Abigail Sannoh, a nurse corporal in the Royal Air Force, had tried for years to get a pair of tickets to Wimbledon for herself and her father, Mohamed Sannoh, an avid tennis fan like his daughter. But the effort proved fruitless. So, she found another way into the grounds that enables Sannoh to be at all 14 days of Wimbledon, with a prime view of Centre Court.
She applied, and was accepted, to be a service steward, part of a program in which 477 members of Britain’s three military branches work at the world’s most famous tennis tournament as stewards, what Americans call ushers.
“My dad got a ticket and was able to see me working here,” Sannoh said last week. “It was such a thrill for both of us.”
Since 1946, when soldiers being demobilized from World War II were first given the assignment, noncommissioned officers (mostly corporals and sergeants) have been stationed at the many entrances to each section of Centre Court and Court 1, with strict orders to be helpful, chatty and look smart in their crispy uniforms. It is one of the features that makes Wimbledon such a distinct event, and there are also 250 members of the fire brigade serving as stewards on a handful of the outer courts.
Their only weapons are a disarming charm and a polite eagerness to help both the fans and their fellow stewards. There are no snarling dogs, bulletproof vests, boots, camouflage fatigues or any of the intimidating regalia often seen at major sporting events elsewhere. Even though these sailors, soldiers and cadets are working, they are not technically on active military duty.
“We’re here to make people happy,” said James Brooks, moments after snapping a photo for two fans in front of Centre Court as he walked inside to take his position.
Brooks, who served three tours in Afghanistan and has been all over the world on duty, is among the most prominent of the stewards, with a role that is perhaps the closest anyone comes to policing. During changeovers, he and the other service stewards stand at firm attention on the court, looking back toward the stands, to deter any would-be court invaders.
Next to him on Friday was Miriam Charlton, who has spent 37 years in the Navy. She started at a challenging time for military women, who were given little if no consideration when they had children, sometimes transferred from one base to another until they quit. She was sent to the Falklands for six months from 1994 to 1995 after having two children, and was allowed only one phone call a week for three minutes.
She stuck with the military and attitudes changed enough that she was asked to form a small parental support unit to help parents in the navy. Charlton said that The Navy now retains over 90 percent of women after they have children, as opposed to 52 percent when she started the program seven years ago. She received an M.B.E. distinction (Member of the Order of the British Empire) from Princess Anne for her work.
To be honored like that is fine, but getting to watch Wimbledon up close on Centre Court for 14 straight days?
“It doesn’t get any better,” she said. “It’s up there among the top moments of my career.”
Each year, about 1,000 members of the military apply for the coveted positions and 40 percent of the stewards are new each year.
“I don’t want it to be a club where some people feel they can never get a chance to do it,” said Lt. Cdr. Chris Boucher, the officer in charge of all the stewards. “No one has a special right to be here.”
There is no rank at Wimbledon, either, said Boucher, whose job in the Navy is to mobilize personnel for everything from the queen’s funeral to tactical operations around the globe. The stewards address one another with first names in an informal, collegial and respectful atmosphere, other than a few rare instances over the years.
“There is no rank unless there needs to be,” he said.
The other very visible military stewards, especially on television, are the three stationed in the Royal Box, which is run entirely by the service stewards. They all dress immaculately, as if presenting for inspection. There isn’t one, but it is almost unheard-of for anyone to be seen with 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.”
Katie Patterson, a corporal in the Royal Air Force police, was stationed at Gangway 6 on Court No. 1 on Sunday, helping spectators find seats and politely asking loud fans in the corridor for “a bit of hush.” Spectators love asking about her R.A.F. duties and make photo requests.
One small girl was particularly smitten, so Patterson gave her rank slide (the insignia on her shoulder indicating her rank) to the girl, who was overjoyed. Patterson had a chance to be smitten, too, when Nick Grimshaw, a popular television 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 in the air force.
George Fynn Carr of the Navy was working Gangway 6 with Patterson in one of many interservice partnerships that are forged during the tournament. Pairs take turns in their positions, one at the base of the stairs helping people in line, and another at the top, who is able to show fans their seats and then watch the action. They should also be attuned to any lost or unruly fans, or any situation requiring attention.
A huge tennis fan, Carr emigrated from Ghana 14 years ago and joined the Navy after attaining British citizenship. Much of his time at Wimbledon is spent posing for photographs in his white and navy blue uniform and hat, and answering questions about all his deployments — Crete, Guam, Kenya, the mainland United States.
“On a ship, you are on a metal container on the ocean and you have to be a team,” Carr said. “It is the same here at Wimbledon.”
As Carr spoke, an Army noncommissioned officer from a different gangway informed him that “two blokes” were hopping over rows of seating, clearly without tickets. Carr immediately left to investigate.
To join this elite force, stewards must use their leave, which eats up 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 recognizing their contributions. Fans rise to their feet with a sustained ovation in an emotional display of appreciation.
“Being here is a privilege, even though we are working,” said Suen Simpson, a staff sergeant in the Army, who would not reveal the locations of her deployments. For these two weeks, though, she is stationed at Gangway 22 on Court No. 1 at one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
“It’s a blessing I was selected,” she said.