to arrive prepared and early. Wimbledon organisers hold around 500 Centre Court tickets for queuers each day up until the semi-finals and finals – all of which are pre-sold. Around the same number are held for both Court No 1 and Court No 2.
Armed with that information and a veteran – my girlfriend is a tennis nut and had camped for tickets before, we headed for the Tube with two lightweight tents and a bag of provisions – food and alcohol.
We arrived around 3pm on a Friday at Southfields station and took the short walk down Wimbledon Park Road towards the camping area at the back of the famous All-England Club.
Once we arrived, we were directed to the end of the queue by one of the fabulously attired and extremely polite Wimbledon staff who are all dressed in the famous All-England Club uniform.
As you begin to set up your tent, a staff member will hand you your queue card. This is judgement time. We were number 800-800 – which meant we were guaranteed tickets for Court No 1. We learned from our neighbours that if we had arrived at 3pm the previous day, we would have been early enough for Centre Court tickets.
Our disappointment was brief, once the schedule for the following day’s play was released – Serena Williams, Ana Ivanovic and Stanislaus Wawrinka were all scheduled to play on our court, weather dependant.
Once our tent was set up, we sat back, cracked open some drinks and enjoyed the atmosphere and banter with our neighbours.
To say the camping system is organised would be an understatement. It’s incredibly well organised and efficient.
In typically brilliant British fashion, every camper gets a very detailed ‘Guide to Queuing’. It’s 25 pages, complete with a lengthy list of rules, all designed to ensure that the most British of values is upheld – fair play.
It works. The rules are strict, but fair, and ensure that everyone gets an equal shake.
Once you are in, you are only permitted to leave the campsite briefly to pick up food and drink from local supermarkets. This is to guard against people setting up tents and leaving for the day, or even days.
This rule is strictly enforced. Staff go from tent to tent checking tickets and making sure that any empty tents are noted. For example, a group of 20-something males, who were ahead of us in the queue, left for the day and arrived back drunk in the wee hours. They were told on the spot that their tickets had been re-allocated. The rest of us obeyed the rules. They didn’t and paid the price.
Given you can bring your own food and booze, there really is no reason to leave the site. Even if you haven’t packed enough sustenance, the campsite has plenty food and drink vendors selling coffee, water and trusted fare like burgers and chips. The campsite has also toilets and sinks so people can clean up.
The weather we had was glorious and everyone sat around and enjoyed what is essentially a music festival-style atmosphere with tennis fans from across the globe. The only difference being lights out is 10pm – another rule that is strictly enforced.
There is good reason for it. Everyone gets a wake-up call at 6am. Families with children, hungover party animals and just plain old tennis animals all have to drag their asses out their tents at the crack of dawn and pack up. You then stand on the site you were sleeping and wait – you have another few hours of queuing ahead yet.
Perhaps our only faux pas was that we didn’t pack enough bedding. With the glorious sunshine, we had presumed a gentle night’s sleep in the balmy London air was in store. In fact, it got very, very cold and our sleep was a pretty chaotic one. Our neighbours seemed to have packed the whole house for the night.
With the queue condensed from tent width to person width, people grab a coffee and a newspaper and wait for the dispensing of wristbands which indicate what court you are getting a ticket for. This happens around 7.30am.
From there, the queue meanders along over the next two hours or so. While this sounds tiresome, it all seems to pass along quite quickly. The anticipation of getting onto Henman Hill and indulging in some strawberries and cream more than outweighs the hours of queuing.
When we reached the turnstiles, we were pleasantly surprised that not only would we be in Court No 1 but we could have our pick of seats. The staff member in the ticket office simply turned the computer screen to face us and we picked three seats virtually at court level.
Once inside, Wimbledon really is all it is cracked up to be. There really is a great buzz on Henman Hill and watching a bit of tennis with some Pimms is a hell of a way to spend the day.
The rain did cause some delays in play, so we never got to see Stanislas Wawrinka but we did catch Ana Ivanovic and saw one of the shocks of the tournament when Serena Williams got dumped out by Alize Cornet of France.
She was not happy but we were.
Take the Tube to Southfields. Then you need to make your way to Wimbledon Park Road, which is about a 10 minute walk from the campsite.
Remember if you are queuing for show court tickets you are going to be battling with thousands of other campers for the best tickets. For the best courts, you will be queuing overnight so arrive early the day before and enjoy a day relaxing in the knowledge you’ll be in one of the big courts the following day.
Bring plenty of food and whatever you want to drink. It’s a long day and although it is great fun, all that waiting around can be hungry and thirsty work. Also bring rain gear and plenty of warm clothes as it can be a cold night. Also remember tickets are cash only. There is an excellent left luggage facility.