I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I was when I received an invitation to the Royal Box at Wimbledon this year! I’ve always been an avid tennis fan and from the age of 4 to about 9 absolutely believed I would become a professional tennis player! Luckily, I found sailing as I am a bit too teeny weenie to be a tennis star...but going to watch Wimbledon in the Royal Box was, honestly, a dream come true. As an Olympic Champion you get some seriously cool invitations after the Games – premieres, awards dinners, parties, TV opportunities, and becoming an MBE! But for me, this was the big one I was hoping for. Ever since realising it was a ‘thing’ after Beijing 2008, I had hoped beyond hope that if I were lucky enough to win gold, the offer would still be there.
I was in the midst of preparing for the World Championships, which meant flying back and forth to Greece, so the timing was less than ideal, but there was no way I was going to miss this opportunity! My brother lives on the outskirts of South London, so accommodation close by the courts was easy, and we were even given a parking pass for the car park next to where the players parked/were dropped off, so logistics were also simple.
The morning arrived, Saturday 8th July. Having usually slept in a tent in The Queue and been woken up at 5am by the Stewards to start packing up, I would normally spend the day trying to keep my eyes open! So going to Wimbledon wide awake was a fresh experience for me! There was, however, one slightly awkward moment when we rocked up in our old Beemer...the car parking attendant looked us up and down, before telling us we were definitely in the wrong place! Brandishing our Royal Box tickets with a smile, we were eventually waved through. As we drove in, the first person we saw was Dame Judy Murray walking oh-so casually in jeans towards the gates! Fortunately for her, we couldn’t park up in time to chase her down…
As we went through the gates, we were given a security guard to escort us to the All England Lawn Tennis Club entrance. I am not entirely sure this was really required for us, however it was a nice touch! We immediately bumped into Laura and Jason Kenny on our way to the club, which was really lovely, because their security guard, Chris, was the very same guy who had escorted us around in Rio when we won our second Olympic medal! Chris used to carry a fold-up bike around in with him in the rougher parts of Rio, which, he told us, was to hit people with if he needed to! Anyway, I digress - back to London and Wimbledon!
On entering the club I was immediately blown away. It is simply beautiful. Everything is exactly as I had imagined. The trophies are there, in stunning cabinets lining the entrance hall. Then, a ultra grand split staircase either side of the entrance hall leading up to the bar area. Everything is perfectly decorated with just the right amount of grandeur. The colours are fairly neutral, but with the classic Wimbledon green woven throughout to subconsciously remind you just where you are. If you walk straight through the hall to the other side, past the trophy cabinets and staircases you follow the footsteps of the players... straight out onto centre court. I just couldn’t believe I was there. Of course, I had to sneak out and pretend I was entering the greatest tennis stage on earth… something I had dreamed about since a racket was first put in my hands at the age of 4.
As we walked up to the bar, we were greeted by the Chairman of the club and his wife. To be honest - before the day began I was actually a bit nervous, concerned about feeling a little out of place in the club. Happily, this feeling was instantly quashed, they were so welcoming, friendly and kind. Nothing felt like an act and you could tell that everyone there, all the club members and staff, really wanted you to feel like you belonged and to have an amazing day.
Lunch was, of course, delicious and perfect. On sitting down, we each received a little royal box pin, a small bar of Royal Box chocolate and some Wimbledon truffles. Lunch was served at 11.30am – a little early, but who am I to complain?! The starter was not really to my taste, a crab pâté – and I’m not a fishy fan!
However, the second course, perfectly cooked duck, was just scrumptious! Pudding, as you might expect, was strawberries. I felt very privileged to sit next to a Chief Superintendent and a police officer that were involved with the Westminster Attack earlier this year. I was amazed at how open they were about their experiences and it made me feel very humbled to listen to their bravery in the face of such an extreme terror. I really was honoured to be alongside these true heroes.
