Fans revel in charm and intimacy of unique arena

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The Independent Online

Pat Scally and Pam Reeves were sitting comfortably at a picnic table on Henman Hill by 11am. They had already eaten their packed lunches but were enjoying the sunshine with paper cups of coffee.

"Everything about Wimbledon is so lovely," Pat said. "It caters for everyone, from all these youngsters to boring old farts like us. We come on the coach from Bristol and everything about the day is excellent."

Normally, Pam would have been at work and Pat would have been watching TV at home. But this is their treat. They do not go to any other tennis championships, but at Wimbledon Pam insists "the tennis is vital". They were thrilled to have secured Centre Court tickets "to see Tim!" yelped Pat.

Spectators in south-west London defend the tournament in a manner that is rarely heard at other major sports events. Even if Henman drags them through the emotional mill, they feel well treated by the establishment and that keeps them coming back. The Formula One fiasco at the weekend, when thousands of fee-paying spectators were cheated out of the Indianapolis race, would never be emulated here.

Wimbledon manages to satisfy the expectations of both the broadcast media and the fans. In an increasingly commercial sports world, fans can be forgotten as quickly as the names of British women playing at Wimbledon, but the Lawn Tennis Association has reduced corporate hospitality to just eight per cent of all Centre and Court One seats. Private suites have been reduced from 46 in 1991 to 36 today, increasing public ticket availability.

Such a policy seems justified when you learn of the dedication of some of the fans. Matt and Sarah Doyle are Liverpudlians in their twenties who have taken the week off work to visit the tennis. Waiting at the competitors' entrance for autographs, they explained their annual regime. "We will arrive every day at 3am," Matt said, "and when we leave at the end of the day, we get back to the hotel for 9.30pm, pack our bag for the next day, book our taxi and go to sleep until 2am. The queuingis fun."

The Doyles also went to the French Open this year but it did not compare favourably to Wimbledon, "The people weren't as excited. The atmosphere here is just fantastic."

But are most people here for the tennis? "No!" says Sarah Doyle adamantly. "But we are."

They are in the minority, but does it matter? Wimbledon's social tennis spectators help to fund the sport in the UK for the remainder of the year, just as Henley's Royal Regatta attracts wealthy Pimm's drinkers who unwittingly fund the national rowing team. Most visitors will not watch another regatta all year (many do not watch on the day) but their tickets help to support the country's most successful Olympic sport. And like Henley, Wimbledon remains a predominantly middle-class preserve. Alighting at Southfields tube station (where the platform is covered temporarily by a green baize), smartly dressed white professionals wear expensive sunglasses and carry quality newspapers.

By 11am yesterday the general public were eating whole lobsters in the Conservatory Buffet. Two hours later and the baguette stall and Champagne bar were 20 people deep, while the pizza and hot dog stalls were empty. Call me a detective, but I would say middle-class palates were in evidence.

It is not just the food that makes Wimbledon such a wonderful experience for the fans. The grounds possess the elegance of an English summer garden. Sharp architectural corners are softened by ivy, jasmine and lavender. The venue is strikingly clean with plenty of public toilets, areas to sit out of the sun and willing helpers. The infamous queues are manned by flirtatious middle-aged men in blazers and straw boaters who were once captains of industry and can rule a line of tired fans with common sense and humour.

But it is inside the courts that the real charm of Wimbledon reveals itself. The intimacy of such a small arena - even on the larger Centre Court - allows the fans to feel involved in a way that does not happen at a Premiership football match, a Formula One grand prix or a rowing regatta.

Andrew Murray's fan base will be strengthened significantly by the fact that most of his supporters on Court Two yesterday could spend the 70-minute game examining the mole on his right calf as he ground his way to victory. And every supporter who made Henman hear their voice feels they played a small part in his rousing victory. There was good reason for pride in at least a couple of British players yesterday, but pride in the tournament should last for the whole fortnight.