How hard can it be to become a tennis fan? With summer supposedly arrived and Wimbledon underway, that is a question which many of us will now be asking ourselves. What do the uninitiated have to do to appreciate the world's premier racket sport, and how can we truly immerse ourselves in the Wimbledon experience? Tennis can't just be about strawberries and cream, and being middle-class, and inane, boorish jokes about Andy Murray's nationality. There must be more to it than that. There must be a true spirit of tennis; a metaphysical essence of the only competitive sport which can be played on a lawn.
If there is anyone who understands the fundamental ethos of tennis, it is the people who camp out at Wimbledon overnight. These are the hardcore tennis watchers, the vanguard of the sport, the sort of people who can reel off the entirety of the ATP singles rankings without even pausing for breath. These guys are tennis fanatics, willing to sacrifice everything at the holy altar of the All England Club. They are willing to purchase a two-man tent with a Union Jack on it, rock up in Wimbledon Park on a rainy Tuesday evening, sleep on the sodden ground for a fitful three hours, and then be woken up at five in the morning by an impossibly chipper steward wearing a high-vis jacket – all so they can get the best Wimbledon tickets.
That is how much these people love tennis. As such, we thought it would be a good idea to meet some of them, and find out exactly what makes them tick.
In meeting this particular tennis tribe, I hoped to gain sufficient insight into their condition to compile a comprehensive guide to camping at Wimbledon. However, as a first-time visitor to the All England Club, I made some of my own observations along the way. First off, it's much easier to get to the campsite from Southfields station as opposed to Wimbledon itself, meaning that the fundamental premise of the tournament is highly misleading. Southfields clearly wasn't good enough for the people who established the competition back in 1877, and so – probably in an effort to drive up local property prices, or something – they named it after the slightly posher neighbourhood instead, the bastards.
The route to the campsite is marked, with arrows pointing their way towards 'The Queue'. The capitalisation of 'The Queue', despite the fact that it is essentially a collection of tarps in a field at this point, makes it feel strangely cultish and somehow ominous. Accompanied by a self-unfolding tent which has just graced the mud-smeared battlefield of Glastonbury, as well as my mate Seb, I follow these directions through the drizzly night. We end up arriving sometime around ten, which is probably an hour later than would be ideal, and find ourselves greeted by a gaggle of suspiciously cheerful volunteers. We then struggle to unfold our incredibly simple pop-up shelter like a couple of stereotypical millennials trying to survive the terrors of the wild, as opposed to a quiet park in SW19.
Once our tent is finally secured to the sodden earth, it is time to immerse ourselves in tennis camping culture. We consider making small talk about Roger Federer with our neighbours, before settling down to drink several tinnies each instead. If I could go back and give myself one tip about camping at Wimbledon, it would be: bring more than just tinnies to survive on. If I could give myself one more tip, it would be: bring a sleeping bag, and do not try to sleep with only a thin piece of semi-waterproof tarpaulin separating you from the damp, achingly cold earth.
These are basic camping pointers, really, but they are especially important if you're planning to enjoy a full day of tennis when you awake. The facilities at the Wimbledon campsite are pretty decent so, similarly, bring a toothbrush, bring some deodorant, and try to regain at least some basic dignity come the morning. This isn't Bestival, there aren't rivers of shit sluicing off the bogs, and there are literally zero crusty ket-fiends to make you feel better about your own personal bodily hygiene. Instead, there are lots of relatively genteel tennis fans looking forward to a day watching Novak Djokovic and perhaps getting a little bit tipsy on Prosecco. Do not mistake them for the rougher, dirtier sort of camping crowd, as it will make you deeply unpopular for the duration of your stay.
Having been woken up at five – yes, five – by the stewards, we crawl out of our tent like early lifeforms from the primordial soup of creation. We have managed about three hours of shut-eye at best, with the windy conditions making our tent about as suitable for sleep as the rotating battle platform in Flash Gordon. The crowd might be more genteel than at a festival, but you still shouldn't expect a decent night's kip. Likewise, you should bring something more nourishing than raw pancakes to set you up for the day. My diet isn't great, okay.
