Tom O’Neill and Roz McArdle stood in the famous Wimbledon ticket queue with little hope of entering the grounds. It was 5:30 pm on a Wednesday, there were 4,000 people ahead of them, and they were told by a flight attendant that it was “extremely unlikely” they would get in.
But they, and hundreds of others, clinging to the slightest glimmer of hope that they might see at least one match in the citadel of tennis, persevered along the winding line.
“We might as well give it a go,” McArdle said. “We left work around 4 and got here around 5. If we don’t make it, maybe we’ll be back on Friday.”
They did what people have done for more than a century, joining a line that weaves through a nearby golf course and down Church Road to a ticket office where every person, some of whom have been waiting in line for more than 24 hours, can buy one. a ticket, just for that day, to attend the most famous tennis tournament in the world.
“It’s totally worth it,” said Shreyas Dharmadhikari, a defense lawyer from Jabalpur in central India. “It’s a pilgrimage you make for the love of tennis, for the love of Wimbledon.”
With a capacity of around 42,000 for the grounds, Wimbledon sells tickets months in advance through a public voting system, and allocates some tickets to tennis clubs and people who live near the All England Club, and through other selective means. It’s among the hardest tickets to get in sports, but the tournament does make thousands of daily tickets available to the public if they’re willing to wait hours for one.
The line is one of the longest, old-fashioned box office lines in the world, the sporting equivalent of the infamous Studio 54 line, but much older.
On Wednesday, Dharmadhikari brought his son, Arjun, who was wearing a sticker given to him by flight attendants that read: “I was queuing in the rain.” They got to hold cards with numbers 11,466 and 11,477, waited five and a half hours to get in and were delighted to see several matches and eat strawberries and cream.
But on Monday, some people waited almost twice as long under periodic bursts of steady rain on a disastrous opening day for the queue. Tournament organizers blamed the delays, which slowed the speed of the line to a crawl, on increased security searches due to the threat of climate protest.
The threat came true on Wednesday when two protesters ran to Court No. 18 and overturned a box of orange confetti. The protesters were ushered away fairly quickly and the match resumed – but only after another rain delay in a tournament plagued by them. After weeks with almost no precipitation in London, it rained intermittently during the first three days of the tournament, wreaking havoc on the schedule and in the wet queue.
But even without special circumstances, the queue can be long (sometimes over a mile), tedious, adventurous, wet, fun and a uniquely British institution.
Two schoolboys, Simon, 10, and his brother Stefano, 8, quietly read comic books as they waited on Wednesday, hoping to see their favorite player, Italy’s 21-year-old Jannik Sinner, who defeated Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman in straight sets . on Court No. 1.
“We’ve been waiting maybe two hours,” Simon said, and his brother asked, “Do you think we’ll make it?”
About an hour later, a flight attendant announced to a group somewhere in the middle of the line that there were 1,600 people ahead of them and that he had been informed by a ticket manager that only 250 more tickets would be released. Gasps of disbelief and disappointment rang out from the group, but no one left immediately.
“How you get this information is entirely up to you,” said the steward, who did everything but order everyone to go home.
That wouldn’t have been easy for Danielle Payten and her husband, David Payten, who flew in from Sydney, Australia, with their three children. They did not risk being removed from the daily queue by what hundreds do every day. They camped overnight in tents.
The tent area, where spectators spend the night to ensure they will have a good place in line the next day, is the more festive area of the queue: people play football, cards, cricket or read and sip cocktails. The sun broke out Wednesday afternoon, prompting young men in line to remove their shirts for some spontaneous sunbathing.
“It’s like a carnival atmosphere,” said one steward, who asked not to be named because they are not authorized to speak to reporters.
The Paytens arrived at 3:30 pm and met some people from the neighboring tents, one of whom had a dog. They chatted, ate and drank as they prepared for a game of cricket on a patch of flat grass later that evening. Danielle’s brother, Chris Kearsley, who lives in London, arrived early to set up three tents for them (only two people per tent get tickets). His daughter, Eliza Kearsley, lives a 15-minute walk from the same mystical place her relatives traveled 10,000 miles to see.
She came only to see her relatives, as neither she nor her father planned to camp and attend the upcoming matches.
“If I stayed the night, I’d be too drunk to go in,” Chris Kearsley joked.
But with only about 200 people ahead of their group, the Australian cousins were all but guaranteed entry for Thursday’s matches.
“It’s well worth it,” David Payten said. “It’s an adventure.”
One traveler from Japan, who planned to stay for most of the two weeks of the tournament, brought a portable, solar-powered clothes washer.
Maria Balhetchet, a professional violinist from Dorset in southern England, and Felix Bailey, her tennis-playing son, arrived at 12:30 pm on Wednesday, aiming for Thursday’s action. They got card #101, which means only 100 people were ahead of them. Balhetchet camped last year with her other son, and although they won trivia tickets to an explosive match between eventual men’s singles finalist Nick Kyrgios and Stefanos Tsitsipas, the experience was generally exhausting. Moisture infiltrated the tent, she did not sleep and she promised never to do it again.
But there she was on Wednesday.
“It’s like giving birth,” she said. “You go through it and say, ‘Never again,’ but then of course you want to.”
They were ready to wake up at 6am on Thursday (after being on line for almost 18 hours). Campers are given 30 minutes to dismantle their tents and put them in daily storage, then get in line and wait – wait for it – for four more hours until the gates open. Some people, after watching the tennis, go back to the park, take their tents and line up again – hence the need for a washing machine.
Among those still hoping to enter on Wednesday was a group of teenage tennis players from the Time to Play Tennis Academy in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Their coach, Doug Robinson, said the group flew from Harare to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and then on to London, where they hoped to see Wimbledon live, and then play some matches around England.
Late Wednesday afternoon they were still far down the line. The children sat on the ground chatting, and Robinson assessed the situation.
“It doesn’t look too good from here,” he said. “But it’s Wimbledon. You have to take the chance.”