Tennis will be in the news a lot over the next few weeks, and for those who don’t cram into the site to watch a match in person, you can go on a guided tour of Wimbledon grounds.
As thousands upon thousands of people throng to Wimbledon 2022, this year is also a special one as it marks the 100th anniversary of the tennis club being where it is today. Officially the club’s name is The All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, and was formed in July 1868, based in Wimbledon village, and it was there that they held their first-ever tournament, as a fundraiser to pay for a new lawn roller. This proved so popular that they realised it could be an annual event. Eventually, it grew too large for the old site and in 1922, they opened in the current site, which has expanded a few times, and is about to again.
Yes, the entire annual Wimbledon jamboree owes its origins to a poor club needing a new lawn roller.
Normally, a visit around a sports facility usually requires familiarity with the sport, but this guided tour is refreshingly light on heavy in-depth details, and sticks to the sorts of names that everyone will have heard of, even if only as background noise on the TV or radio news.
The tour is really to show off the architecture a bit, the surprisingly large estate that the tennis courts occupy, a chance to stand inside the empty tennis courts that are normally only seen when they’re packed, and have a wander around areas not usually seen by the public.
Even someone not that interested in tennis — and I count myself as more of a “watches the final once a year if nothing else is on telly” sort of person — can feel a bit of a moment of excitement about standing in these impressive spaces that have seen so much triumph and heartache over the century. You’ll get very close to the grass but you must NOT touch it.
It’s hallowed ground.
One thing that is striking is how upmarket it all feels around here, and not just because of the preparations for the upcoming tournament. But there’s an air of everything being just perfectly maintained, from the paving to the handrails to the green walls around the main courts. It’s an expensive place to maintain and felt oddly surreal while empty of spectators, a paused space waiting for crowds.
One of the reasons why it feels more like a village than a sports facility is the lack of garish sponsorship banners. Yes, there are sponsors, but they’re quite restrained in how much branding they’re allowed. The lure of being one of a handful of sponsors allowed to support the event being so great that companies will bow to the club’s famously tight rules. This makes for a refreshing change from other sports venues which can end up looking more like a shopping centre for corporate brands, with a small sports subsidiary attached.
Back to the tour, yes you’ll get to stand by Henman Hill/Murray Mount, which is officially called Aorangi terrace (you’ll learn why), made from the soil dug out to create Court 1. Yes, you get to see the Court 18 and the plaque to remember the record-breaking match played there. And then something the public won’t see – go inside the media centre and into the room where the TV interviews take place. And yes you can have your photo taken behind that interview desk with the tour guides happily using your camera to get your personal memento.
And finally, into Centre Court, although on my visit this was way up in the gods as they were in the final preparations for the Championships. Although, not seen by most people is the amazing view from the top floor landing where the lifts are, and they really should try to let the public see it.
The tour lasts about 90 minutes, and yes, it’s really enjoyable and informative, and light on the tennis itself. It’s very much a chance to stand here and see the hallowed ground for yourself shorn of the crowds and fuss, and it’s pretty special.
There’s still the museum to visit – which is in a large basement space, and here they tell the history of tennis in general and then of the tennis club and championships. It helps to be a bit of a tennis fan to appreciate the museum, but I still enjoyed it and learned a lot about the history of the sport.
The plate and trophy are here, as the winners get smaller replicas, and naturally, you can’t touch them – but there are a couple of weights to lift nearby to see how heavy they are. My main thought after that being that the champions, having probably reached the limit of their endurance now have to hoist this really heavy trophy and preferably not drop it.
It’s a big museum, and even without the tour, I’d give it high marks for people to visit. Add in the tour though, and that’s a pretty good half-day visit.
What was scary though was the gift shop with the eye-watering prices charged for branded clothing, which made me shake my head in amazement, but wasn’t putting off shoppers buying up their t-shirts and towels. That said, I added a fortunately quite affordable commemorative 100th-anniversary mug to my growing collection of souvenir mugs.
Tours and museum entry costs £25 for an adult and £15 for a child – and you need to book in advance from here. Unsurprisingly, you can’t do the tour during the Championships, so the tours will resume on Saturday 16th July 2022.
Photography is fully allowed everywhere on the tour, except of the playing members, which we were helpfully told are easy to spot as they’re wearing white and carrying a tennis racket. On my visit, there were members still playing tennis on courts that in just a few weeks time would see the very best of tennis stars playing on the same grass.
A reminder that for all the fuss of the Championships, this is still a members club, and it exists primarily to support the roughly 500 members who get to play on some of the most famous grass in the world.