After lunch, we took the opportunity to go out to the balcony where there is an incredible view of lots of the smaller courts. Watching some of the play from up there was really special and I just didn't know where to place my attention. It did feel a little strange to be watching the hustle and bustle, rather than being a part of it, so we decided to head out into the crowd and get stuck in at the Wimbledon Shop! I had to really rein it in here as I could have gone a bit mad. However, just a towel and a massive tennis ball later and the damage to my bank account had been limited!
1pm and we were in our seats, with Sue Barker – a hero of mine! – out on court introducing everyone in the Royal Box to the crowd. We stood up in groups of 5 or so whilst films from our time in Rio played on the TV screens. I felt a mixture of embarrassment and, I guess, pride with most of centre court clapping and cheering for us! I was so impressed that Andy Murray came out into the Royal Box at this point for the announcement of the Olympians. Considering it was his day off, it was just ace. What a complete legend. As an athlete, I know how important a day off is mid-competition, so full respect to him for that!
An awesome women’s battle between Agnieszka Radwanska and Timea Bacsinszky resulted in a 3 set win for Radwanska. Now this is where I was really in awe. I have never had tickets that weren't by the side of the court - where you get neck ache from looking back and forth, back and forth, watching the ball. Up in the Royal Box, you are directly behind the baseline, giving a completely different perspective. You get such a sense of how hard the balls are being hit and the angles the players manage to find.
The other beauty of the Royal Box is that they have literally thought of everything! There was bottled water on tap and a bucket full of a variety of sweets. I wondered whether they always had this for Royal Box guests or if they just knew that the Olympic athletes would love it! A beautiful leather welcome bag of hand cream, sun protection cream, refreshing facial spray, facial wipes, mints and lip salve was on everyone’s seat. A point to be made here – you did have place names on your seat, so I couldn’t have just run up to David Beckham, for example, (had he been there) and plonked myself next to him! The roof was slightly out at our end, so we were in the shade 99% of the time, but when the sun did poke it’s head out onto us hats were immediately distributed! Even the toilets were fantastic; there was deodorant and other toiletries all laid out for you, as well as seats in which to top up your make-up if you so required!
The second match was preceded by afternoon tea on the balcony. You wouldn’t expect anything less by this point, right?! I actually think this was possibly the only slight let down of the day, if I’m being truly picky! Firstly, there was no coronation chicken sandwich and secondly, the scones were a little underdone with a bit of a weird spread on them, which was not jam. Not what I expected from possibly the most quintessentially English moment of my life! It was a beautiful setting though and the sweet treats were fab.
Novak Djokovic vs. Ernests Gulbis were up next and, although a little one sided, it was a great match. I am a huge Novak fan and even managed to get his autograph as he was walking off centre court. He is an unbelievable athlete and I find it incredible to watch some of the balls he manages to get back. Now, for the really cool bit – to me anyway! As we were in the bar after the match, I wasn’t chatting to anyone, just standing at the top of the staircase waiting. This is where the players walked up to get back to the changing rooms – we had seen them walk out before the match. Djokovic was just. so. cool. He even stopped and said a few words to us, as he’d been told that we were all Olympic Gold medallists from Rio. I could have touched him if I’d reached out – luckily I held it together and kept my hands to myself!
Some more Pimms and strawberries later (there is an endless supply of strawberries on the bar! Did you know – 2.5 million strawberries are apparently picked each year for Wimbledon? All from the same farm and all fresh each morning. Anyway, another slight digression…) Finally, it was time for Federer. I'm lucky enough to have seen him a few times before and have always looked up to him as a sportsman. In my eyes he is one of the best athletes of our generation. Such a champion and such a role model. As everyone always talks about, he is the most graceful player to watch. He finds the perfect angles and shots that, even as you watch, you wouldn't believe it to be possible. Watching from the Royal Box gave me a whole new level of appreciation for this. Federer was playing Mischa Zverev and, again, it was a very one-sided match. I guess, now in hindsight, a sign of things to come from Federer!
Around 8pm and we walked back into the bar for one last Wimbledon experience – canapés and drinks. I mean, honestly, if Carlsberg did hospitality…