Who IS The Man At Wimbledon?

who-is-the-man-at-wimbledonAs the cameras pan across the centre court for the men’s singles final at Wimbledon in a fortnight, viewers may find one face familiar without quite knowing why.

If the tournament runs to form, Roger Federer will be playing in his sixth successive final and as the nation hopes, Andy Murray will be in the final with him ! But sitting alongside the players’ families, whoever they may be, will be David Spearing, a fixture of the expatriate community in Abu Dhabi and Wimbledon’s longest-serving steward.

Each summer for 34 years, Mr Spearing has interrupted his career in civil engineering to pursue his labour of love. The location of his duties makes him one of the most photographed people at Wimbledon, so much that his presence frequently prompts members of the assembled media army to ask: “Just who is that man in the hat?”

The hat, a black Panama, is a small reminder of the UAE, emblazoned as it is with the name of The Club, the Abu Dhabi institution of which Mr Spearing was chairman for five years in the 1980s. It needed replacing this year and, after an increasingly desperate search of haberdashers and internet sources, was finally tracked down at a supplier in Dubai.

Just as Abu Dhabi has seen dramatic change in Mr Spearing’s lifetime – he marks the 40th anniversary of his arrival in the capital four days after this year’s tournament ends – Wimbledon is unrecognisable from the event he began attending as a steward in 1974.

Before flying to London, he shared some of his memories and reflections on one of the grandest sporting occasions, from thoughts on John McEnroe’s temper and Andre Agassi’s charisma to his admiration for the father of Venus and Serena Williams despite meeting him in strange circumstances.

“Wimbledon is completely different from when I started,” says Mr Spearing, who recalls paying a dirham (the old sterling half a crown) to attend as a boy. “It is just huge. There are more courts, of course, and the atmosphere has always been superb, but it has got a lot more rowdy.”

These days, he said, many spectators went to support individual players rather than to appreciate the game in general. “In the past, you only applauded, there was never any noise or shouting.

“Having said that, it has kept the same attitude. There has never been any problem with the crowds or with people who have been queuing to get in for 24 hours. There is never any unpleasantness, just excitement. I wouldn’t miss Wimbledon for the world.”

In the year Mr Spearing started working at Wimbledon, after a meeting in Abu Dhabi with an accountant who also worked as a steward, the singles titles were won by Chris Evert and her then-fiancé, Jimmy Connors.

Mr Spearing served first on court number one, progressing in the early 1980s to centre court, which hosts the biggest games. The longer he has spent on centre court, the lower he has descended – starting as a steward for the highest seats and working his way down to his present position with the players’ families courtside.

The annual three weeks in London represent the only holiday he takes out of the country where he has worked on, among other projects, the Hilton Hotel in Al Ain (under the direction of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi), and the tall flagpole near Marina Mall in the capital.

Among the famous moments he has witnessed at Wimbledon include one which became part of tennis history for the wrong reason as McEnroe raged at an umpire on court number one in 1981, calling him “the pits of the world” and shouting “You cannot be serious!” after a contentious decision.

“He will always stick in your mind,” Mr Spearing says. “To me, though, his histrionics were sad. He played such lovely, beautiful tennis. He lifted you up to cloud nine with some immaculate performances, and then he would have a stupid argument with the umpire. More than that, it ruined the atmosphere of the game. You were elated and would then come crashing down to the ground because of him.”

One star with whom Mr Spearing formed a bond was Agassi, the American who won at Wimbledon in 1992, although Mr Spearing had to be won round to him.

“When he came through, I was already in my 50s, and he was this young lad who had all the girls around him,” he says.

“I thought it was nonsense. This is tennis, where you applaud, not cheer. That culture started with Bjorn Borg and continued with Agassi – at first I didn’t really like him. But as he grew up, I saw his natural charisma come through; he would bow down to each stand at the end of every game.

“And when you spoke to him, he would not brush you off, but take time to talk to you and maintain the conversation; a very nice man.”

His proximity to the families of the top players has enabled Mr Spearing to get to know some closely. He speaks with fondness of the mother of Steffi Graf, the German who won the Wimbledon singles title seven times.

The father of Roger Federer, the world number one, keeps contact with Mr Spearing by post. “On men’s final day last year, when Roger was arguably the most famous man in the world, his father spotted me, looked at the crowd and cameras and said, ‘You are a very famous man’.”

Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena, both Wimbledon champions, is unlikely to forget one encounter with Mr Spearing. After scaling a wall to photograph one of his daughters in action, he was pictured in newspapers worldwide being escorted back down by Mr Spearing. But the steward says: “He is a great man. It is an incredible story how he has brought both his daughters up from the ghetto and made them what they are.

“He is a very interesting, driven man and I was pleased to meet him, as I have done several times.

“Some of the parents can be pretty bad, the fathers in particular. The parents are watching very, very attentively and watching their own child only.”

For Mr Spearing, who was brought up in London and Blackburn, in the north-west of England, Wimbledon is an occasion not only for the players and their families, but for members of the public who often queue for days for tickets.

At the end of each day, he joins other stewards distributing tickets handed in by those leaving early to people still queuing, with the proceeds going to charity.

“You see the same people come year after year, who will happily come and camp for days to get in. I love the whole ambience there in the crowd. You know it is a one-off treat for them to get tickets for centre court. And when you give them the tickets, it is great to see the excitement on their faces as they know they are going on to centre court.

“And when you give out the last two tickets for centre court, you often get a big kiss.”

Wimbledon fortnight is often marred by rain, and there is the threat of some drizzle when the 2008 tournament starts tomorrow.

One such shower, interrupting play on centre court, led to one of Wimbledon’s classic non-tennis moments, when the British singer Cliff Richard kept the crowds entertained with an impromptu concert, including a rendition of Singing in the Rain with backing vocals from players.

Mr Spearing saw nothing. “I had gone for a walk with two friends of mine,” he says.

“And while we were outside, the wife of my friend said, ‘That sounds like Cliff Richard, but it’s an awful recording’. When we got back, we were told we had missed everything. I couldn’t believe it.”

Comments

  1. Caz Wolfe says:

    I had the pleasure of bumping into David at Wimbledon yesterday! He was so gracious in stopping to answer my question (very typical I’m sure) and was happy to stand and chat to us strangers for a few minutes. Like Agassi, he could easily have fobbed us off, but he was charming and helped make our day such a memorable one!

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