We are at the sharp end of The Championships now, and congratulations are due to Mikhail Youzhny, David Ferrer and Philipp Kohlschreiber in reaching their first Wimbledon quarter-final. Whether or not they progress to scale even greater heights by respectively beating Federer, Murray and Tsonga, they will leave the All England Club this year with an invitation to join The Last 8 Club. The invitation comes from Philip Brook, Chairman of the AELTC, and is in recognition of these players’ part “in creating the special heritage of the world’s oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament”. Entitlements include: a photopass to access the grounds every day of the fortnight, a guest pass, use of a private hospitality suite, daily match tickets for Centre and No.1 Courts and a cocktail party on the second Tuesday of The Championships.
The Club was inaugurated in 1986 as part of the 100th Championships celebrations in recognition of “the contribution made to lawn tennis by players who have reached the quarter-finals of the singles, the semi-finals of the gentlemen's and ladies’ doubles or the final of the mixed doubles”. Ann Jones chairs the club. Membership now stands at approximately 600, and is added to every year. Regular attendees include Maria Bueno, Frew McMillan, Betty Stove, Angela Barrett, Manolo Santana, Budge Patty, Neale Fraser, Judy Dalton and the Woodies. Last year Rod Laver popped in to the hospitality area, which is situated by Gate 5 and provides drinks, food, comfortable seats and television. This year Frank Sedgman has visited – he is the last person to win the singles, doubles and mixed doubles in a single year, 60 years ago, in 1952.
Wimbledon was the first Grand Slam to offer hospitality to players of such stature, but all the other Slams have since followed suit. “It is to offer a sense of belonging to players who have given the public great entertainment on the courts but return later and find themselves a nobody,” says Tony Gathercole, a former Assistant Referee who is in his 49th year at Wimbledon, and his ninth year looking after the Last 8 Club. “Buzzer [R.E.H. Hadingham], who was then Chairman, thought it was a bit unfair that players came back as Joe Public and wanted to create a way in which these players could meet each other, out of the public gaze, and enjoy the tennis together.
“Some of our members are also members of the All England Club, of course, but they sometimes prefer to come here where it is quiet, relaxing, much less formal and they can watch the matches on television and see their old mates. We offer free tea and coffee and we have a 6-7pm Happy Hour every day,” says Tony, who also has a daily allocation of 12 tickets to distribute for Centre Court and six for No.1 Court.
Oh to be a fly on the wall when these former greats watch today’s competitors in action on television together! Do they reminisce? “Oh, not half!” exclaims Tony. “They get very excited, and say things like, ‘he should have played the ball on the other side’. They read the matches so well, of course. And they still think this is the best tournament in the world, this is the one to win.”
Despite new members joining every year – including Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Robin Soderling, Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka in the last few years – the average age of regular attendees is quite “senior”. “We don’t see the youngsters for a good few years,” acknowledges Tony. “They tend to become coaches or move into TV roles. Members like Tracy Austin, John Newcombe and John McEnroe are too busy at the moment.”