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 golds 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 “dressed 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 in the day, 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 icons are honored.
Not every former sports star is welcome. Last year, Romanian Ilie Nastase, a former world No. 1 with a reputation as a hot head, 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.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer