“Being part of the staff of the Lawn Tennis Championships as played at the All England Club is to be part of the best planned and executed sporting event of any type staged anywhere in the world.”
It’s a bold statement and one that Alan Chalmers reiterates several times during our chat – and given that this will be his 40th year as a Centre Court steward at Wimbledon, it’s hard to question his judgement.
The 72-year-old proudly points out he has seen at least part of every match played on the world-famous court since 1976. But this will be his last tournament in the role – he has decided the time is right to retire so the 2015 men’s singles final, which he believes Andy Aurray is tipping Andy Murray to win, will be his last day on duty at SW19.
It all started when, during a squash tournament in Surbiton, he met a top All England Club official who picked up on his experience of sport administration and mentioned there was a vacancy looking after Centre Court seating arrangements. Chalmers took the job and has never looked back.
For many years he looked after the media and players guests – both groups of which there are many every year. A few year ago, the two areas were separated and Chalmers stuck with the competitors’ guests’ seating.
How much have things changed in 40 years? “In the 1970s when players like Bjorn Borg, Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors were the big names, they’d turn up on their own or with just their wives or mothers, or carrying their own bags. Now they come with an entourage containing all sorts of people, and they all have to be accommodated.
“The rule is that when a player is on Centre Court they have 19 guaranteed seats in the guest area. It’s a system, complete with coloured passes, that works well. I’m there to iron out bumps and arbitrate in disputes.”
And disputes do happen. But anyone who tries the ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ line with Chalmers gets a polite reply: “At the moment,” he tells them, “I think it’s more important that you know who I am.”
He added: “People can be more aggressive than they used to, though the vast majority are charming and very reasonable. There will always be some that don’t understand the world ‘No’.”
Many players bring along celebrity supporters and Chalmers says he has dealt with ‘everyone from Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand downwards’. , David Beckham, Lewis Hamilton – they’ve all been shown to their seats by Chalmers. Not forgetting one of Wimbledon’s most famous fans, Sir Cliff Richard.
Chalmers, who lives near Midhurst, well remembers the day Sir Cliff made news around the world by leading a sing-along during a long rain break and likes to think it was his idea some years earlier of suggesting that TV commentator John Barrett could interview stars for the entertainment of the Centre Court crowd that paved the way for the impromptu concert.
For the past 11 years, Chalmers has had hus daughter Lisa for company during Wimbledon fortnight. Lisa, who works for Chichester’s Downland Veterinary Group, has been an honorary steward at the All England Club since 2004.
Last year Chalmers found himself looking after the Duchess of Cambridge’s family. “Kate’s father Michael Middleton asked me at the end of play if I’d enjoyed the tennis. I told him: I’m paid to worry, not to watch.”
He is proud to have got to know many, many players, coaches and journalists – and not only those who have played since his debut year in the long, hot summer of 1976. He has spent hours with the likes of Fred Perry, Dan Maskell, Rod Laver and Bunny Austin – and vstill ividly recalls the epic Borg-McEnroe final of 1980 when the Swede defied the brash American’s attempt to stop him winning a fifth straight title in a fourth-set tie-break that ended 18-16.
Kate’s father Michael Middleton asked me at the end of play if I’d enjoyed the tennis. I told him: I’m paid to worry, not to watch.Alan Chalmers
Virginia Wade and Martina Navratilova are prominent figures from the women’s game Chalmers says he has been privileged to have met.
Chalmers thinks Murray can win the men’s title this year. “I’ve seen him mature over time,” he said. “Amelie Maursemo has clamed him down and improved his second service. All the other top seeds have had unexpectd defeats of late but Andy has looked in top form.
“In the women’s event, there’s Petra Kvitova having a good run or Eugenie Bouchard. There are plenty of good players, many of them from the Eastern Bloc, and any of them could come out of the woodwork.”
Chalmers admits he will find it tough next year, his first in retirement from his role. “I just feel it’s time to go. Many of my contemporaries have retired or are no longer with us, and I don’t think you can go on forever. Forty years is enough for anybody!
“I shall look back on my time at the All England Club with immense pride and pleasure. It’s been a privilege.”
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