Arabella Byrne

The sport of the Royal Box

The sport of the Royal Box
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Yes, we tune in for the tennis on Wimbledon fortnight. But lovers of SW19 also tune in for another kind of spectating on any given day: the sport of the Royal Box. A championship of notoriety and celebrity in its own right. Raised feudally above the Centre Court, the Royal Box has seventy-four Lloyd Loom dark green chairs for its chosen occupants on all thirteen days of play. For nearly a century, since 1922, the Royal Box has welcomed an illustrious rollcall of guests, described by the All England Club as ‘British and overseas Royal Families, heads of government, people from the world of tennis, commercial partners, British armed forces, prominent media organisations, supporters of British tennis and other walks of life.’

And me. Yes, that’s right. I was a guest in the Royal Box in 2015 and have the Daily Mail pictures of my husband and I tittering away behind our programmes to prove it. Obviously, we only made the Mail Online snaps because we were sitting behind Carole and Mike Middleton, but I choose not to dwell on this detail. As soon as the papers start printing pictures of Andy Murray in about mid-June I’ll subject my family to a disquisition on my time under the hallowed canopy. I keep all the Royal Box memorabilia and merchandise safely in a drawer and am prepared to bring it out these holy relics whenever anyone shows even the slightest interest.

My rogue appearance taught me that the selection of guests on any given day acts as a barometer of many things. It is a prime sport for people watchers; the dynamics of the box are as riveting as the games themselves. The titular members of the House of Windsor use the box liberally because they love tennis (famously the sport of the upper classes and all who aspire to be so) but also because it is a chance to choreograph their own visibility. Take the year Meghan and Kate sat side by side, all smiles and conspiratorial giggles in their sunglasses, in an attempt to provide evidence of the Duchesses’ mutual admiration. The box certainly tests the mettle of one’s small talk; just watch Prince William’s excellent patter with Theresa May in 2018, no easy task when you’re seated for up to four hours at a time.

Politicians in the box are a different matter altogether. There are undeniably more Tories who accept the invitation owing, presumably, to the fact that tennis and socialism don’t mix, but Tony Blair wasn’t shy in accepting his invite when in office, nor was former speaker and newest Labour recruit John Bercow. Tom Watson got into more trouble when he was snapped enjoying an afternoon’s play in 2017 to the outrage of his West Bromwich East constituents who declared him a hypocrite for ‘worshipping at the capitalist temple that is Wimbledon’. David Cameron - who purportedly plays a lot of tennis these days - was often seen in pole position in the front row, although when the crowd booed him in 2016 after Andy Murray mentioned what an honour it was to play in front of him, he may have wished he was slightly less visible.

And then, of course, come the celebrities. There are the stalwarts of the box like Hugh Grant and Benedict Cumberbatch who appear every year with various different female companions much to the amusement of the Beeb commentators (mainly McEnroe). Other stars are more unexpected. Would you have had Leona Lewis down as a tennis fan? Or Beyonce and Jay Z? Or even Posh and Becks? Such is the beauty of the Royal Box that you simply can’t predict who each day will serve up. We’ve also made a sport of forcing celebrities – who are usually beholden to no one – to do battle with prim British dress codes. Lewis Hamilton was once asked to leave the Royal Box for not wearing a tie. Ladies are asked to not wear hats and to keep the hemline below the knee. This, at least, is one area where the pandemic’s scientists have form. Dame Sarah Gilbert and Chris Whitty will find adhering to a dress code a doddle after a year of unprecedented rules.

There is a strange appeal to watching others watch an event; we tune in mostly for the tennis but spying on the reactions of the great and the good adds much to Wimbledon’s charm. Of my day in the Royal Box I remember not a single shot, rally, or serve. When asked who was playing that day I coyly move on to other details. Like how I queued for the loo in front of Camilla Parker-Bowles, or that Carole Middleton offered me a hanky. Or that I met Roger Federer’s parents and chatted to Tim Henman’s father about parking. It’s really not about the tennis at all.