WIMBLEDON, England — The official stewards comb the field at 5:30 a.m., tapping on the tents and sometimes uttering one of the most horrifying passages in all the English language:
Hundreds of tent-dwellers from all over the planet rise from so-so sleep. They might brush their teeth over at the loos. They might go to the row of food stands and the signs boasting one of the most fortifying passages in all the English language: “Coffee.” They might shower in the few showers over yonder, wash themselves with wipes in the tents or refrain from washing altogether amid their overriding concern: Wimbledon tickets. Groggily, they deconstruct their tents and haul them way over to the makeshift storage facility, which costs one pound ($1.29) for a bag, five pounds ($6.45) for a tent.
“By 6:30, that storage line is massive,” said Joanne Cox, a Kiwi from Melbourne, Australia, with her identical twin, Liza, both adorers of Roger Federer.
By 7, the ticket queues for the given day form, rather militaristically.
If during this fortnight of fortnights, you pass at midday through Wimbledon Park, cloaked behind trees across Church Road from the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, you might sense only mild rowdiness. You might spot wine bottles, beer bottles, water bottles, biscuit boxes, guitars, air-mattress pumps, rubbish poles, signs forbidding “BBQs, naked flames & stoves,” human bodies strewn on blankets, people playing cards in tents, guys playing badminton in shorts only, or a French man in the sliver of shade by the fence reading a paperback book about Ellis Island. You might even smell the sunscreen. “The planes go over,” said Colm O’Donnell, the Cox sisters’ new friend (because friendships are born in the Wimbledon tent ticket queue), “and the people probably wonder when they look out the windows . . .”
“Like a festival or something,” Joanne Cox finished.
That understandable view from above would double as inaccurate. The Wimbledon tent queue is a feat of organization, such that Charlie Barnett, a woman from Worcestershire, England, on a lawn chair in the sliver of shade, said Friday, “It’s very organized,” then stressed, “It’s very organized.”
Said Cox: “The stewards are actually, a lot of them are either current or former military personnel, which you can tell when they’re marching us into their lines.”
Organizers dole rectangular queue cards — printed and maybe even elegant — that allot campers’ queue numbers. They have a system of cards and stamps that flags scofflaws who have strayed for more than 40 minutes from the tents and, thus, yielded their ticket privileges. It’s one card, one person, period. An attendant with a yellow flag signifies the back of the queue for day visitors. An attendant with a green flag with a “Q” on it signifies the back of the queue for the tent-dwellers.
Stewards pass by at 10 p.m. to stipulate quiet for the night. Violators can suffer the untold woe of tent eviction. Pass by around midnight, and it’s markedly hushed, even if hushed chatter from nearby tents might mar sleep.
Queue numerals have entrenched meanings. “Every year, you have to be earlier and earlier and earlier to get into that magic 500,” said Paul Wilson, who travels the ungodly 33 miles on the M-25 highway with his partner, Simon Marshall, from Horsham in West Sussex. The first 500 get Centre Court (or another show court if so choosing), the next 500 get Court No. 1 (the silver-medal court) and the next 500 Court No. 2. Upon the wretched highway Friday, Wilson and Marshall learned the number of arrivals already had reached 600 by 7:30 a.m. “It was on Twitter,” Wilson said.
“A Guide To Queueing” is a masterpiece of a brochure. It’s 29 brochure pages long. It contains peerless pearls such as, on Page 17, “Please do not bring or erect gazebos.”
“We Brits, we know how to queue,” Barnett said.
Police frequent the area. Tent-dwellers extol the sense of safety. St. John’s Ambulance people bicycle around, eyeing campers for signs of dehydration. Five water spigots at the fence have materialized across time. As new tent-dwellers appear, a steward advises, “You can put the peg down. You’re in place. Next one, please.” While Wilson and Marshall chatter by their tent, which holds to the two-person size limit, a steward walks through barking the imminent arrival of the queue cards.
“This is the moment of truth,” Wilson said.
“In the end, that queue card becomes more important than your own wallet,” Barnett said.
“Your most important possession,” Cox said.
Before the cards arrive, tent-dwellers know roughly their tent-queue numbers. Barnett, a 21-year tent veteran, stood (with her father) at “about 30” on Friday after holding No. 551 last Monday. The Coxes and O’Donnell — to say they’re Federer connoisseurs would understate it gravely — figured themselves between 150 and 200. Wilson and Marshall? Maybe 600. These three interlopers from the University of Florida?
“Like in the 910s or something,” said Jonathan Frish, alongside fellow students abroad Matt Thompson and Ben Sisarsky.
Frish, Thompson and Sisarsky belong to a subgroup you might call neophyte Wimbledon campers. They arrived sans tents, and Thompson planned to use his rain jacket as a pillow. But they found tents against the fence because others often leave behind tents, so they prepped to revel and sleep Friday, then enter Saturday.
“When’s the next time you’re going to say you camped out 24 hours in advance?” Thompson said.
“You camped out for Wimbledon, not for an iPad or an iPhone,” Sisarsky said.
Further up the line, Fernando Hernandez, an engineering student from Monterrey, Mexico, tried to assemble a tent alongside two friends. “I have never done any tent, any camping, in my life,” Hernandez said.
The years have wreaked peculiar sensations. Last year, through the “ballot,” a lottery by mail, Wilson and Marshall got Centre Court seats for the men’s final featuring their beloved Andy Murray, who then won. They adored this. Yet . . .
“Last year, we missed it, didn’t we?” Marshall said. “Because it felt very formal. You’re turning up with your ticket. And then you sit down, you watch the match, and then that was kind of the day, whereas this, it’s a two-day experience, isn’t it?”
“This,” Wilson said, “is what makes Wimbledon, I think, as well as you’ve got strawberries and cream, you’ve got the elegance and everything about Wimbledon.”
Seventeen years ago, Marshall debuted at the former tent site, the far more disagreeable Church Road sidewalk. “I didn’t bring a tent,” he said, “because I was at college. I went with a mate. We were unprepared. And so all we had was a rucksack and an umbrella, and it started to rain, so we were sat up leaning against somebody’s garden wall, and it poured down with rain. And then everybody in the queue lent us their umbrellas, so we made this shell of umbrellas and, yeah, just got very wet. But we still queued, and we made it in, and that was all part of it, and then, a few years later, they moved us into the field, where there’s a lot better setup and we have our tents. But I always remember that.”
There’s the value of struggle here, so tent-dwellers often wonder what on Earth they’re doing, often sitting around for two-day intervals, but then they reach arguably the world’s prettiest sporting venue, and they coo about “hallowed ground” and “goose bumps.” Yet as they cooed Friday, an India flag rose among the tents, on a mast of bamboo that had flourished in the yard of Mandeep Kharpal, whose landlord had requested he prune the bamboo. A fourth-year tent-dweller and an English child of Indian immigrants, Kharpal uttered something surely unforeseeable in 1877 when Wimbledon began.
“I kind of prefer the camping to the tennis,” he said.