WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — For Viv Kean, and thousands of tennis fans like her, the Wimbledon experience always starts in a tent.
In a small park across from the tournament grounds, they gather to camp out for days. The reward is being woken up at 5 a.m. by stewards, then spending hours standing patiently in line to get herded into the All England Club.
And hopefully, after all that waiting, a ticket to Centre Court.
That’s life in “The Queue,” a decades-old Wimbledon tradition that has grown to become its own phenomenon, as much a part of the tennis tournament as strawberries and cream.
Kean, a 69-year-old from northwest London, wouldn’t miss it for the world.
“I’ve been coming every year since 1983, except one,” Kean said, sitting in a camping chair outside her tent. “I spent my 50th birthday and my 60th birthday out here. It’s almost more about the queue than about the tennis these days.”
Kean was among more than 2,000 people who showed up to Wimbledon Park last Friday night hoping to be there early enough to get tickets to one of the top courts. Not for Saturday’s third-round matches — but Monday’s fourth round.
For some of them, even that wasn’t early enough. Only about 500 tickets are made available most days for each of Centre Court, No. 1 Court and No. 2 Court. Several thousand grounds passes are also available each day — the exact number varies — which allow access to the smaller courts.
Alex Leonidis and Ryan Kirkman, two 23-year-olds from London, were around 250th in line — meaning they were assured of succeeding in their goal of seeing Roger Federer on Centre Court.
“Last year we camped out one night and got tickets to No. 1 Court. But we’re willing to push it to three for Federer,” Leonidis said.
“He’s a must for us,” Kirkman added. “These days you never know when he might retire. It could be our last chance.”
The queuing tradition at Wimbledon dates back to at least the 1920s. Even Richard Lewis, who is now the chief executive of the All England Club, remembers spending a night on the street as a teenager in the 1960s.
“I was 13 at the time. Queued up on the pavement,” Lewis said. “Saw Rod Laver play Tony Roche in the final.”
For decades, the queue itself started just outside the gates of the All England Club, with people pitching their tents on the sidewalk. But as the numbers grew, so did the problems.
“It was great, but it wasn’t terribly comfortable for people, and potentially the stewards might have got hit by cars,” chief steward Nick Pearce said.
So in 2008, the whole queue was moved to Wimbledon Park, where thousands of people gather each day and get organized into neat rows based on what time they arrived. Food stalls and portable toilets are set up nearby and each morning the long line of people snakes along the outskirts of a picturesque golf course, through a security check, across a covered pedestrian bridge over Church Road and into the tournament grounds.
It’s such a large operation that more than 300 stewards — most of them volunteers — work around the clock to make sure it runs as smoothly as possible.
“If you go there, you first think, ‘God this is absolute chaos, it’s just a mass of people,’” Pearce said. “But when they get up they walk in a well-orderly line.”
For many, it’s the most British thing imaginable.
“We love a good queue,” Leonidis quipped.
But there’s more to it than just standing in line. People pass the time by playing games and engaging in impromptu contests. Even a tennis tournament is held every year.
In 2012, they even organized their own version of the London Olympics in the park. One of the events was to set up a gazebo fastest, while blindfolded.
There are some strict guidelines for proper behavior, though, all laid out in the official guide to queuing that is handed out by the All England Club. Don’t leave your place in the line for more than 30 minutes, for instance — a rule that is meant to ensure people don’t arrive early to get a numbered queue card before leaving to return at a later time. The stewards rarely have to intervene, though, because it’s a system that largely polices itself, Keane said.
“We try in the nicest possible way to police it and manage it,” he said. “It’s not the easiest thing at times, I have to say. But given we might get 120,000 people through the queue over the fortnight, we get a relatively small number of incidents that we have to resolve.”
For some, the queue can even be the birthplace of lifelong friendships. Kean was only a few tents away from Julia Saunders of Norfolk, who has also been coming for decades. She was on hand when Cliff Richard sang on Centre Court in 1996, and remembers Andy Roddick coming over to spend time in the queue one year when he was still playing.
Kean and Saunders have become good friends through the years and make sure they arrive at the same time.
“We only see each other once a year, but then it’s like it was yesterday,” Kean said.
Wimbledon prides itself on being one of the few major sports events where fans can still show up on the day and buy tickets at the gates. But in an age of online resellers and corporate packages, it faces increased pressure to find a more modern way of selling all of its seats. But Lewis said there are no plans to change the queuing system any time soon.
“I think it’s a good example where technology could change things if you wanted to, but you’d think very carefully before you did it away with because it does seem to be so popular,” Lewis said. “It’s almost a rite of passage. I wouldn’t do away with it in a hurry, I must admit.”
That’s good news for Kean, who has plans to celebrate her 70th birthday in the queue as well.
“As long as I can get out of the tent without someone having to haul me out,” she said, “I’ll continue to come.”