At Wimbledon, the off-court action is in the queue

British tennis fans rise at 3:30 a.m. and stand in line for six hours. A look at 'queue etiquette.'

It's breakfast time in Wimbledon, but the fans' thoughts are already turning to lunch.

Stoically, obediently, they line up, thousands of them in possibly the most orderly queue in the world. Some read the papers, drink coffee, play cards. Others shift from leg to leg and try to count the formidable ranks of humanity between themselves and the entrance to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. It's not yet 9 a.m., but most have been up for hours.

"Alarm went off at 3:30," says Sachin Kaeley, who lives just 20 miles away, across London. "Got here about 6:30. It hasn't been too bad. I suppose it's part of the whole experience of Wimbledon."

Indeed it is. Wimbledon may be one of the world's premier sporting events. But for the fan, the tournament can be as much of an endurance test as for the players. Some camp overnight to get to the front of the line. Others wait for more than 24 hours to be assured plum tickets for the best matches.

Yet few people complain. Even when a boisterous thunderstorm drenched several thousand queuers on the first day of the tournament, spirits were high, sustained by brollies and bacon sandwiches.

"It's a bit of fun," says Anthony Doolittle, who drove up for the day with friends from Haslemere in southern England. "It is rather unusual ... you don't have to get tickets in advance. It's more spontaneous."

That's certainly the view of the Wimbledon organizers, who argue that the beauty of the system is that it allows the casual and the curious to get into the marquee event in professional tennis. Most major sporting events in Britain rapidly sell out to the initiated and dedicated. Wimbledon allocates most of its seats through a ballot, but holds back 6,000 tickets each day for those who can be bothered to get up before dawn.

What's more, they're proud of their queue. The assembled mass is corralled into a field at least half a mile away, before being moved forward at about the time most sensible people are sitting down to a bowl of cornflakes. The serious earlybirds get options on tickets to Centre Court, where the big names thrash it out. The rest pay 14 pounds ($25) for a roving pass.

"People love the idea of queuing," says Sara Jones, a spokeswoman for the championships. "We're a great queuing nation anyway. It's a great atmosphere down there, except when it's pouring with rain."

The sponsors dole out "I queued at Wimbledon" stickers together with a guide to queuing etiquette, offering advice for those who don't know the proper way to stand in line for several hours. Perhaps that is to be expected from the only venue on the professional tour with a strict "almost entirely white" dress code for players.

Among the queuing rules: reserving places for friends, for example, is forbidden. Dumping your bags to keep your spot in line is also a no-no. A quick trip to the toilet is permissible. But the army of yellow-jacketedWimbledon stewards are standing by to prevent the most egregious violation: "Queue jumping is not acceptable and will not be tolerated," the booklet warns in bold typeface.

Of course, most in the line are far too polite for such felonious acts. Foreigners obligated to abide by the house rules are faintly bemused.

"It's an English thing, I suppose," says Deirdre Rickards, visiting from Australia. "They accept queues here. They're even good at it."

The many hours provide plenty of time to talk tennis too. The recurring themes: are the courts too slow? Are the Williams sisters done? Should the women be allowed to grunt?

And will a Brit ever win? All the homegrown hopefuls, including perennial trier Tim Henman, crashed out during the first week. There was some encouragement in the performance of an 18-year-old Scot called Andy Murray. So much so that inside the club now, the grassy knoll next to Court No. 1 once known as Henman Hill has now been rechristened "Murray Mount."

But with no local heroes left, it can be tough for Brits to know whom to support. Ancient rivalries make it hard to support Australians, Americans, French and Argentinians. Some have adopted Roger Federer, possibly on account of his Swiss neutrality.

Others are turning to yesterday's heroes. Some fans say they will head straight to Court No. 2, where a legend was due to hit a few balls.

"[John] McEnroe's on Court No. 2," says Sandra Hargreaves. "We're hoping to get to see that."

And if the former scourge of Centre Court pulls out a few winners, and perhaps a burst of that old venom, then the 3:30 a.m. alarm and five-hour queuing stint will all have been worth it.

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