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A British tradition: Wimbledon on line

Published Oct. 4, 2005

When the big noise came, tumbling over the fence like a prison break, no one was quite sure what had occurred. There is a mystery to sound without sight and, besides, there were some three or four concrete walls between Vic Fry and the man he had come to see.

It was only when the noise continued, when it could be identified by the complete joy it contained, when it be translated into approval, that Fry leaned back and grinned.

Andre Agassi was inside, winning a match against David Wheaton without Fry's help. Fry was outside the wall, sitting on a lawnchair, trying to catch some shade from a nearby tree.

But if Agassi is wondering, Fry is gaining on him.

There is much wonder to this place called Wimbledon, combination tournament site and shrine. There are the traditions that whisper to you as you walk the grounds. There are the celebrities, the melding between the royalties of Britain and Hollywood. There are the athletes, hoping the grass does not get worn down, yet hoping it does before they do.

But best of all are the queues. The people on the outside. Waiting, hoping for a chance on the inside.

They come every day; they stay every night. The goal is not that day's play, but the next. Fry and his friends sat outside on a cool, overcast Saturday evening with the hope of obtaining tickets for Monday's matches. That's a lot of time outside, in the lawn chairs.

Yet, people seem not to mind. The lawnchairs stretch out between a high brick wall and an iron partition. There are two tents on tLe ground. Someone is starting to heat a small grill. Soon, maybe there will even be some tennis.

It might be the most civilized thing in sports, this queue. Wimbledon does not sell all of its tickets. Rather, it puts some aside, allowing the public to line up and collect them. Can you imagine a Super Bowl doing that? A World Series? A Masters? Most sports seem hard at work to alienate the walk-up fan. Not Wimbledon. If you are willing to pay with your time, you have a chance at a seat.

Once, I was in their number. It was the mid-1970s, and I was a footsoldier in the Great Tennis Boom. So when I found myself in England, a personal mission to discover the history of a mother who was raised here, it seemed the grandest thing in the world to stand in the line, to plunk down four or five pounds, to wait in line and to stand. I saw Jimmy Connors play Roscoe Tanner that way. I saw Ille Nastase, and Bjorn Borg, and Chris Evert. If you were willing to wait, and willing to stand as you watched, you could see whomever you wanted. It was a wonder to me then, it is a Pky even now.

To me, that queue, that accessibility, remains the most magical thing about the most magical tennis tournament of all.

Oh, someday, the queues may be gone. Wimbledon is modernizing, like everything else. Look behind the museum, and there is a giant crane, working on a new court 1. There are giant viewing screens. And some traditions are being paved over.

The precious standing-room-only policy was scrapped in 1989 because it was deemed unsafe. The prices for what is left have skyrocketed. Fry, who has been standing in queues at Wimbledon for a decade now, says he pays up to 35 pounds (some $60) for a centre-court seat. Who wants to sleep in the rain and pay that much?

Still, there are people who will, people who consider sleeping outside of Wimbledon as no more than an urban camping trip.

"This is better than buying a ticket," Fry said. "It's the atmosphere. We all know each other here. It's the same people year after year."

If they can do nothing else, the British can stand in line. Ticket lines. Taxi lines. Strawberries-and-cream lines. For many on the inside, this appears to be the quintessential Wimbledon experience. To stand in line, or to mill about. Or to wait for Agassi and cheer wildly.

Funny. An older generation might see this as Pete Sampras country. But this is no longer the London of Henry Higgins and stiff upper lips. This is the country that gave us Sid Vicious and Boy George, a country that has for some time valued style over substance. So Agassi hits them where they live. Fans walk through the concession area with do-rags. There is even a souvineer for sale here that is an Agassi lookalike bag, including bandana, earring, sideburns and a Van Dyke Beard. Brooke Shields not included.

It is tennis for all of the senses. There is the smell of the grass. There are the loud cries from nearby courts _ the Italians, I am told, who cheer as if they were at a Clemson fundraiser. There are the tastes, including the world's worst frankfurters _ hey guys, hot dog is just an expression. And there are the sights, the t-shirts and the flags and the colors.

Soon, Vic Fry will be inside.

Soon, he will be a part of it all.