Abigail Sanoh, a nurse corporal in the Royal Air Force, has been trying for years to get a pair of tickets to Wimbledon for herself and her father, Mohammed Sanoh, who is a tennis fan like his daughter. But the effort proved fruitless. So, I found another way to the reasons why Sanoh was able to stay all 14 days at Wimbledon, with a prime view of center court.
She applied, and was accepted, to be a service stewardess, as part of a program in which 477 members of Britain’s three military branches would serve in the world’s most famous tennis tournament as stewards, what Americans call gestures.
“My father got a ticket and he was able to see me working here,” Sannoh said last week. “It was such a thrill for both of us.”
Since 1946, when soldiers discharged from World War II were first given this task, NCOs (mostly corporals and sergeants) have been stationed at the many entrances to each section of Center Court and Court 1, with strict orders to offer assistance and chatter. And they look smart in their crunchy outfit. It’s one of the features that makes Wimbledon such a special event, and there are also 250 members of the fire brigade who act as stewards at a few of the outdoor courts.
Their only weapons are disarming charm and a gentlemanly zeal to help both fans and fellow hosts. There are no snarling dogs, flak jackets, boots, camouflage uniforms or any of the intimidating logos often seen at major sporting events elsewhere. Although these sailors, soldiers, and cadets are working, they are not technically on active military service.
“We’re here to make people happy,” said James Brooks, moments after he snapped a photo of two fans in front of Center Court as he walked inside to take his position.
Brooks, who served three tours in Afghanistan and has been on duty around the world, was among the most prominent referees, with a role perhaps akin to that of the police. During changeups, he and the other service stewards stand keen interest on the field, looking back toward the stands, to deter potential court invaders.
At his side on Friday was Miriam Charlton, who spent 37 years in the Navy. It began at a challenging time for female military personnel, who were given little attention if they had children, sometimes being moved from one base to another until they resigned. Sent to the Falkland Islands for six months from 1994 to 1995 after having two children, she was only allowed one three-minute phone call a week.
She stuck with the Army and attitudes changed enough that she was asked to form a small parental support unit to assist parents in the Navy. More than 90 percent of women are now retained by the Navy after they have children, Charlton said, up from 52 percent when she started the program seven years ago. She was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by Princess Anne for her work.
To be honored in this way is fine, but watching Wimbledon up close on Center Court for 14 straight days?
“It didn’t get better,” she said. “It is there among the best moments of my career.”
Each year, about 1,000 members of the military apply for coveted positions and 40 percent of the governors are new each year.
said the lieutenant commander. Chris Boucher, the officer in charge of all referees. “Nobody has a special right to be here.”
There’s no rank at Wimbledon either, Boucher said, where his job in the Navy is to marshal personnel for everything from the Queen’s funeral to tactical operations around the world. The hosts address each other by first names in an informal, collegial, and respectful atmosphere, with the exception of a few rare instances over the years.
He said, “There is no rank unless there is a need for it.”
Other highly visible military hosts, especially on television, are the three stationed at the Royal Box, which is entirely run by the service’s hosts. They are all properly dressed, as if they were being presented for inspection. No one, but it’s almost uncommon for anyone to see spaghetti sauce or coffee stains on their bright white, blue, or khaki shirts.
“Millions of eyes are on you,” Boucher said. “Don’t be that person.”
Royal Air Force Police corporal Katie Patterson was stationed at Gangway 6 in No 1 Court on Sunday, helping spectators find seats and politely asking the boisterous fans in the aisle for “a little silence”. Spectators love to ask about RAF duties and submit photo requests.
She was a particularly fond little girl, so Patterson gave her rank chip (the badge on her shoulder denoting her rank) to the girl, who was overjoyed. Patterson had his chance, too, when Nick Grimshaw, a popular TV and radio personality, was waiting in line at Gangway 6. They chatted for several minutes, and like many fans, he wanted to know about her life on the air force.
Navy George Finn Carr was working on Gangway 6 with Patterson in one of the many inter-service partnerships formed during the tournament. The pairs take turns in their locations, one at the base of the stairs helping people in line, and the other at the top, who is able to show the fans their seats and then watch the action. They should also be aware of any lost or unruly fans, or any situation that requires attention.
Carr, who is a huge fan of tennis, emigrated from Ghana 14 years ago and joined the Navy after obtaining British citizenship. He spends much of his time at Wimbledon posing for pictures in his white and navy uniform and cap, answering questions about all the deployments – Crete, Guam, Kenya, the US mainland.
“On a ship, you’re on a metal container on the ocean and you have to be a team,” Carr said. “It’s the same here at Wimbledon.”
As Carr is speaking, an Army NCO tells him from a different corridor that “two men” were jumping over rows of benches, evidently without tickets. Karr immediately left to investigate.
To join the elite force, hosts must use their leave, which is two weeks of vacation time. But one of the rewards comes on the first Saturday of the tournament each year, when an announcement is made that their contributions will be recognized. Fans rose to their feet with a sustained ovation in an emotional display of appreciation.
“Being here is a privilege, even though we work,” said Swen Simpson, an Army sergeant who did not disclose her deployment locations. During those two weeks, I was stationed at Gangway 22 on Court #1 at one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
“I was chosen as a blessing,” she said.