At the world’s oldest tennis tournament, tradition playsas much a part as tennis itself
ore than a century after Wimbledon first began in 1877, this prestigious tennis tournament has become a celebration of rituals as much as a sporting event. Many of Wimbledon’s traditions are well known: fans eating strawberries and cream between matches, athletes being required to wear all white, the observance of Middle Sunday, et cetera. But the world’s premier tennis event also has a slew of other customs, some new and some old, which are not as widely known. Here, we celebrate some of the more obscure traditions.
The mere presence of a resident hawk has been enough to keep the tournament’s famed grass courts pigeon-free for more than a decade
DEFENDING THE SKIES ABOVE
Since 1999, there has been an unsung hero defending the grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis Club against attack: the hawk in residence. Wimbledon’s current protector, 5-year-old Rufus, patrols the skies above, scaring off any pigeons that might befoul the pristine grass courts and pricey box seats. Rufus is sent aloft in the early morning before the crowds arrive so that he won’t frighten anyone. And to assuage the fears of pigeon lovers, the hawk’s presence alone is usually enough to keep the area secure. The system seems to work; no tennis player has slipped on and no royal has sat in bird excrement at Wimbledon in more than a decade.
While some of you might say that this is a tactic rather than a ritual, we think it is both. As Wimbledon became known as a safe harbor for tradition, it also became a crucible for change in the sport. The most famous example of this is the approaching of the net. The seemingly obvious tactic of dashing forward to play hard-to-reach angled shots was introduced during the very first Wimbledon tournament; Spencer Gore used it and won the 1877 championship. The next year, competitors were lobbing returns over his head, and the cat-and-mouse play between elite tennis gladiators was on. Today, of course, it is a staple move of the game.
A sign marks the end of the queue to gain access to the 2010 Wimbledon tennis championships
LET’S GO QUEUELeave it to the British to transform camping out overnight for tickets to a sporting event into a civilized affair. Each day, approximately 500 tickets for Centre Court and Courts 1 and 2 go on sale at Wimbledon for that day’s action. Several thousand basic ground tickets are also available each day, including tickets for the Court 2 standing area as well as for unreserved seating and standing room for Courts 3 to 19. Since these seats are first come, first served, one might think the ticket bonanza would create anarchy. Not at Wimbledon.
Instead, faithful fans make their way to Wimbledon Park the night before a match, and club stewards greet them and tell them where to set up their tents. Once a few hundred people are in the queue, tournament officials start handing out queue cards. These are essentially tickets to get tickets. Each one is dated, since it is good for only the following day, and numbered sequentially, because it’s how a queue member will know his or her place in line. Each person must have a card, and all sales are cash only.
Once a visitor has a queue card, he or she is free to wander the park and can still reclaim his or her place in line. It’s all very civilized, indeed. There is a 6:00 a.m. wake-up call every morning, which involves stewards walking from tent to tent, waking people, and egg sandwiches and tea are served. There is even a place to check tents and gear before entering the line. Anything less would be simply rude, unrefined and decidedly un-British.
The ball passes the scoreboard during the doubles match at the 119th Wimbledon Tennis championships in June 2005
PROPER SALUTATION IS A MUST
Not addressing someone by his or her proper name is uncouth, at least at Wimbledon. Female players are referred to by the courtesy title Miss or Mrs. on scoreboards. And before 2009, as dictated by a strict rule of etiquette, married female players were referred to by their husband’s name. For example, during her marriage to John Lloyd, Chris Evert (then Evert-Lloyd) appeared on scoreboards as Mrs. J. M. Lloyd. Beginning in 2009, however, players were referred to on scoreboards by both their first and last names (for example, Miss Serena Williams). The courtesy title Mr. is not used for male players on scoreboards, but this prefix is retained for amateurs. In addition, chair umpires must refer to all male players as Mr. [player’s surname] when players use the replay challenge.
Wimbledon champion Dorothea Lambert Chambers curtsies as she is received by King George V and Queen Mary, the Queen Consort, at the opening ceremony in 1926, the tournament’s jubilee year
BOW OR CURTSYIt used to be a tradition at Wimbledon that all players must bow or curtsy to members of the royal family seated in the royal box upon entering or leaving Centre Court. In 2003, however, the president of the All England Club, His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent, decided to discontinue the ritual. Now, players are required to bow or curtsy only if Her Majesty the Queen or the Prince of Wales is present.
CHUCK TANNERT is a writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in Cargo and Wired and on CNET, among other print and online outlets.