/ 29 June 2006

Tennis-mad tourists out in force at Wimbledon

With a punnet of strawberries in one hand and a glass of Pimms in the other, tennis-mad tourists from as far away as Japan, China and even Australia are out in force at Wimbledon this week.

The foreign supporters, who also include a strong United States contingent, cheer on their fellow countrymen and women, while soaking up the atmosphere at the two-week tournament in south-west London, which started on Monday.

Some have even queued through the night to purchase a ticket for the centre-court matches featuring the likes of defending champions Roger Federer, the world number one from Switzerland, and US sensation Venus Williams.

“In Japan, we see Wimbledon as the most famous tennis tournament in the world so I am very excited to be here,” said Eriko Yamada, a 22-year-old tennis coach from the Japanese city of Kobe.

She flew to London with her mother, Mikiko, especially for the annual grass-court competition at the All England Club.

“Coming here and watching the games first-hand is fantastic,” Yamada said as she pored over Wednesday’s programme of matches, which included an all-Japanese clash between Ai Sugiyama and Akiko Morigami.

Sugiyama won the second-round contest in two straight sets.

A growing number of spectators from China found more reason for cheering at Wimbledon, after Li Na and Zheng Jie became the first Chinese players to reach the third round.

“We are supporting our athletes,” said Shi Tian Yi (25), a student from Beijing who is studying for the year in London.

“In China, we learn as children about Wimbledon. We know about the tennis stars and we want to see them,” she said while strolling down a packed path within the complex with a friend.

Away from the Japanese and Chinese visitors, Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt had a healthy show of green-and-yellow support in the crowds.

Christine and John Gorr, who live just outside Sydney, said they planned their three-week holiday to Britain with Wimbledon in mind.

“It was top of our list of things to do,” said Christine Gorr (55), who works in education.

Tennis-loving Americans turned out in numbers at Wimbledon, including three masters students in London who took a break from coursework to check out the tournament.

“I can’t believe how close you get to the players on the courts, it is really cool,” said one of the trio, Annette Bangert from New York.

Wimbledon organisers said the rich history of the tournament — one of the four world Grand Slam tennis events — made it a magnet for foreigners.

“It is an international event so we attract a lot of visitors from overseas who want to support their nationals who are playing,” said Wimbledon spokesperson Sara Jackson.

The tournament’s well-preserved traditions, which dictate that players only wear white and matches are still played on grass courts, add to the intrigue.

In addition, Wimbledon is one of the only major sporting events where it is possible to buy tickets on the day rather than book them in advance.

There is no precise ratio for the number of foreign spectators compared with British because tickets bought on the day do not require a nationality check.

A survey carried out in 2005, however, found that roughly 70 000 out of the 450 000 people who came to Wimbledon over the fortnight were from abroad, according to Jackson, who said the numbers would likely be similar this year. — AFP