At about 6pm on gentlemen’s final day at Wimbledon 30 years ago, Francis Hughes was mentally and physically exhausted. He was also in a state of high elation. Despite standing for seven uninterrupted hours bereft of food and water, he had just witnessed one of the most compelling chapters in the long history of the championships. From the free-standing area on Centre Court, Mr Hughes saw the riveting 22-minute and 34-point tiebreak between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, the longest ever in a men’s final.
Mr Hughes’s vigil had started at 11am, ahead of the mixed-doubles final that preceded the joust of titans. At no stage could he vacate his pitch; he would otherwise have lost his place in a now-defunct gallery, where anyone who left was replaced on a firstcome, first-served basis. ‘It was a privilege to watch it,’ Mr Hughes recalls, ‘and an even greater privilege to be there at all.’ Also on Centre Court that day was the 4th Marquess of Zetland, who has been a spectator at the championships every year since he was granted membership of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (All England Club) in 1963. ‘I wouldn’t miss it for the world,’ Lord Zetland avers. ‘One of the first things I do with any new diary is to reserve the space over Wimbledon fortnight.’ Mr Hughes and Lord Zetland, a former junior player for Buckinghamshire who plays at the club once a month, are indeed fortunate.
Mr Hughes is the son of Tom Hughes, a long-time and enthusiastic servant of British tennis, whose brother, Ted, won the Wimbledon doubles title in 1936 during a golden era for British tennis. The brothers were All England Club members, as was Tom’s wife, Sylvia, whose death two years ago saw the family unrepresented within the club’s membership for the first time in decades. With it passed the family’s entitlement to buy tickets for each day of the championships. Yet the association doesn’t end there.
‘It’s a very caring club, whose members ensure that you don’t get forgotten,’ Mr Hughes says. ‘I’ve been invited on three days this year. And I am just somebody fortunate to have had family members who contributed a lot to the game, and, through that, who were invited to join the club.’
The family’s entire year revolved around Wimbledon fortnight, especially when tennis was still an amateur sport (the ‘open’ era commenced in 1968). ‘At that time, my parents used to put players up at home,’ Mr Hughes recalls. ‘One night, they even had Rod Laver round for supper. It was like being part of a big social network.’ Lord Zetland also has familial links. His father, Lawrence Dundas, actually played in the Men’s Championships and served on the All England Club committee. ‘I’m sure it greatly helped my membership application at the time,’ Lord Zetland, 72, reflects, ‘although it wouldn’t work that way now.’ Etiquette is still strictly enforced, as The Duchess of Kent discovered 11 years ago.
The Duchess, whose husband has been the club’s president since 1969, was refused permission to bring the 12-year-old son of a bereaved friend into the Royal Box. Yet that wasn’t the end of the matter: John Curry, then the club’s chairman, upset her further when he dispatched a sharp rebuke by letter. He subsequently apologised for its tone, if not for the club’s rules.
Four years later, The Duke of Kent requested that etiquette requiring players to bow and curtsey before the Royal Box be abolished unless The Queen or The Prince Of Wales was in attendance. He deemed the process an anachronism in contemporary times. Unlike any other tournament in the world, etiquette also extends to the players’ dress code: they must wear predominantly white clothes. Over the years, players have deliberately flouted the rule for publicity.
It’s not uncommon these days for leading women players to wear diamond-encrusted shoes. There are also regular attempts to make a sartorial splash without falling foul of the dress code. An American, Anne White, did just that in 1985, when she played in a white, one-piece Lycra body suit. Although it didn’t breach the code, Mr Curry asked her to wear more appropriate attire the following day. ‘I had no idea it would be so controversial,’ Miss White maintained. Such adherence to old values is the essence of Wimbledon. Andre Agassi, raised in Las Vegas, found the old-fashioned edges mildly offensive on his first visit when, with blonde-streaked hair hanging halfway down his back, he described playing on the lawns as ‘a crapshoot’. He loathed the occasionally variable ball bounce. However, as his career unfolded, Agassi came to love Wimbledon’s unique ambience. He now cherishes the club membership that came with his gentlemen’s singles victory in 1992.
Indeed, Agassi and his wife, the multiple Wimbledon champion Steffi Graf, were the first to play under Centre Court’s spectacular new roof last year. They were joined by Tim Henman and Kim Clijsters in an exhibition match that unveiled one more significant development made possible by the sale of debentures.
‘I went to that opening and it was a great occasion,’ Lord Zetland reflects. ‘The roof is quite spectacular. I am all for modernisation, and, to my mind, both Wimbledon and the All England Club have done a magnificent job with all the building work over the past 15 years. Wherever I go in the world, everyone says it’s the tops, the number-one sporting venue.
HOW TO GET IN
Wimbledon 2010: June 21-July 4
About 500 tickets are available for the Centre (excluding the final four days), No 1 and No 2 courts at the turnstiles each day. Roughly 6,000 ground tickets are available for the public every day
The majority of Centre Court tickets are dispersed through the public ballot, Britain’s tennis clubs and the Lawn Tennis Association. Applications for the 2011 public ballot will be open August-December 2010.
To obtain an application form, send a self addressed,
stamped envelope to AELTC,
PO Box 98,
The Debenture Office,
The All England Lawn Tennis Ground plc,
SW19 5AE (www.aeltc.com)