My kingdom for a picnic table – life on Henman Hill

Big screens, cushions and 'Grandstand'. Steve Tongue reports on another way to watch tennis
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The Independent Online

It was not Centre Court, but it was still Wimbledon. "Will you put a shirt on, please," the blazered security man growled at anyone taking too much advantage of the afternoon sun. Regulations is regulations, even when you've paid £8 and queued for hours to be part of what was supposed to be the greatest day British men's tennis has experienced since most of the folk on the hill were born.

That was Friday; yesterday, the only temptation to take a shirt off came when it was wet through. Unlike the £60 ticket-holder, who can wander off to shelter at the bar and return at leisure, the hill-dwellers do not dare leave their tiny square of territory. Instead they shelled out another £3.50 for a rain-cape or employed colourful umbrellas – used to keep the sun off the previous day – for their more normal purpose. Grandstand was beamed on to the big screen and provided a diversion while tennis was on, but there was little enthusiasm for the British SuperBike Championship. The Wimbledon Channel came on instead, just in time for the All England Club's chief executive Chris Gorringe to tell the multitude in a clearly pre-recorded interview: "The tennis has been good and the weather's been good."

What Sue Barker and patriotic friends have come to call Henman Hill is officially known as the Aorangi Picnic Terrace. It was appropriate, if frustrating, that the rain should come to spoil the party there, since "Aorangi" is a Maori word for "cloud in the sky" and was the name given to that area of the grounds, also covering the practice courts, because it had once been the site of the New Zealand Sports Club.

The huge TV screen was first erected there in 1990, showing Centre Court matches with updated scores from all other courts. Loudspeakers placed at either side of the terrace relay BBC commentary to those close enough to hear it, though spectators crowded near the centre strain to hear Mr McEnroe's bons mots, and many favour an earpiece carrying the machine-gun commentary of Radio 5 Live.

As with most big screens, the picture is not perfect, though since Friday there has been an attractive (and much more comfortable) alternative on the site of Courts 13, 12 and 11. A similar screen there, imported on Thursday night from Holland, provides much sharper images – although, infuriatingly, it suddenly went on the blink on Friday as the Rafter-Agassi match was heading towards its climax. Engineers were quickly on the spot and had everything hunky-dory in time for Tim, to the relief of those sitting sedately in the large Court 13 stand or sprawled on the manicured grass of Courts 11 and 12.

It is to The Hill that the most maniacal of the Henmaniacs race, however, once the gates to the grounds open at 10.30am. The huge bonus of early arrival is securing a place at one of the limited number of picnic tables. Bizarrely, most of these are at the front of each section, blocking the view of all latecomers, who must either squat behind them and peer through the gaps, stand right at the back by the rather lovely lily ponds, or opt for the fiercely uncomfortable stone steps at the front.

A cushion, hired for £1.50, or purchased for £6 or ("luxury version") £12, is desirable for those on the flat, but little use on the slopes, which are as steep as an Alpine mountain and can have anyone sitting on one feeling like a bobsleigh contestant.

"Can you sit down PLEASE" is a frequent cry, often in vowels that would crack a glass. Otherwise, as with the dress code, normal tennis decorum is only slightly modified: taking a toilet break, standing up to stretch or hurrying off to the Pimms Bar should only take place at the change of ends; mobile phones are permitted, though the lady discussing at such great length (and volume) how her builders had gone home without closing the velux windows might have shown greater consideration for those nearby.

Cheering when Goran double-faults against Tim is perfectly acceptable. There have been ten such roars so far.

Yesterday, at half past one, the hill was closed off for the third day running – rather oddly, since it was still drizzling and people were beginning to drift away looking for a dryer spot. The die-hards, having sat around for seven hours or more, were rewarded at last with sunshine blinking through the cloud, and the hope that they would see history made after all.

There was a nasty moment just before the resumption when the screen suddenly changed to BBC2 and a programme on Egyptian civilisation, but normal service was quickly resumed. The Ivanisevic service was too, with an ace to level at 2-2. When Henman served at 5-6 in the tie-break, you could have heard a strawberry drop. Instead, serve and set were dropped, and spirits were as damp as the turf.

But the hill-folk will pack their hampers this morning and fight another day.