Al­ways think­ing in­side the box

The ten­nis is great at Wim­ble­don, but eyes are of­ten on who gets the cov­eted seats in the royal box.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Sam Farmer sam.farmer@latimes.com Twit­ter: @LATimes­farmer

WIM­BLE­DON, England — Much of the buzz head­ing into the Wim­ble­don women’s sin­gles final Satur­day is not about the play­ers at Cen­tre Court — Ser­ena Williams and An­gelique Ker­ber — but who will be watch­ing them from the royal box.

The for­mer Meghan Markle, the Dutchess of Sus­sex, will have a front-row seat next to her hus­band, Prince Harry, to watch her friend com­pete for a record 24th Grand Slam ti­tle. Williams at­tended the wed­ding of Meghan and Harry at Wind­sor Castle in May.

So what is the royal box, and how does some­one land an in­vi­ta­tion to sit in one of those cov­eted 74 dark green Lloyd Loom wicker chairs?

Tour­na­ment of­fi­cials are mum on the process, shar­ing only ba­sic details about the box and de­clin­ing to speak on (or off) the record for this story. There’s some mys­tery to the most ex­clu­sive seats in sports.

For the most part, the roy­als don’t pick their guests. In­vi­ta­tions come from the chair­man of the All England Club, with in­put from the cham­pi­onship’s or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, the Lawn Ten­nis Assn., and other sources.

Guests are in­vited to the club­house for lunch and tea, as well as drinks at the end of the day. It’s a ro­tat­ing cast each day of the two-week tour­na­ment, many of them rec­og­niz­able names. They can bring a guest and must spend the du­ra­tion of the matches in the oak-lined box that’s squarely be­hind one of the base­lines.

It’s an eclec­tic group. For in­stance, Fri­day’s guests in­cluded ten­nis leg­ends Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver, Bee Gee Barry Gibb, Vogue ed­i­tor Anna Win­tour, and “Man vs. Wild” star Bear Grylls.

“It’s a cool ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Pam Shriver, a five-time Wim­ble­don doubles win­ner who has sat in the box about a half-dozen times but had to turn down an in­vi­ta­tion to do so last week­end be­cause of com­mit­ments.

Even for VIPs, be­ing prompt is es­sen­tial. Pippa Middleton, the younger sis­ter of Prince Wil­liam’s wife, Kate, showed up a few min­utes late for an Andy Murray match last year and wasn’t al­lowed into the box. She and her mother were rel­e­gated to the stands.

Run­ner Mo Farah, who won two Olympic gold medals for England at the Sum­mer Games in Lon­don, got in trou­ble for us­ing his phone to shoot video from the box dur­ing a match. Elec­tronic de­vices are re­quired to be switched off.

There is a strict dress code for peo­ple in those prime seats. Men are asked to “dress smart” in ei­ther a suit or coat and tie. Women are asked not to wear hats so as not to ob­scure the vi­sion of those sit­ting be­hind them.

Bri­tish rac­ing driver Lewis Hamil­ton was turned away from the box in 2015 be­cause he wasn’t wear­ing a jacket and tie. Ear­lier, he had posted a photo on In­sta­gram of his in­vi­ta­tion pack­age with the cap­tion: “On my way to Wim­ble­don to watch the final. Hon­oured to have been in­vited to watch the men’s fi­nals from the Royal Box.”

His flo­ral shirt and tan fe­dora didn’t make the cut, spark­ing a vig­or­ous de­bate on Twit­ter, with some peo­ple say­ing Hamil­ton should have known bet­ter, and oth­ers say­ing every­body needs to re­lax.

“Might be me,” tweeted English soc­cer player-turned-broad­caster Gary Lineker, “but turn­ing away @LewisHamil­ton from the Royal box for not wear­ing a bloody jacket and tie shows England as its pompous worst.”

On rare oc­ca­sions, the tour­na­ment bends the rules. Two-time cham­pion Murray got to wear a sweat­suit in the box last year on the mid­dle Satur­day, which has be­come known as Sport­ing He­roes Day, when past and present sports stars are hon­ored.

Not ev­ery for­mer sports star is wel­come. Last year, Ro­ma­nian Ilie Nas­tase, a for­mer world No. 1 with a rep­u­ta­tion as a hot­head, was banned from the box for views seen as sex­ist and racist.

For the ma­jor­ity of guests, a seat in the royal box pro­vides the mem­ory of a life­time.

The ini­tial in­vi­ta­tion is via email, and once a guest ac­cepts he or she gets a paper ticket that looks like any other voucher for the tour­na­ment, ex­cept it has “Royal Box” printed on it. The pro­gram is em­bla­zoned with the same.

Ten min­utes be­fore the start of the first match, ev­ery­one takes their seats and an of­fi­cial pho­tog­ra­pher takes a group shot of ev­ery­one in the box. Guests then re­ceive that photo as a me­mento.

“Be­fore that, they have a great lunch, and the [tour­na­ment] chair­man gives a lovely lit­tle speech,” Shriver said. “He talks maybe about the match, or weaves in a lit­tle story about — like right now there’s an as­tro­naut up in the space sta­tion that has a coin that will be used, heads or tails, for next year’s fi­nals.”

Shriver heard that talk re­cently at the Last 8 Club. Any­one who reaches the Wim­ble­don quar­ter­fi­nals or be­yond in sin­gles or semi­fi­nals or be­yond in doubles qual­i­fies for a life­time mem­ber­ship. Those peo­ple get a grounds pass and cre­den­tial for ev­ery day of the tour­na­ment. Sin­gles champions are granted mem­ber­ship to the club and have the right to buy two Cen­tre Court seats for each day of the tour­na­ment.

Typ­i­cally, the roy­als don’t min­gle with the guests at the lunch be­fore­hand but have a sep­a­rate area to dine. They take their front-row seats for the group photo and day of ten­nis, how­ever.

The rules aren’t quite as rigid as they once were. The tra­di­tion of play­ers bow­ing or curt­sy­ing to mem­bers of the royal fam­ily upon en­ter­ing or leav­ing Cen­tre Court was scrapped in 2003, in ac­cor­dance with the wishes of the Duke of Kent, the club’s pres­i­dent. The only ex­cep­tions are when the queen and/or prince of Wales are in at­ten­dance.

Kirsty Wig­glesworth As­so­ci­ated Press

ENGLAND RUGBY player Chris Rob­shaw, left, and for­mer cricket player An­drew Strauss wave from the royal box last Satur­day at Wim­ble­don.

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