The basic premise of 'The Queue' campsite is that the tents are arranged in order of arrival, with those arriving earliest getting first dibs on tickets. If you're particularly committed, you can end up getting really good seats on the day of play. Stewards hand out queue cards which dictate a certain tent's position in the rigid ticketing hierarchy, and the high-vis volunteers are really, really serious about queue jumping. We're looking at you lads, over there, with the bucket hats on. Seriously, they will kick you the fuck out.
As other people begin to emerge from their tents, 'The Queue' starts to take physical shape. It appears to be au fait to bring a knitted picnic blanket but, unfortunately, drinking to take the edge off seems to be taboo. People look tired, bleary eyed and generally a bit miserable at this point, even if there is a low hum of excitement about the prospect of the day ahead. As such, I want to explore these people's hopes, dreams, fears and motivations. What makes them love tennis so much that they will put themselves through this much physical hardship? What compels them to sleep in the park and wake up at dawn? The opportunity to watch Johanna Konta, and eat overpriced lunches on Henman Hill?
First of all, I speak to Arik and Rich. They have been camping for a couple of days, all in the hope of seeing Federer on Centre Court. When I ask what motivates them to rough it in the park, Rich tells me: "Wimbledon is a great day out, first and foremost. We're pretty big tennis fans, and I've been a few times before. We're 240 in the queue, so hopefully we'll get on Centre." I ask them their number-one tip for first-time campers. Arik tells me: "Food is the main thing, we've basically just had an assortment of crap."
The pair seem in fairly good spirits, but also somewhat drained by their experiences. This is the hard life of a Wimbledon camper, an existence spent surviving on Jelly Babies, Hobnobs and Tunnock's tea cakes, nourished only by the distant hope of seeing a tennis legend take to the grass. Wimbledon campers are not driven by their love of the outdoors, but neither are they driven by their love of trance music and shrooms, like festival goers. Camping is their penance, and tennis their one true joy.
Next up, I speak to Sam, a tennis coach and true Wimbledon aficionado. He tells me: "I come every year, same time, same day. I always camp on the Tuesday night, for the first Wednesday of the first week. That means we get the second round of the Monday players. Hopefully we'll get Centre Court today, and see Federer and Djokovic play."
Sam strikes me as a guy who has tennis camping well figured out at this point, so I'm hoping he'll be able to give me some strong tips for surviving a night in Wimbledon Park. When I ask him what pointers he'd give a beginner like myself, he says: "Definitely have a plan. I flew back from Spain yesterday, and came straight from Gran Canaria, but I've done it before so it's not been too bad. I recommend bringing winter gear for the rain, a pillow, and a proper, warm sleeping bag. Plus, bring washing stuff and clothing for the next day. Just plan ahead, basically."
Two people who definitely have a plan are Vicky and Alison. Their plan seems to involve wearing giant strawberry hats all day long, and generally having a bloody great time. They inform me that they didn't camp, but instead stayed in a guesthouse a few miles away. This seems like a sensible alternative to sleeping in the park, even if they've still had to turn up at a truly heinous time of day.
When asked about their motivations for coming, Vicky tells me: "It's been a dream of mine to come since I was about 10 years old. We're sisters, so Alison has grown up with me watching Wimbledon all the time." Alison interrupts: "I know nothing about tennis. I don't know any of the players' names. I just want to come, queue, get in and have a Pimms."
There seem to be two, distinct incentives to queue for Wimbledon, then. One is to witness the world's oldest tennis tournament in all its glory, and the other is to have a laugh, enjoy the day out and maybe get a bit pissed. To enjoy the camping element of 'The Queue', you should come fully prepared in terms of comfort, hygiene and victuals, while also being ready for abysmal weather and any other adversity that Wimbledon Park might throw at you.
I ask my mate Seb for the final word on Wimbledon camping, to see what he's gained from the testing, yet ultimately rewarding, experience. Asked about the main things he has learned from our trip, he tells me: "You should definitely have brought a sleeping bag. Plus, we should probably have brought better provisions than pancakes and tinnies."
He immediately goes back on that assessment. "Actually, no. If anything, I would say that we were lacking in tinnies."