Since the first Championships in 1877, Wimbledon has grown from its roots as a garden party competition to a Grand Slam tournament with a global following of millions. The event attracts around 470,000 spectators each year, but Ian Ritchie, Chief Executive of the AELTC, still insists it is based on the foundations of a ‘private tennis club with a bit of a do in the summer.’
Tradition is everything for the oldest international tennis competition in the world. It is the only remaining Grand Slam to be played out on immaculate lawns, the only one to enforce a strict all-white dress code, and the only one to insist on a no-sponsorship policy. Its approach to past champions is also unique.
Given that former Wimbledon winners are an integral part its history, it is understandable that the All England Club should want to make a fuss of them. So in 1986 another custom unique to The Championships was born and eventually christened - the Chairman’s Guests.
Each year four players are invited by the Chairman to attend the tournament together with a guest. The gesture is designed to celebrate their past achievements and the decision tends to mark a significant anniversary.
In 2010, eagle-eyed tennis fans may have spotted Australian Evonne Goolagong-Cawley meandering around the perfectly manicured courts. The former champion, who captured the Wimbledon singles titles in 1971, 1980 and won the doubles in 1974, was invited back to mark the 30th anniversary of her second win.
Fittingly Goolagong, who was only the fourth mother ever to have won the Ladies’ singles title, chose to share the exclusive Chairman’s Guest privilege with her son. The pair made the lengthy trek from Australia and spent the entire second week soaking up the tennis and revelling in the occasion.
“It was lovely for us having Evonne around,” explains Chairman Philip Brook. “It added something to the tournament for people to see her. I think this [invitation] is unique to Wimbledon in a systematic kind of way. We typically choose former singles champions and they are chosen usually because it’s the anniversary of one of their wins or their only win.”
The prestigious trip includes accreditation into the Grounds, a complimentary pair of tickets for Centre Court every day, access to all Show Courts and, on selected days, an invite into the Royal Box. Should they wish, there is also a raft of official functions to attend - the pre-Wimbledon ball held on the Saturday before The Championships, another ball on the middle Saturday, and the Champions’ dinner to name but a few.
Chairman’s Guests also have access to the Member’s Enclosure, where they can eat in the silver service restaurant, relax on the tea lawns, watch the world go by, and of course, relive their moments of glory, which are reprinted alongside their picture and biographies in the official Wimbledon programme.
So how are former stars selected? The Chairman makes recommendations which are presented before the Committee. “We invite them to come for the whole Championships, but most of them don’t. They come for a period of time that suits them,” explains Brook. “We will invite up to four players and their guests but they don’t always say yes. Some are not well enough to travel.”
There have only been two years where no guests have attended. Angela Mortimer and John Newcombe accepted invitations to the 2011 Championships, the 50th anniversary of Mortimer’s victory in the Ladies' singles, and 40 years since Newcombe lifted the Gentleman’s singles trophy.
Rod Laver and Billie Jean King are also among the previous winners who have been honoured as Chairman’s guests. “It’s quite a special thing and it is about making a fuss of some of the former champions,” Brooks says. “It’s a nice privilege for our members and their guests to enjoy during The Championships. It also adds something to a tournament for people to see them.”