Crowd gets rowdy on 'People's Saturday'

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND — WIMBLEDON, England -- A year ago, a rain-filled first week of Wimbledon caused the All England Club to break with its tradition of not playing matches on the middle Sunday of the tournament.

The decision to open the gates to the general public, and allow many fans who had never seen the inside of Centre Court, was made with much trepidation, but, as things turned out, no regret.


"We took a big gamble," tournament committee member B.G. Neal said yesterday. "But in the end, the atmosphere was indescribable."

They did the wave. They whistled and hooted at Gabriela Sabatini. They turned staid Centre Court into the bleachers of Wrigley Field. Jimmy Connors said that, except for winning Wimbledon a couple of times, he never had as much fun. And he lost that day.


Though the weather has been splendid so far this year, making it unnecessary to play on the traditional off-day, the club decided to bring back some of last year's historic and hysterical middle Sunday by reserving 2,000 seats in the 13,109 Centre Court yesterday and another 2,000 on Court 1 for the general public.

Welcome to People's Saturday. "It's great fun," said Sylvia Searson, who was there last year and was in a group of seven at the front of the line yesterday morning.

"I don't know if you can repeat something like that," said Neal.

While the scene yesterday didn't seem as spontaneous as last year, there was a festive atmosphere nonetheless. The fans had started lining up Thursday at 11 a.m. When the gates opened yesterday at 10:30 a.m., there was a mad rush for seats.

"They've had parties and God knows what else," said one of the stewards in charge of keeping order on the line. "But they've been fairly well-behaved."

A Dixieland band entertained the crowd until play began at the earlier-than-normal starting time of noon. They did the wave a few times and clapped rhythmically before Jim Courier and Andrei Olhovskiy came out for what turned out to be the day's biggest match.

One group of fans sat in the front row with matching white shirts that spelled out McEnroe on the front and Agassi on the back. While they filled the bottom 20 rows on both sides of the court, the regular ticket-holders who sit upstairs stayed away until the regular 2 p.m. starting time.

"An upper-class protest," said one security guard. "But they're missing a good show."


"It was really charged up," said Andre Agassi, who high-fived the guys in the T-shirts after his match.

Many had been waiting nearly two days or more. Searson and her friends have been here for the entire week, just as they've been doing for the past 10 years.

They met on line and all take a week's vacation from their jobs and family to queue up every night so they can buy grounds passes every day. What do their non-tennis loving friends think?

"That we're off our rockers," said Searson, a nurse and mother of three from Lancashire.

And one of her friends, Julie Pringle of Cheltenham, summed it up in one word: "Mad."