Tom O’Neill and Roz McArdle stood in Wimbledon’s famous ticketing queue with barely a hope of getting inside the grounds. It was 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, there were 4,000 people ahead of them, and they were told by a steward that it was “enormously unlikely,” they would get inside.
But they, and hundreds of others, clinging to the tiniest flicker of hope that they might get to see at least one match in the citadel of tennis, persistently inched along the snaking line.
“We might as well give it a shot,” McArdle said. “We left work around 4 and got here about 5. If we don’t make it, maybe we’ll come back on Friday.”
They were doing what people have done for more than a century, joining a line that weaves through an adjacent golf course and down Church Road to a ticket office, where each person, some of whom wait in line for over 24 hours, can purchase one ticket, for that day only, 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 is a pilgrimage you make for the love of tennis, for the love of Wimbledon.”
With a capacity of roughly 42,000 for the grounds, Wimbledon sells tickets months in advance through a public ballot system, and allocates some tickets to tennis clubs and people who live near the All England Club, and through other select means. It is among the hardest tickets to get in sports, but the tournament does provide thousands of daily tickets to the public, if they are willing to wait hours for it.
The queue is one of the longest, old-fashioned box office lines in the world, the sports equivalent to the infamous Studio 54 line, but a lot older.
On Wednesday, Dharmadhikari brought his son, Arjun, who wore a sticker given out by stewards that read, “I queued in the rain.” They were given holding cards with numbers 11,466 and 11,477 and waited 5 ½ hours to get inside and were delighted to see several matches and eat strawberries and cream.
But on Monday, some people waited nearly twice that long under periodic bursts of persistent rain on a disastrous opening day for the queue. Tournament organizers blamed the delays, which slowed the pace of the line to a crawl, on heightened security searches due to the threat of a climate protest.
The threat became reality on Wednesday when two protesters ran onto Court No. 18 and flipped over a box of orange confetti. The protesters were led away rather quickly and the match resumed — but only after another rain delay in a tournament plagued by them. After weeks with virtually no precipitation in London, it rained intermittently during the first three days of the tournament, causing havoc within the schedule and in the soggy queue.
But even without special circumstances, the queue can be a long (sometimes over a mile), tiresome, adventurous, wet, fun and uniquely British institution.
Two schoolboys, Simon, 10, and his brother Stefano, 8, calmly read comic books as they waited on Wednesday, hoping to see their favorite player, the Italian 21-year-old Jannik Sinner, who beat Diego Schwartzman of Argentina in straight sets on Court No. 1.
“We have been waiting for maybe two hours,” Simon said, and his brother asked, “Do you think we will make it?”
About an hour later, a steward announced to a group somewhere in the middle of the line that there were 1,600 people ahead of them and that he was informed by a ticket manager only 250 more tickets would be released. Gasps of incredulity and disappointment rang out from the group, but no one immediately left.
“How you receive this information is entirely up to you,” said the steward, who did everything short of ordering everyone to go home.
That would not have been easy for Danielle Payten and her husband, David Payten, who flew from Sydney, Australia, with their three children. They took no chances of being shut out from the daily queue by doing what hundreds do daily. They camped overnight in tents.
The tent area, where spectators spend the night to ensure they’ll have a good spot in line the following day, is the more festive area of the queue: People play soccer, cards, cricket or read and sip cocktails. The sun broke out Wednesday afternoon, prompting young men in the 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 permitted to speak to reporters.
The Paytens arrived at 3:30 p.m. and met some folks from the neighboring tents, one of whom had a dog. They chatted, ate and drank as they prepared for a cricket game 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 are given tickets). His daughter, Eliza Kearsley, lives a 15-minute walk from the same mystical venue that her relatives traveled 10,000 miles to see.
She popped over just to see her relatives, for neither she nor her father planned to attend camp out and the next day’s matches.
“If I stayed overnight, I’d been too drunk to go inside,” Chris Kearsley joked.
But with only about 200 people in front of their group, the Australian cousins were virtually guaranteed entrance 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 p.m. on Wednesday, aiming for Thursday’s action. They were given card No. 101, meaning only 100 people were ahead of them. Balhetchet camped out last year with her other son, and even though they scored third-row tickets to an explosive match between the eventual men’s singles finalist Nick Kyrgios and Stefanos Tsitsipas, the experience was generally exhausting. Moisture infiltrated the tent, she did not get any sleep and she vowed 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 prepared to awake at 6 a.m. Thursday (after being in line almost 18 hours). Campers are given 30 minutes to dismantle their tents and put them in daily storage, then get into the 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, pick up their tents and queue up all over again — hence the need for the washing machine.
Among those still hoping to get in 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 to London, where they hoped to see Wimbledon live, and then play some matches around England.
Late Wednesday afternoon they were still far back in the queue. The kids sat on the ground chatting, and Robinson sized up the situation.
“It’s not looking too good from here,” he said. “But it’s Wimbledon. You have to take the chance.”