Heather Watson pleads with fans to turn up as Wimbledon attendances slump

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Heather Watson pleads fans Wimbledon attendances slump - AFP
Heather Watson pleads fans Wimbledon attendances slump - AFP

Heather Watson has urged fans to turn up to her next match as attendances at Wimbledon slumped and staff were warned they faced being laid off.

The victorious British No 2, breaking into the second week of a grand slam for the first time, sank to her knees in joy upon beating Kaja Juvan in straight sets.

Praising the atmosphere on No 1 Court, she told the delighted crowd: “It means everything, playing here at home in front of you guys. The atmosphere is everything.

“Please can all of you come back for my fourth round next week.”

However, the homegrown triumph, who followed up on Katie Boulter’s dramatic victory on Thursday, could not disguise disappointing footfall at the Championships, which has been beset by criticism of empty seats, particularly on Centre Court.

Overall attendance was down 11 per cent from Monday to Thursday compared to 2019, the last year not affected by the pandemic.

Monday’s crowd of 36,603 was the lowest for an opening day since 2007 – barring the last two years – while the attendance figures for Tuesday and Wednesday have not been this low since 2016. Thursday’s crowd was the worst since 2004.

The cost of living and lingering concerns over Covid have been blamed, as well as the absence this year of Roger Federer, who has a huge international following. Contractors have warned staff may have to be laid off, blaming the smaller-than-hoped-for crowds.

There have been a conspicuous number of empty seats at Wimbledon this week - PA
There have been a conspicuous number of empty seats at Wimbledon this week - PA

In one email, a contractor boss said: “As you may have noticed, visitor numbers are lower than expected, for this reason the AELTC have asked that we look at reducing our day staff numbers. It may become necessary to ‘cut’ staff.”

Evidence emerged on Friday that some workers have already had their shifts terminated, with staff accusing bosses of using narrow disciplinary infringements as a pretext for sending them home.

“They’re firing people left, right and centre,” said one staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“They’re basically overstaffed and they said there's not enough fans here – not what they expected – so they’re having to fire people. Someone went to the loo without asking so they fired him. It started happening on Wednesday.”

It follows reported issues with the ticket resale system, with showcourt attendees either unable or unwilling to digitally surrender their tickets so that others could buy them for a discounted price. The All England Club said the main courts were fully booked each day but that general ground passes were not selling out.

Officials said that any refunded Centre Court tickets were being resold on the website and bought “immediately”. However, attendees queuing to enter the grounds on Friday morning said the atmosphere was noticeably different compared to previous years.

Mr Birchnall, a student from Ashby in Leicestershire, said: “Last time we were here we got the diehard Federer fans with their country flags, and we haven’t seen that this year. Maybe international fans aren’t really present this year.”

He added that the return of The Queue after a two-year hiatus owing to coronavirus had not been well advertised and local people may not know about it.

Heather Watson plays Germany’s Jule Niemeier, the world No 97, in the fourth round. She is likely, as a high-profile British player, to be scheduled on Centre Court, although her mother has said that she preferred to play on Court No 1, suggesting it was down to previous negative experiences on the premier court.

The All England Club denied that it had asked its contractors to cut their staff.

A spokesman said: “We value all of the staff who help us to deliver The Championships, they are crucial to staging this world-class event. We meet annually with each of our major contractors to agree the terms and conditions of employment which are shared with all potential employees.

“We are delighted that many of our staff choose to return to work at Wimbledon year after year and help us to put on an incredible event.”

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