Abigail Sannoh, a nurse in the Royal Air Force, has been trying for years to get a pair of tickets to Wimbledon for herself and her father, Mohamed Sannoh, a keen tennis fan like his daughter. But the effort proved futile. So she found another way into the ground, which allows Sannoh to be a total of 14 days from Wimbledon, with a prime view of Center Court.
She applied, and was accepted, to be a service steward, part of a program in which 477 members of Britain’s three military branches work at the world’s most famous tennis tournament as stewards, what Americans call ushers.
“My father got a ticket and was able to see me work here,” Sannoh said last week. “It was such a thrill for both of us.”
Since 1946, when soldiers being demobilized from World War II were first given the job, non-commissioned officers (mostly corporals and sergeants) were stationed at the many entrances to each section of Central Court and Court 1, with strict orders to be helpful, chatty. and look smart in their crisp uniforms. It is one of the features that makes Wimbledon such a distinct event, and there are also 250 members of the fire brigade acting as stewards on a handful of the outer courts.
Their only weapons are a disarming charm and a polite eagerness to help both the fans and their fellow flight attendants. There are no growling dogs, bulletproof vests, boots, camouflage fatigues or any of the intimidating regalia often seen at major sporting events elsewhere. Although these sailors, soldiers and cadets work, they are not technically on active military duty.
“We’re here to make people happy,” said James Brooks, moments after he posed for a photo for two fans in front of Center Court as he walked in to take his stand.
Brooks, who served three tours in Afghanistan and has been all over the world on duty, is among the most prominent of the flight attendants, with a role that is perhaps the closest anyone comes to policing. During changes, he and the other service stewards stand at firm attention on the court, looking back towards the stands, to discourage any would-be court invaders.
Next to him on Friday was Miriam Charlton, who spent 37 years in the Navy. She started at a difficult time for military women, who received little if any consideration when they had children, sometimes being transferred from one base to another until they quit. She was sent to the Falklands for six months from 1994 to 1995 after having two children, and was only allowed one phone call a week for three minutes.
She stayed with the military and attitudes changed enough that she was asked to form a small parent support unit to help parents in the navy. Charlton said the Navy now retains more than 90 percent of women after they have children, as opposed to 52 percent when she started the program seven years ago. She was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by Princess Anne for her work.
Being honored like that is fine, but watching Wimbledon up close on Center Court for 14 straight days?
“It doesn’t get any better,” she said. “It’s up there among the best moments of my career.”
Each year, approximately 1,000 members of the military apply for the coveted positions and 40 percent of the flight attendants are new each year.
“I don’t want it to be a club where some people feel like they can never get a chance to make it,” said Lt. Cdr. Chris Boucher, the officer in charge of all flight attendants. “No one has a special right to be here.”
There is no rank at Wimbledon, either, said Boucher, whose job in the Navy is to mobilize personnel for everything from the queen’s funeral to tactical operations around the world. The flight attendants address each other by first names in an informal, collegial and respectful atmosphere, except for a few rare cases over the years.
“There is no rank unless there is a need,” he said.
The other highly visible military stewards, especially on television, are the three stationed in the Royal Box, which is manned entirely by the service stewards. They are all dressed immaculately, as if presenting for inspection. There isn’t one, but it’s almost unheard of for anyone to be seen with spaghetti sauce or coffee stains on their bright white, blue or khaki shirts.
“Millions of eyes are on you,” Boucher said. “Don’t be that person.”
Katie Patterson, a corporal in the Royal Air Force police, was stationed at Gangway 6 on Court No. 1 on Sunday, helping spectators find seats and politely asking loud fans in the aisle to “be quiet.” Viewers love to ask about her RAF duties and make photo requests.
One little girl was particularly smitten, so Patterson gave her rank slip (the badge on her shoulder indicating her rank) to the girl, who was overjoyed. Patterson had a chance to be smitten, too, when Nick Grimshaw, a popular TV and radio personality, was waiting in line at Gangway 6. They chatted for several minutes and, like many fans, he wanted to know about her life on air. strength
George Fynn Carr of the Navy worked Gangway 6 with Patterson in one of many interservice partnerships that are forged during the tournament. Couples take turns in their positions, one at the base of the stairs helping people in line, and another at the top who can show fans their seats and then watch the action. They should also be attuned to any lost or unruly fans, or any situation requiring attention.
A huge tennis fan, Carr emigrated from Ghana 14 years ago and joined the Navy after gaining British citizenship. Much of his time at Wimbledon is spent posing for photos in his white and navy blue uniform and hat, and answering questions about all his deployments – Crete, Guam, Kenya, the continental United States.
“On a ship, you’re on a metal container on the ocean and you have to be a team,” Carr said. “It’s the same here at Wimbledon.”
As Carr spoke, an Army NCO from a different aisle informed him that “two guys” were jumping over rows of seats, clearly without tickets. Carr immediately left to investigate.
To join this elite force, flight attendants must use their leave, which eats up two weeks of vacation time. But one of the rewards comes on the first Saturday of the tournament each year, when an announcement is made recognizing their contributions. Fans stand with a standing ovation in an emotional show of appreciation.
“It’s a privilege to be here, even though we’re working,” said Suen Simpson, a staff sergeant in the Army, who would not disclose the locations of her deployments. During these two weeks, however, she is stationed at Gangway 22 on Court No. 1 at one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
“It’s a blessing that I was chosen,” she said.