Ticketless revel in a no-play day

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The Independent Online
The electronic sign just inside the gate was fairly explicit about it. "No play" it said, "on Courts Two, Three, Four ..." and so on, all the way up to 17. But an insignificant matter like no tennis has never been known to deter the crowds on Wimbledon's final day. So in we went, thousands of us, the unticketed, ready to enjoy exactly no live sport for the bargain price of nothing (The All England Club, high on end-of- term fever, generously waives admission charges on this gameless afternoon).

If you have no Centre Court seat for the men's final there is little you can do about it, other than consult one of the gentlemen with the well upholstered back pockets who drift innocently along Church Road, offering to "buy any spares" (who are they kidding?). Even then, unless you have Sunday access to a bank vault and a Securicor van, you're going to be disappointed. The tout I approached wanted pounds 300 which was precisely pounds 291 more than I was carrying. In any case, I was put off by the peculiar inky smudges on his fingertips.

But the All England Club has foreseen your problem and has thoughtfully made a whole range of entertainment available to you on this boiling summer's day. The tented bars are open and the champagne and Pimms are flowing. The club wouldn't allow anything as vulgar as a hot dog stand on the premises but there are kiosks selling what is known as a "Dutchee" - a construction involving a sausage and a bread roll. Tucked in the shade of the Centre Court, which is as close as you're going to get, the Lawn Buffet (a lot of buffet, no lawn) is doing big business. And on the back-lot where the Club is presently putting up an all new Court One (ready in 1997), there are more food tents, many plastic chairs and a giant video screen ready to relay the match.

This area is, to all intents and purposes, a building site but - this being the All England Club - it's a rigorously tidy one, already pleasantly full some two hours before match-time, with people feasting from ice boxes, dandling small children or simply baking themselves stupid in the sun.

If you don't want to eat until you burst you can shop until you drop. Wimbledon may be the kind of furiously traditional place where even the phones come in red boxes, but that doesn't prevent it from thinking Sunday trading is an inviolable right. Among the more eccentric items on sale: postcards of David Wheaton, a crystal glass tennis ball (brings a whole new dimension to your overhead smash) and copies of Home! The Evonne Goolagong Story.

Elsewhere people are lunching on the benches beside courts which have neither players nor even nets on them. Here you sense a slightly more desperate thirst for some tennis. A knock-up featuring no one I recognise has drawn the kind of avid throng which Take That are used to. The Boys Doubles on Court One - the only tennis running simultaneously with Sampras v Becker - is a sell-out.

By one o'clock there was barely room to breathe in the Viewing Lane, the cordoned-off star-spotting area outside the Centre Court's front door. Amid the straining necks, rumours flourished of imminent arrivals. "Princess Di" said someone. "Hugh Grant" said another. Grant would certainly have had heads bobbing. A woman asked a steward, "Has the Royal Family arrived yet?" "There's Agassi," a teenager said to his mate. "Sucker!" he added.

In 20 minutes of hanging around, judiciously poised between the VIP door and the competitors' entrance, I had failed to spot the Royal Family, Agassi, or either of the afternoon's main combatants. I settled instead for Jana Novotna,Virginia Bottomley and her husband and former US president George Bush (almost certainly a look-alike).

And then, just as I was moving out, in came Princess Diana in a flurry of security guards and a Jaguar. She left it late; barely time for a pre-match Dutchee and a half of Pimms.

At two o' clock the video screen flashed into life.There was some ironic clapping in imitation of the noise clearly audible from the court. A shot the BBC showed before play, of someone on the Centre Court actually asleep, went down fairly frostily in this realm of the have-nots.

The mood of the crowd was essentially pro-Becker. His first-set victory was greeted with whistling and hands raised in applause. By the time Sampras levelled the match, most people were either too hot or too sated to express anything other than mild disappointment. Under the electronic scoreboard a small crowd gathered to watch the Championship point tick over. There was the barest smattering of applause and the crowd dispersed.

Even if the shops and bars had stayed shut, the place would doubtless still have been teeming. There are plenty of people for whom simply being near, within earshot of that rich Centre Court roar, is enough. The final day confirms what one has suspected all through the fortnight; that, for large portions of the crowd, the tennis is really only the slightest part of what this event is about.