WIMBLEDON, England — It was nearing 10 p.m., and Richard Hess, an 81-year-old American, was sitting inside his small tent and merrily preparing for his latest sleep-deprived night in the Wimbledon queue.
“You caught me blowing up my mattress,” he said, poking his gray-haired head out of the tent and offering his visitor a seat in a folding chair.
Hess is an Anglophile from Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., who memorized the names of all the English monarchs beginning with William the Conqueror before his first visit to Britain. He has a doctorate in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, and played the California junior-tennis circuit at the same time as Billie Jean King. He has been queuing at Wimbledon since 1978: first lining up on the sidewalks for tickets and then, beginning in the early 1990s, camping out overnight with hundreds of other tennis fans in the quest for prime seats on Centre Court and the other main show courts.
“When I was a child, I asked my father, what’s the most important tournament in the world, and he said, ‘Well, that’s Wimbledon,’” Hess said.
On his first day, he and his oldest daughter saw Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe play first-round matches, and Hess had spent his latest day at Wimbledon watching the new Spanish star Carlos Alcaraz before returning to his tent and his community.
“It’s not just the tennis that keeps me coming back; it’s the culture and the people,” Hess said.
One of those people is Lucy Nixon, a 42-year-old from Norfolk, England, who met Hess on her first day in the queue in 2002 and is now a close enough friend that she invited Hess and Jackie, his wife of 60 years, to her wedding.
This year’s Wimbledon has been a chance to reconnect after the tournament was canceled because of the pandemic in 2020 and was staged without a queue in 2021 for health-and-safety reasons.
There was doubt it would return. In a world of online ticketing, the queue is clearly an anachronism, but then Wimbledon — with its grass courts, all-white-clothing rule for players and artificially low-priced strawberries and cream — is an anachronism writ large.
“Some people are traditionalists,” Nixon said. “And it’s like, we’ve always done it this way, we’ve always had a queue, we’re always going to have a queue. And then there’s other people that are just like, you know, let’s do what every other Grand Slam does and just sell tickets online and be done with it.”
For now, the queue lives on, although many other Wimbledon traditions do not.
“The queue is not still here because it’s just a thing we’ve always done,” said Sally Bolton, chief executive of the All England Club. “The queue is here because it’s about accessibility to the tournament. That’s really integral to our traditions.”
Nixon, who has had ample time to ponder these issues in 20 years of waiting outside the club’s gates, has a “love-hate thing” with the queue.
“I’ve been to other tennis tournaments in Europe and in Indian Wells, and as an ordinary person I could go online with my ordinary phone and book tickets with my ordinary bank account,” she said. “It was much easier to do that. You’ve got to work for your Wimbledon tickets, so in a way, it’s kind of like, actually are they really that progressive and inclusive? Or are they making the little people work hard for the crumbs they are going to get, which is a measly 1,500 tickets out of how many thousands available for the main courts?”
The All England Club, which conducts an annual ticket lottery and also has season-ticket holders, has a daily capacity of around 42,000. It reserves about 500 seats each on Centre Court, No. 1 Court and No. 2 Court for those in the queue, who pay face value for tickets. The Centre Court and No. 1 Court seats are down low, near the action.
“That’s the real appeal,” Hess said.
If you are one of the often-thousands in the queue who do not get a main-court ticket, you can still buy a grounds pass for access to the outside courts, although it could be a long wait if you are deep in line or another night in a tent if you want to try again for a main-court spot.
It is not precisely clear when queuing began at Wimbledon, but according to Richard Jones, a British tennis historian and author, there were news reports in 1927 of fans lining up at 5 a.m. for tickets. Overnight queuing was happening by the 1960s, became more popular as Borg and McEnroe did, and for about 40 years it happened on the sidewalk that the British call “the pavement.”
“I was always waiting for someone to get run over,” Hess said.
In 2008, the overnight and increasingly polyglot queue went bucolic: moving into Wimbledon Park, the vast green space that lies opposite the All England Club on the other side of Church Road. The tents are pitched in numbered rows on the grass near a lake. It is more peaceful yet heavily controlled, more trailer park than adventure. There are food trucks, unisex bathrooms, a first-aid center, security guards and lots of stewards milling about to keep order and position the flag that indicates the end of the queue to new arrivals.
Volunteers begin rousting campers shortly after 5 a.m. to give them time to pack their gear and check it at the huge white storage tent before entering the queue well ahead of the All England Club’s 10 a.m. opening time.
“Four or five hours of sleep is a good night,” Hess said.
Would-be ticket holders are issued a card with a number when they arrive at Wimbledon Park. The lower the number, the higher your priority, and on June 26, the first night of queuing at Wimbledon in nearly three years, the person who was first in line and holding “Queue Card 00001” was Brent Pham, a 32-year-old property manager from Newport Beach, Calif.
Pham arrived in London on the Thursday before Wimbledon, bought a tent and air mattress, and spent Friday night sleeping on the sidewalk and Saturday night sleeping in a nearby field in a group of about 50 before the queue officially opened at 2 p.m. on Sunday. It paid off with a guaranteed Centre Court seat.
“My dad, he loved to watch Wimbledon, and he passed away in 2017, and he never got to experience this, so I feel it’s extra important to make sure I get on Centre Court every year,” said Pham, who carries a printed photograph of his father, Huu, with him into the grounds each day. “So his spirit at least is able to be at Wimbledon,” he said.
In a normal year, getting into Centre Court each day from the queue would have been nearly impossible, but the queue’s numbers were down significantly in the first four days this year: at around 6,000 per day instead of the usual 11,000. Potential factors included lower international visitor numbers, galloping inflation, shifting habits because of the coronavirus and rain. Then there is Roger Federer. The eight-time Wimbledon champion is not playing in men’s singles for the first time since 1998.
“During the Federer years, there were a lot of people who would camp two nights to see Roger,” Hess said. “They’d see his match, come right on out, set up their tent — there might be 200 of them — and sleep two nights to get in for his next match.”
Hess has spent more than 250 nights in the queue and will log 10 more this year. Long ago, he set a goal of queuing until he was 80. The pandemic delayed the milestone, but he made it.
“Now I’m reassessing,” he said before returning to his underinflated air mattress. “But I fully expect to be back next year.”