Forget the tennis - anyone for lunch?

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The Independent Online
WHEN PETE Sampras, reigning Wimbledon champion and world No 1 seed, walked on to Centre Court shortly after noon for his quarter-final match against Mark Philippoussis yesterday, two-thirds of the 13,800 seats were empty.

It was not because tickets had been left unsold; competition for seats on Centre and No 1 Courts is always intense. It was not, in the main, because ticket- holders were stuck in traffic, unable to reach the All England Lawn Tennis Club in time for the start of play. It was because something more riveting was occupying their attention: lunch.

It has been the same story throughout the Wimbledon fortnight. The best tennis players in the world, competing at the most prestigious tournament of the calendar, have played to half-empty galleries that fill up only after the last clink of crockery has died away in the corporate hospitality marquees.

This is nothing new; indeed, it is an annual ritual, to the chagrin of ordinary tennis fans who would kill to see their sporting heroes in action. And it is not confined to tennis; corporate entertainment is part of life at all the big sports venues, including Ascot, Henley and Twickenham. There were swathes of empty seats at Lord's a fortnight ago when Australia went in to bat at the cricket World Cup final, just after lunch.

Nor is it an exclusively British disease. Similar scenes are witnessed at the other Grand Slam tennis tournaments, in Paris, New York and Melbourne. At Flushing Meadow, the American complex, where play often starts at 11am, spectators disappear for lunch in the middle of matches.

But at Wimbledon, where fans regularly queue overnight for tickets and the annual public ballot for show court seats is oversubscribed six times over, the phenomenon is particularly galling. This week it has been thrown into sharp focus because of matches being rescheduled to start at noon, to clear the backlog that accumulated over nearly two days of rain.

Yesterday the All England Club authorities, always prickly on the subject of corporate junketeers for whom tennis is merely an afterthought, blamed the empty seats on fixture congestion. "Not everyone can change their plans when we move the start of play forward by two hours," said a spokesman.

That, presumably, is the charitable explanation for the lack of fans present to cheer on Greg Rusedski on Wednesday, when he lost to Philippoussis in the fourth round. Court No 1 did not fill up until the middle of the third set, when Rusedski, one of only two Britons then left in the singles championship, was already flagging.

It might also help explain why Centre Court was, shamefully, half-empty for the start of Boris Becker's swansong Wimbledon match against Pat Rafter the same day, and for a similarly thin turn-out there on Thursday, when Steffi Graf took on Venus Williams.

At the start of the Graf-Williams match, there was just one person in the vast Royal Box: an American, Gene Scott, publisher of Tennis Week magazine. Other luminaries, such as the Duke of Kent and Glenn Hoddle, the former England football manager, did not arrive until later in the afternoon.

Pressing engagements in the morning, travel arrangements that could not be shifted - such factors have no doubt played a role. But court attendances were little better last week, when matches began at the customary 2pm. Williams, one of the biggest crowd-pleasers, played to a half-empty arena on the first day of the tournament.

Chris Gorringe, chief executive of the All England Club, said yesterday that it was neither feasible nor desirable to drag people out of the tented hospitality village and frogmarch them to their seats. "We want to see the courts full," he said. "But ultimately there is nothing the club can do to force spectators to arrive at a certain time."

It goes without saying that it is not only hospitality clients who eat lunch, or who like to finish their lunch before settling down to watch tennis. But the sight of entire block-booked rows of empty seats - rather than a few seats dotted here and there - suggests that they are probably the main culprits.

Nearly 10 per cent of the 25,000 seats on Centre and No 1 courts are reserved for private and corporate hospitality. In addition, some of the 3,000 seats bought by debenture-holders every five years are sold on to corporate clients for profit. The Wimbledon hierarchy says that hospitality earns much-needed income for British tennis, and points out that the number of marquees within the ground has been reduced from 46 to 36 over the past decade.

But it is difficult to resist comparing scenes at the tented village - where companies such as Texaco, Rover and PricewaterhouseCoopers entertain prized clients while security guards shield them from the gaze of ordinary punters - with another Wimbledon perennial: the hardy folk who queue overnight for the 500 Centre and No 1 Court tickets available daily at the turnstiles.

On Tuesday, for instance, as spectators waited in vain for the rain to allow some tennis to be played, 50 people were already in place outside the main gate, armed with deckchairs, camp beds, sandwiches and Thermos flasks, queuing for tickets for the next day's play.

Many of them said they did it every year, because Wimbledon was such an unmissable experience.

The irony is that attendances at the tournament are at a record high: by the end of Thursday they stood at a total of more than 364,000, nearly 22,000 higher than at the same stage of the fortnight last year.

As Wimbledon was taken over by "Henmania" once again yesterday, Tim Henman could be forgiven for feeling just a little sceptical about his adoring fans. Sure, they were there to give him a standing ovation when he thrashed Frenchman Cedric Pioline to go through to the semi-finals. But when he needed a confidence boost at the start of the match, a good 5,000 of them were not there. They were somewhere else.