Held every June in west Kensington are the Fever-Tree Championships, better known as Queen’s Club, or simply ‘Queen’s’, an annual event that makes up part of the men’s ATP tour. Seen as the ideal warm-up tournament ahead of Wimbledon in July, as players transition from Roland-Garros and the end of the clay court season, it attracts huge names looking to sharpen their serves and familiarise themselves with the speed of grass court tennis.
Just a quick run-through of previous winners confirms its prestige, with the likes of Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Pete Sampras all picking up titles. Go back a little further and the usual suspects of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe dominate the list – names not out of place in any hall of fame, and yet, without the overpriced strawberries and insistence on competitors wearing white, the event flies under the radar of the casual tennis fan.
The idea that Wimbledon is elitist and Queen’s Club isn’t does require a healthy dose of perspective; we’re talking about tennis in west Kensington, after all. For the majority of the year it is a private tennis club, whereby membership application requires the endorsement from two existing members who have known the candidate for a minimum of two years. Once that’s done an applicant needs two additional supporting statements from two further members. This, however, changes during its annual tournament, when any fan can head down and watch play.
The major difference between the two tournaments is the price. Tickets for Queen’s can be bought through the club’s official website and start at £30 for general admission. Understandably, this increases for tickets on its main show court, as well as the more premium seats within. However, they remain a fraction of the price than those of its bigger brother; a seat to the final at Queen’s starts at £120, a full £90 less than the men’s final on the last day at Wimbledon. At Queen’s that’s enough to get you tickets to the first three days’ play on top of your ticket for the final. And while the three other Grand Slams sell their tickets online, Wimbledon maintains an archaic formula that they pass off as traditional rather than simply being outdated; using an elaborate combination of Ticketmaster, public ballot (where anyone wanting a ticket has to post a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the club in the hope they get picked at random), hospitality and The Queue.
Sold as part of the quaint British charm of tennis’ grandest showpiece, Wimbledon’s seeming obsession with queuing sees people pitch up tents overnight in the hope of securing a half-decent ticket the next day, transforming Wimbledon Park into a campsite for two weeks of the year. There is no need to set an alarm for the morning because a steward wakes everybody up at around 6am, instructing them to pack away belongings and join a new queue. Numbers in one day can reach 10,000, far outweighing the number of tickets available, and even the capacity of the site itself. Members of The Queue are even given a 29-page guide, explaining everything from what wristbands to wear and what food you’re not allowed to eat, to the restrictions of ‘temporary absence’ (leaving your space to go to the toilet).
Philip Brook, Chairman of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, and who heads up Wimbledon, insists the system is the club’s way of doing everybody a favour. Speaking at the London Capital Club, he pointed out that the queue and ballot were ‘things we could easily get rid of and do without’. It’s the notion of giving tennis to the people, and that the general public should be lucky that they can wait in line for hours in the hope of catching a glimpse of some mixed doubles in the dwindling light.
Queen’s also doesn’t have a debenture system. At Wimbledon, 3,500 debenture holders, paying £50,000 a pop, are guaranteed Court One/Centre Court seats for five years at a time and can renew their debenture when it’s nearing its end. Only if they decline does it then get offered to somebody else.
Away from the debentures, campsites and ballots, you can still watch tennis’ top seeds playing, on greener courts, for less money, with smaller crowds, and without the need to pitch up a tent (maximum two persons, obviously) in a public park the night before.
Among the players themselves, there is a widely held belief that the courts at Queen’s are even more immaculate than Wimbledon’s famous grass. The tournament is smaller and shorter, meaning that later rounds are played on courts that are just a week old, rather than the dusty yellow of Wimbledon’s latter stages. While SW19’s famous foliage is talked about across the world, very little of it is actually left when the trophy presentations are made.
The courts also provide a sterner test for the players, with a grass composition that makes the ball travel faster than Wimbledon; only Halle (a similar-sized tournament held on grass at the same time of year in Germany) offers more speed than Queen’s.
The club has 27 grass courts, as well as some indoor ones, squash and Real Tennis facilities. With less courts and smaller stands, the atmosphere is far more intimate than Wimbledon. Temporary stands are erected for the tournament to accommodate the bigger crowds and players use the outer courts for practice, meaning fans get fantastic access if they want to watch them prepare from just yards away.
The major caveat to all of this is that there’s no women’s tennis on show. That said, during the same week as Queen’s is Eastbourne (which has men’s and women’s play), which is even more affordable than Queen’s at £20 for a day’s general admission.
Perhaps it’s time to temper the Wimbledon hype. Of course the sport on show is spectacular, but factor in some context. In what other world would someone camp to queue, pay, and sit on a hill to watch a large TV, rather than simply watch a TV in the first place? And that’s before you factor in a fridge, electricity and your own toilet.