Brian Viner: Behind the green and pleasant courts toils the unseen army that is 'Wombledon'

The Last Word

Related Topics

Like one of those ladies who lunch, of whom there are so many in Wimbledon, the tennis championships that have made the south-west London suburb so famous present a carefully made-up face to the world.

But what of Wimbledon beneath the make-up? In the bowels of the All England Club there are some lifts used only by staff, in which the graffiti tells a tale incompatible with the public message that all is sweet and wholesome and strawberry-flavoured. In one lift, a disaffected employee has scribbled – I can hardly bring myself to write this – the words "Fuck Wimbledon!" That is an act of lèse-majesté that you might think sufficient to force the ravens from the Tower of London, or the Wimbledon equivalent, to make the pigeons flee Centre Court. And yet it has had no effect on anyone or anything. It's just a small act of rebellion by someone fed up of working 14-hour shifts, or being bollocked by a self-important boss, or whatever.

He, or she, is probably one of the thousands of youngsters who make the championships tick along no less, in fact rather more, than the stewards and the referees and the line judges. The truth is that Wimbledon is run by a battalion of 20-year-olds. It is they who search the bags, work the tills, serve the drinks, wash the dishes, empty the bins, fold the linen and perform a hundred other small but vital jobs without which Rafa Nadal and Serena Williams would not get on court. Some of them operate without even the pleasure of natural daylight. The waste disposal team, not inappropriately, are like Wombles, scurrying around out of sight in the cavernous spaces underground.

It is not exactly slave labour, of course. Some of these kids are getting £100 a day or more, which at the end of two weeks, plus training days, yields enough for next term's tuition or a second-hand car. But the point is that, like an iceberg, 98 per cent of the monolith that is Wimbledon lies beneath the surface.

Sometimes, during one of those pesky showers, television viewers might be treated to a glimpse behind the scenes, perhaps of the people frantically stringing rackets, or of the full-time seamstress, but of the real nuts and bolts of the operation we never see anything. And actually that also applies higher up the food chain, in fact to the poached salmon and watercress salad level of the food chain, for there is even more corporate hospitality at Wimbledon than most of us realise. Every lunchtime, for example, the fragrant Annabel Croft is ushered in to offer some cultured pearls of wisdom to that day's guests of the Lawn Tennis Association. Sometimes, to their manifest delight, the former British No 1 confides a little bit of gossip. On Thursday, she told them that Venus Williams habitually eats like a horse before she goes out to play, but since the new locker-room rules banning food has had to smuggle it in and stuff herself in the loo.

Croft, I should think, makes a much more lucrative living out of tennis than she ever did when she was engaged in the demanding carry-on of hitting a ball over a net. But Wimbledon fortnight represents the biggest opportunity all year to coin it, not just for her but all the way down to the Orinocos, Bungos and Great-Uncle Bulgarias sorting out the rubbish, to say nothing of the malcontents with their marker pens.

Much Wenlock takes gold in pioneering the modern Olympics

The continuing brouhaha over Olympics tickets seems to call for a reflection on simpler times and, with perfect timing, a lovely book has just been published, written by Catherine Beale and called Born Out of Wenlock. It tells the absorbing story, with which some of us are familiar, but nowhere near familiar enough, of how the small Shropshire market town of Much Wenlock, and the efforts and vision of a Victorian surgeon, William Penny Brookes, gave rise to the modern Olympic movement.

The father of the Olympic Games as we know them is generally held to be a Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin but, without the slightest doubt, Brookes was the grandfather. He it was who formed the Wenlock Olympian Society, and from 1850 invited competitors from all social backgrounds to take part in the Wenlock Olympian Games. In October 1890 Coubertin went to Much Wenlock to have a look for himself. Until then, Beale informs us, he had never uttered the words "Olympic Games" except in derision. Within four years he had formed the International Olympic Committee, and the rest is history, and ticketing cock-ups.

Zeros to heroes – it's o-ver to you

In the Wimbledon media bar late on Wednesday evening, I sat with two fellow hacks, and, in that way I have of raising the important topics of the moment, invited them to name the three former England footballers (male) whose surnames contain three Os. It must have been the lateness of the hour, or perhaps the couple of glasses of wine quaffed, but they thought and thought and then gave up. So, over to you.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page


In Sickness and in Health: 'I'm really happy to be alive and to see Rebecca'

Rebecca Armstrong
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine