Brian Viner: People-watching, the true spectator sport

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There is a myth about the All England Club at this time of year, that it is an upper-middle-class enclave full of people with more share options than sense either receiving lavish corporate hospitality or stumping up more on champagne and strawberries than the average mother of five spends on groceries in a month.

It is not true. At least not entirely. If I were asked to profile a typical Wimbledon spectator, it would be a person from Middle England's middle-income bracket, inclined to rush to Fortnum and Mason only if they were a young British pair on an outside court, going well in the mixed doubles.

On the other hand, it is also true that there is plenty of poshness about, a notion not exactly suppressed by the periodic announcements from the All England Club's chief executive Chris Gorringe, a man so frightfully well-spoken that on Wednesday he said that play would resume in 15 minutes "after that short shah".

I like to think that there were people wondering what a diminutive Middle Eastern potentate had to do with the resumption of the tennis. I also like to think that with Gorringe stepping down this year, they might hire someone with a less rarefied accent to make the announcements. Roy "Chubby" Brown, perhaps, or Peter Kay.

Anyway, as a committed people-watcher at Wimbledon since the 1977 championships - when I stood in Centre Court as a 15-year-old having queued on Church Road for tickets, unless my mind is playing tricks on me, since December 1976 - I am now familiar with most of the breeds. And I think my favourite is that which turns up to spectate in full tennis gear - pristine white shirt, socks, shorts and shoes sometimes even matched by a white bandage around one knee.

Of course, this is by no means a phenomenon limited to tennis. A slight variation of the same breed will grace the Open Championship at St Andrews later this month: men wearing Footjoy golf shoes and capacious waterproofs over yellow tanktops and red trousers; women in big culottes and special golf socks with little bobbles at the back.

Yet another variation can be seen at football matches; obese men in acrylic replica football shirts so clingy that you can see how deep their belly-buttons are. This is a truly fascinating sub-species, especially when they berate an opposition footballer carrying perhaps half an inch of spare flesh, as opposed to their foot and a half. It is a spectacle of which I am inordinately fond, that of a football fan who makes the Michelin Man look svelte, singing with not an iota of self-awareness: "Who ate all the pies?/Who ate all the pies?" And it is always the most weeble-likes ones who then spit out the word "fat" with the most contempt.

But the football fan does not wear the replica shirt because he thinks it makes him look like a footballer; he is just registering his devotion to his team. This is not how it works at golf or tennis tournaments, or indeed at cricket and rugby matches. The spectator at Lord's wearing the home-knitted cricket sweater and the floppy sun hat is not telling us he supports England; he is telling us that he plays cricket too. And the chap at Twickenham in the red rose rugby shirt is telling us that he can execute a perfect torpedo pass.

To return to Wimbledon, I wouldn't want to stop one of these sad old geezers and ask them why they are dressed for tennis, just in case it turned out to be Ken Rosewall or someone on his way to a veterans' doubles. But there are plenty who aren't Ken Rosewall, whose most energetic task of the day is lifting the lid off their Tupperware box of egg sandwiches.

Still, I don't want to sound too mean-spirited. It is wonderful to see such enthusiasm for tennis, especially when it is not manifest in its tiresomely histrionic form, as Henmania. As for the strange breeds of spectator, by poking fun at them I am in a way no better than the fat football fan asking who ate all the pies.

My sister-in-law Jackie was in the Centre Court crowd last week, and it tickled her hugely that the occupants of the press box never applaud, no matter how spectacular the tennis. "What a strange lot you are," she said, and I couldn't disagree.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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