The world's oldest tennis tournament retains many of the same customs and quirks 131 years after it was first staged. It's the only Grand Slam event still played on grass, despite perennial moans from the clay- and hard-court specialists who struggle to adjust. Players--who are always referred to as "gentlemen" and "ladies"--must wear predominantly white, and the courts are unsullied by conspicuous corporate logos.
And unlike at other tournaments, a 19th-century garden-party atmosphere prevails at Wimbledon, as evident in the classic ritual of eating strawberries and cream and sipping a cup of tea.
Getting tickets for the top show courts (Centre Court and Courts 1 and 2) requires advance planning and luck. Most tickets are sold through a mail drawing from August to December--meaning it's too late to buy them for this year's tournament (which takes place June 23 through July 6).
The full slate of information on the event is online at wimbledon.org. In brief, to receive a form for next year's drawing, send a self-addressed envelope to: All England Lawn Tennis Club, P.O. Box 98, London SW19 5AE, United Kingdom. From the U.S., you'll also need to send an International Reply Coupon, which you can buy at the post office. Don't submit more than one form per household--the organizers check!
Applicants have about a one-in-six chance of getting lucky. Tickets are allocated randomly, and you may not request specific dates or courts.
There are still ways to attend this year's tournament, if you engage in the British activity known as queuing. For the first week and a half of the tournament, 1,500 show-court tickets are sold every day at Gate 3 for $60 to $180 each. It's one ticket per person, cash only.
As each day's play draws to a close, the line for the next will have already formed outside the gate, with campers toting sleeping bags, tents, food, and drinks--a bottle of wine is a good idea, too.
Being that this is Wimbledon, it's all very organized. The line is supervised by stewards who give you a card showing your position. You're awakened at 6 a.m. and asked to tidy up your camping gear, which you can check on the grounds. Those near the front of the line then receive a prized wristband--a guarantee of a show-court ticket.
About 6,000 grounds passes are sold each day; they grant access to all the outer courts and the standing area at Court 2. Admission is $40 during the first week, when you have the best chance to see top-ranked players on the outer courts, and drops to as low as $16 in the second week.
The line begins forming around 7:30 a.m., though you can also wait until the afternoon to buy the passes at a reduced rate when people start leaving for the day. The matches begin at noon each day and usually last until 9 p.m.
Show-court tickets returned by spectators leaving early, meanwhile, go on sale starting at 3 p.m. at the booth near Aorangi Terrace. They cost a fraction of their face value, and the proceeds go to charity. If you're really lucky, a departing fan may even discreetly press his ticket into your hand for free.
Whatever you do, don't buy tickets from scalpers. The tickets can be traced, and security will deny you admission.
Places of interest...
Grab a signature at Autograph Island--a stand near the Aorangi Pavilion.
Aorangi Terrace--popularly renamed Henman Hill after the now-retired British star Tim Henman--is a nice spot to picnic and watch a show-court match on the giant TV screen.
Perhaps unsettled by the fact that fans are very close to the action, players such as Andre Agassi and the Williams sisters have all lost on the Graveyard of Champions, formally known as Court 2.
Wingfield Restaurant, the nicest restaurant open to the public, serves a fixed-price, three-course lunch for about $110. You will need to dress smartly--no shorts are allowed. To make reservations, e-mail: email@example.com.
Did you know?
Wimbledon is run by the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, but big croquet matches have never been played here because the Croquet Lawn is too small. Only members may use it.
The nearest tube stop, Southfields, is a 40-minute ride from downtown London. A shuttle runs from the station to the grounds, but walking only takes 15 minutes.
Gate 3 is the entrance where the line forms to buy show-court and grounds tickets each day.
Among the exhibits at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum ($17) is a re-creation of a locker room from 1980--a virtual John McEnroe reminisces about playing rival Jimmy Connors. The museum is handy when there's rain.
A good meeting place if you lose your friends, the statue of Fred Perry honors Britain's last men's singles champion (he won in 1934, 1935, and 1936).
Court 13 is undergoing construction this year to become the new Court 2, able to seat 4,000 people. When it opens for the 2009 tournament, all the outer courts will be renumbered.
Court 11--the outer court most likely to feature top players during week one--has temporary stands that seat 1,500.
If your kids grow bored with the action on the courts, take them to the Play Tennis tent, where they can hit a few tennis balls in a cage.