If you’ve ever eaten a strawberry at Wimbledon, know this: it was still growing in a field in Kent the morning of the day you popped it in your mouth.
That goes for all 28,000kgs of the plump, red berries consumed during the Wimbledon fortnight. They’re “picked at 4.am, delivered to the club by 11am for inspection and hulling, and then enjoyed by guests on the same day”.
This fruit is perhaps symbolic of the All England Club’s attention to detail when it comes to accommodating their spectators. (Mind you, at 25p a strawberry, you’d expect a sterling service.)
Just under half a million spectators visit the All England Club during the Wimbledon fortnight.
The total capacity of the ground is 39,000 a day but since used tickets are resold, this figure often creeps higher.
Managing so many people across a 13.5-acre site is a mammoth operation. Around 6,000 extra staff are employed during the Championships, including 2,200 catering staff and 813 stewards. The majority of the latter are volunteers from the British armed forces and the London Fire Brigade.
At the core of the Wimbledon experience is the idea of an old-fashioned English garden party.
The lawns, the flowers, the garden furniture, the landscaping (50,000 plants are supplied each year), the suited stewards and officials, the Pimm’s, the champagne, the strawberries… it all harks back to a Victorian ideal of lawn tennis. A 21st-century version of the very first Championships back in 1877.
This may be rather hackneyed, almost Disney-fied, especially in this modern age of cut-throat professionalism, but it’s a formula that’s enormously popular with tourists and Londoners alike.
Mick Desmond is commercial and media director of the All England Club (AELTC). “I think the English country garden is almost a sub-brand of Wimbledon,” he tells SportBusiness International.
“It’s in our DNA. It’s how we present ourselves, how we lay out the grounds, the flowers, the bunting…”
Wimbledon may be a high-tech global sporting event with all the associated technology, machinery and facilities but, rather masterfully, the tournament organisers succeed in keeping this hidden beneath the surface so that, as a visitor, what you experience is the old-fashioned country club on the exterior.
“When we do a new build, we try to soften it back down; make it green,” Desmond adds, explaining how the high-tech is camouflaged by the vintage.
“We’re hosting a global tennis event; we’re trying to build a fantastic stage; we’re bringing commercial partners and broadcasters into it; we’re selling product here. But there’s always that feeling around here of ‘How do you soften it all down?’.”
Many of the spectator facilities at the All England Club are now standard offerings at all three of tennis’ other Grand Slam venues: luxury corporate entertainment, overpriced concession stalls, security searches, a fan zone for kids, engaging social media, and a show-court roof. (Roland Garros is the only Grand Slam yet to install one of these).
But there’s one area that is absolutely unique to Wimbledon. That’s the ticket queue that snakes along the pavement outside the ground.
In these days of e-commerce and online ticket sales it’s a sign of Wimbledon’s eccentricity that they still allow fans to camp overnight in a south London park in order to line up the following day, regardless of the notoriously mercurial British summer weather. Surely this is sport’s greatest act of sadomasochism?
“You know we could sell those tickets in the ballot, but the queue is part of the institution,” Desmond says, admitting that having thousands of punters shuffling along a pavement every day is good marketing, rather like those nightclubs that force their customers to queue for hours outside before entry.
“Yes, I think it’s like that,” Desmond adds, nodding at the comparison.
“But it also gives people a last opportunity, if they want to queue, to get a ticket.”
Indeed, as the AELTC proudly states on its website: “Wimbledon remains one of the very few major UK sporting events where you can still buy premium tickets on the day of play.”
So big are the numbers involved that the queue is almost a sporting event in itself.
The AELTC relies on the Metropolitan Police, the London Boroughs of Merton and Wandsworth, and Wimbledon Park Golf Club to manage the process.
This year the area where queuers camped in Wimbledon Park was protected by heavy-duty anti-terrorist security barriers. For campers, there is even a “strictly enforced” bedtime curfew at 10pm, and a reveille at 6am. There’s also a ban on smoking, excessive boozing and loud music.
But none of these regulations seem to dampen the spirits of the queuers. With every year that passes, Wimbledon maintains its popularity.
The AELTC wisely chooses not to rest on its laurels. “The day we ever become complacent about what we do is our biggest worry,” Desmond admits.
With that in mind, there are ambitious plans for future development of the club facilities.
By 2019 No.1 Court will feature a retractable roof and 900 extra seats. A two-level public plaza will replace Court 19.
Desmond says that when work is complete, even on a maximum-capacity day during the tournament, all spectators will be able to shelter comfortably from the rain.
Beneath the two show court roofs, 28,000 people will be able to watch live tennis in all weathers.
But it’s the small details that count, too. Championships director Sarah Clarke says the club maintains a comprehensive list of every possible area where services and facilities can improve.
“It comes from our absolute obsessiveness – there’s no other word for it – to get everything right, to track things, and to listen to people,” she told Sean Ingle in The Guardian newspaper.
“We’ll probably have over a thousand items on that list which can range from very specific – something like a chair on court 18 squeaking a little – to someone saying, ‘I’m not sure you have enough food for vegans’.”
Shortly after the Championships end, club employees file detailed debriefing reports, specifying where improvements can be made.
Once everyone returns from a much-deserved holiday, the club starts working through the to-do list. Perfectionists? Without a doubt.
Looking further ahead, the AELTC wants to purchase Wimbledon Park Golf Course, the venue just to the east, across Church Road.
The rumours are they plan a brand new show court, making Wimbledon the largest tennis tournament on the planet.
“Who knows?” says Desmond rather coyly but with a twinkle in his eye. “That would be subject to planning permission.”
But ultimately, the popularity of a sports event is dictated by the stars who perform in it.
In recent years tennis fans have been spoiled thanks to the so-called ‘big four’. Since 2003, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have exerted a stranglehold on the men’s title. Aged 35, 31, 30 and 30 respectively, they won’t be around forever, though.
Does the AELTC worry about spectator attendance dropping in a post-big four world?
“No, we’re not concerned,” Desmond concludes. “The same view might have been taken at the back end of the 1990s when the golden era of Graf and Becker [was ending]. But the players come and go in cycles.”
Wimbledon will always have new heroes to worship.