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  1. Politics
26 June 2000

Left, right, game, set, march

Philip Kerr decides he has had enough of the Stalinist regime that runs Wimbledon tennis

By Philip Kerr

Each year that I go to the Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon, I promise myself that it will be my last. And each year at around this time, I find I have almost forgotten just how mediocre and irritating Wimbledon can be.

It’s not the tennis that’s poor, although the constant diet of serve and volley that characterises the men’s game on grass does become a little tedious. It’s not even the weather, although why anyone would build a new Number One Court without a weatherdome such as the one in Australia – a hot country – escapes me. No, it’s everything else that comes with tennis at Wimbledon; especially if, like me, you are a debenture holder.

A Wimbledon debenture is merely a certificate of indebtedness to the effect that a ticket is owing to the person designated on it. Thus a pair of debentures entitles you to two tickets, which you can use yourself, give away or sell. Debenture tickets are the only tickets you can sell on the open market. The only other ways in are through the ballot, or at the head of the queue. I’ve been a debenture holder on Number One Court for four years now. Or rather, I hold a pair of debentures, for which I paid the cost of a decent-sized family car. I live very close to the club and, because I really do enjoy tennis, I am happy to pay £200 a ticket.

Or, at least I thought I was. My current debentures run out next year. And I will not be renewing them; what’s more, I would advise anyone thinking about buying a debenture – or, for that matter, a debenture ticket – to think again. Let me tell you why.

I will pass over the Dinnerladies-style catering in the debenture holders’ lounge; after all, it’s tennis we’ve come to see, not the inside of canteens that properly belong on the Mappin Terraces at London Zoo. So let’s buy an overpriced programme and then go and find our uncomfortably hard plastic seats. But wait a minute. Did I remember to polish my brasses? Is my hair too long? Did I make my bed before I left the house? Atten-shun!

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The Wimbledon seat ushers are servicemen, all of them NCOs, who virtually frogmarch spectators to their seats like potentially insubordinate squaddies. It would seem as though one of the men in blazers who run the All-England Club has told these Robson and Jerome understudies to treat spectators as a species disruptive to tennis in the same way that some policemen treat motorists as criminals with registration numbers. Hence, they will tell you to take your feet off the concrete walls, to remove your coat or umbrella (don’t leave home without one) from the railings, and to keep your small picnic (large ones are not permitted) out of view. The sight of a mobile phone, even one that is switched off, is enough get you seven days in the glasshouse. It gives you a whole new respect for the people of Northern Ireland, that they have had to put up with being bossed about by these military jobsworths for 30 years.

Then there is the endless palaver with the court covers. The merest spit of rain is enough to produce a phalanx of men to cover the courts in less time than it takes to eat a punnet of overpriced Wimbledon strawberries. After which, the sun might blaze for 30 minutes before there’s a chance of them coming off again. By this time, I swear, the clouds are back and we go through the whole stupid performance once more. Indeed, it’s not unusual for the match referee to order the covers to be kept on if the London Weather Centre reports an imminent shower of rain – a demonstration of pessimism that even Schopenhauer might have objected to.

Time to leave now. We’ve had enough of soldiers. We came to see tennis, not the Sergeants’ Mess. It doesn’t take long at Wimbledon to feel as if you are in some weird totalitarian state. You think I’m exaggerating? Look, even the ballboys and ballgirls march on and off court like young Stalinist pioneers, while some brain-washed linesman positions the bottle of Robinson’s barley water on the umpire’s chair with the precision of a Tate Modern curator.

But wait, comrade, don’t forget to put your tickets in one of the red collecting boxes situated at all exits to the stands. These tickets are then resold for charity. Most of them are worthy causes, naturally, although I have my doubts about the Sportsman’s Charity. At last year’s tournament, Pete Sampras earned £455,000 for playing 21 sets of tennis – that’s £21,000 a set. Today’s sportsmen need charity like Andre Agassi needs a haircut. And anyway, isn’t charity a matter of individual choice? Wrong, comrade.

One year I came out of the stand and a couple of schoolboys asked me for my tickets. I handed the two delighted boys my tickets only to face the wrath of a very aggressive security guard. I told the brick-faced apparatchik shouting at me that, in this particular case, I preferred to make my own choice of charity; at which point he threatened to prevent me from coming back into the ground – which seemed a little pointless since, by giving my tickets away, I had clearly signalled that I wouldn’t be coming back.

Wimbledon. The place has more attitude than the Elgin marbles. The administration is just as antique. The All- England may be the oldest and most prestigious tennis championships in the world, but the Politburo that runs the championships has been doing it in the same way for years.

This year, I’ve given most of my tickets away.