As Wimbledon mania began to sweep the leafy streets of London SW19 yesterday, it emerged that the local council has been trying to stop tennis fans from camping out overnight on the pavement outside the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
Hardcore fans usually queue overnight for the chance to buy the 1,000 first-come, first-served tickets for Centre Court and No 1 Court that go on sale this morning. First in the queue, arriving 60 hours ahead of the gates opening, was Julie Wate, 23, from Southend, and four friends. They arrived on Friday night, planning to spend the weekend playing Scrabble in their tent outside the famous grounds.
In recent years, overnight campers have cluttered the pavements on Church Road. And for the past couple of tournaments the police have moved them off the pavements and into the park opposite the Club.
Merton Council had other ideas for this tournament, however, and threatened camping fans with eviction from the park – meaning that they would probably lose their place in the queue and the chance for "gold dust" seats. "They tried to evict us, citing health and safety reasons," Ms Wate said.
Only a dramatic intervention by officials of the All England Club prevented the dispute from escalating. A spokesman for the Club played down suggestions that it "went into battle" for the fans but said: "We're proud that the championships always have such terrific support from tennis fans who come from all over the world. We merely helped to smooth a situation."
The Club at 8am yesterday officially assumed responsibility for the park for the Wimbledon fortnight. By last night there were two long rows of tents and around 1,000 people waiting for today's ticket sales.
Ms Wate had travelled to London with the hope of seeing the defending champion, Spain's Rafael Nadal, in action. She found out by text message as she arrived in Wimbledon that he had withdrawn because of a knee injury. With Nadal missing, Roger Federer is the hot favourite to win the men's singles.
The Swiss's first match is at 1pm on Centre Court today.