At Wimbledon – I

If there is one trick to having your (fairly realistic) dreams come true, it is to hope hard. I have been able to tick a reasonable number of things off my England list, but considering that it is impossibly long, I’ll stay realistic and not hope to get through it in its entirety.

Going to Wimbledon ranked very high on this list- jostling for space with Yorkshire and the British Grand Prix- and I’m delighted that the next time I watch the tournament on television, I’ll actually know the layout of the grounds and look back with fondness at the fantastic finish to a long, happy day on Henman Hill.

After a bit of asking around, we chose to go to Wimbledon on the first Friday of the tournament. I don’t know what quirk of fate made Pete and Sophie choose Wimbledon to live in, but I’m eternally grateful that they did; they generously allowed us to sleep at their flat on Thursday night. Having seen the serpentine queues from the windows of the train, and being told by a security guard that if we queued up around 5.30 am we might get lucky enough to obtain court tickets, we set off for the camping grounds bright and early. We felt comfortably smug and confident- how many people had family at Wimbledon and could have got out before the Tube started running, anyway?

Several, we found out soon enough, our initial jubilation dissipating rapidly. Though we had a map with us, we realised we didn’t need it after a point, because we were evidently not the only clever people around. Even at that early hour, the sun was quite high up in the sky, and groups of people equipped with little chairs, cushions and plenty of food were making their way to the stadium. A farcical race ensued, walkers trying to overtake one another; typical tourists that we were, we fell out of the race soon enough, stopping awestruck as Centre Court, gracefully wreathed in green, loomed into view. Cameras came out and clicked away in reverence, and I still don’t know why it didn’t strike us then that the best views of the buildings were to be had from within the compound, and that was possible only if we were sensible enough to queue up quickly.

The walkers broke into an absolute run once they entered the gates- either five spots could apparently make a good deal of difference, or they were just being silly. Two stewards handed out guides to queueing at Wimbledon, one of them (knowingly) making a rather feeble joke about them being good Christmas presents.

For the uninitiated, queueing at Wimbledon is a tradition. You can purchase tickets online and just walk in through the main gates, head held high, make-up unblemished, tie in place; or choose to join groups of overnight campers and early risers in one large carnival of waiting. It is an exciting experience- when we finally made it to the queue, we were around the 1900-mark. Nearly a thousand people would have camped there the previous night, to get Centre Court tickets and also for the fun of it all. (The lucky ones that day were going to witness Roger Federer play Julien Benneteau- yes, thatmatch!) For the record, we were in the queue for around four-and-a-half hours, but not once did we get bored. We fell into conversation with a lanky young American student behind us in the queue. He told us that he had been in England only two days, but already walked fifteen miles and really liked the country. His family loved Wimbledon, and I have a sneaking suspicion that was the only reason he was there- because when I asked him if he had been to the US Open, he asked me where it was held. This will remain an unsolved mystery, because he evidently didn’t enjoy being around four high-spirited, unusually exuberant girls, and shook us off as soon as he could.

Entertainment came, predictably, in the shape of an overcast sky. Stewards distributed stickers commending us for queueing in the sun- and the rain, because it looks like it, said the girl who handed them out, looking despondently up at the thick grey clouds that were drifting in from every possible direction. I admit our spirits fell slightly, but then we realised Wimbledon wouldn’t be what it was without the fear of rain, and made up our mind to enjoy ourselves. How many times had we seen people cowering under green-and-violet umbrellas as the covers were pulled on, scorecards of suspended matches superimposed on their helplessly bent heads? Rain was a Wimbledon tradition, just as much an ineffaceable part of it as the strawberries-and-cream, the whites and the generally hushed sobriety of Centre Court.

Diversion was also provided by the queue at the sole functioning coffee shop- the other one was in the process of fetching water from a stream or cultivating coffee beans or something of that sort- and when, supplied with lukewarm latte after a half-hour wait, we returned to the queue to take our places, we found we couldn’t locate the others. The queue had moved up considerably, almost close to the next coffee kiosk on the serpentine path.

“Court 2 tickets available!” called a steward, brandishing wristbands. Of course we wanted them! We waved wildly, hoping she wouldn’t overlook us and hand them over instead to somebody who hadn’t been astute enough to awake at 4 am. There were plenty to go around for that part of the queue, though, and after checking the sequence of our numbered queue cards, she strapped the wristbands on. We spent the next ten minutes trying to convince ourselves that we were actually going to watch matches like proper spectators on a proper court at Wimbledon.

The end of the queue reached, tickets in hand, we finally found ourselves right in front of Centre Court. The place was chock-full of people; most heads were either bent over smartphones updating Facebook, or wedged into a camera lens, lest we should forget we once visited Wimbledon (!). I was a little stunned and very excited- I did a mental jig, gloated in my head for a bit, then set my mind to the next task- finding some tennis.

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