The All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, organisers of The Championships at Wimbledon, wants its famous south-west London grounds to retain the spirit of “tennis in an English garden”.
Yet, the 151-year-old institution also wants the Grand Slam tournament to improve and evolve, all to keep its place among the world’s premier sporting events. How can ancient traditions be maintained alongside the demands of a modern competition?
Cultivating a sense of exclusivity helps. Obtaining a ticket to Wimbledon requires luck, determination, wealth or privilege. In 1877, when the first Championships were played, just 200 spectators paid a shilling each to attend the final of the gentlemen’s singles. Today, up to 42,000 spectators are allowed in the grounds at any one time.
To watch matches on Centre Court, which typically hosts the biggest matches featuring the best players, just 500 tickets are made available each day. To purchase one, fans must join a queue in which they are required to camp for at least one night in a park adjacent to the grounds.
Otherwise, the majority of tickets are sold weeks before the tournament, through an annual public ballot. UK entrants are forced to enter by post and they must also supply a stamped-addressed envelope. This will change from next year, when ballot entrants will merely need to fill out forms online.
The well-heeled can skip the lines. Earlier this year, the All England Club released more than 2,500 “debentures” on Centre Court. Wealthy patrons pay £80,000 to guarantee themselves a seat throughout the tournament.
An alternative is to secure a priceless invitation to the royal box, a section featuring 80 dark-green wicker chairs retained for visiting dignitaries and assorted VIPs. The Queen last took her seat in 2010. The sovereign has been represented this year by the duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex, formerly Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle.
To ensure spectators know their place — and reach their assigned seats — the courts are patrolled by volunteer stewards from the Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and London Fire Brigade, all in pristine uniforms and caps.
Away from the inner sanctum of the grounds are mere mercenaries — staff from security contractor G4S — relegated to scanning tickets at the outer gates or maintaining order on the surrounding grounds.
The players, too, are expected to maintain decorum. They have long been expected to dress in white, while on court. And the rules have tightened over time. In 1995, an edict was passed stating playing must appear “almost entirely in white” and not “predominantly in white” as was previously accepted. In 2014, this rule was extended to include accessories, such as caps and sweatbands.
Though the crowd is encumbered with no strict dress codes, many Wimbledon-goers maintain an informal one. Panama hats, linen shirts and summer dresses are common. With such attire and unspoken codes of etiquette, Wimbledon can feel like the last outpost of the British empire.
Those who break with these standards of dress stick out, such as fans of Roger Federer, who wear bright red caps featuring the Swiss maestro’s initials, or the group of young men who attended while dressed as Teletubbies this year.
When modernity creeps in, it is intended to enhance the experience. For this year’s Championships, construction was completed on a retractable roof over Number One Court, Wimbledon’s second-largest arena. It was built at a cost of £70m. A moveable roof was installed over Centre Court in 2009.
The roofs mean that important matches are no longer interrupted by an unwelcome but highly traditional British phenomenon: rain. Wimbledon executives believe that being able to give broadcasters certainty on playing schedules, regardless of the weather, means the value of its television rights have increased by many millions of pounds.
This cash helps maintain an ever-expanding TV operation. Organisers are working with IBM, the US technology group, to use artificial intelligence software to compile a highlights reel for broadcasters by analysing the roar of the crowd or the gestures made by players. It will also ensure the best moments of a match are always captured.
And the sport can be thrilling. This year, standout performances came from the likes of Federer, aged 37, who reached the men’s singles final with serene grace, as well as Cori Gauff, aged 15, who beat her childhood hero Venus Williams in her first match in a Grand Slam.
Behind the scenes, hundreds of staff are also hard at work. Each day, the courts are cut so each blade of grass is no longer than 8mm. The seats and walls are painted the perfect shade of green. The staff strive to ensure the surroundings are just so, to give the crowds the illusion of a place suffused with prestige. But they also help to maintain Wimbledon’s unique place in British cultural life.
Photographs by Charlie Bibby