ABOUT the only feature at this year's Wimbledon more striking than Andre Agassi's navel hair and Steffi Graf's security arrangements is the close attention being paid by police to ticket touts, writes Rhys Williams.
On Monday, Chief Inspector Des Wyke, head of policing at the tournament, invited about 30 touts into the police room for tea and coffee. He also told them where they stood in relation to the law - namely on the wrong side of it.
By yesterday, however, more than 60 touts were openly operating on roads around the club, displaying scant regard for the inspector's 'friendly but firm' chat.
Outside the entrance to Southfields station, a group of men loudly announced their wish to buy or sell tickets for any day, only yards away from police.
But despite the free hand they appeared to be enjoying up and down Wimbledon Park Road, and directly outside the gates to the club, touts were complaining of slack business. 'Wimbledon's finished,' said one. 'Last year we were turning over pounds 20,000 a day. This year we're doing nothing.'
'There's a recession, or haven't you heard,' muttered another. 'It's died in theatreland, why should it be any different here. The tennis? The tennis is rubbish. Who wants to see one guy blasting another off the court with 132mph serves?'
Signs in three languages warned visitors that tickets bought from touts would not gain entry. A tout on Prince's Way said: 'Everybody's frightened they won't get in. I've just sold a pair of Centre Court tickets for pounds 320 - that would have been pounds 3,320 this time last year.' Hard times, indeed.
Insp Wyke insisted that the police were beating the trade. He claimed that the numbers operating had halved since last year. Asked how touts were able to operate so openly, he said: 'Officers should be trying to intervene and stop that. I cautioned 20 yesterday and I'm quite prepared to go to court and prosecute. I took the view that on the first day I would give them one bite. That day has gone.'