Editor’s Note: But for the COVID-19 pandemic, Wimbledon would now be underway. During the next two weeks ATPTour.com will look back on memorable matches and happenings at the grass-court Grand Slam. This story was originally published on 29 June 2014.
One visitor to the All England Club has occupied seat number seven in the players’ box for every match on Centre Court at The Championships over the past 16 years.
He isn’t a player, a coach or a friend of a competitor, yet he is warmly greeted by family members of the great champions upon entering the sport’s cathedral.
You may have seen David Spearing sat behind the likes of Mirka Federer, Toni Nadal and Kim Sears [Andy Murray’s girlfriend] on television. Though his name may not be familiar to many fans, he wears a distinctive black panama hat.
Ah… now you know him. He has, arguably, the best job in tennis.
His cult status developed in 2003 as a result of a popular Irish broadcaster, Terry Wogan, giving him the nickname General Custer, Colonel ‘KFC’ Sanders or the British gangster Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie.
“Terry Wogan asked his radio listeners, ‘Who is the man in the black hat on Centre Court every day?’” Spearing told ATPWorldTour.com. “Within minutes, Terry had his answer and subsequently proposed a few nicknames… and, somehow, a fan base grew out of it.”
For the past 40 years, Spearing has dusted off his suitcase at his home in Abu Dhabi – his base since 1968, where he has been a construction-industry leader – and undertaken an annual pilgrimage to the All England Club, where he stays locally with friends.
Spearing first became one of 35 Honorary Stewards at Wimbledon in 1974. “A friend invited me to try out as a steward and I was told to shadow a lovely old man called Norman, for the fortnight.
“The buttery never opened until 11:30 a.m., so the stewards did not arrive until then. We’ve gotten a lot busier as so much has changed over the past 40 years.
“Eventually, I found my way onto Centre Court.” Today, Spearing is one of 200 Honorary Stewards at Wimbledon.
Mirka FedererAt first the Cambridge University-educated Spearing did not wear a hat. “When the sun reflected up off the tin roof on the old scoreboard, it was sometimes difficult to watch the matches from the players’ box,” he admitted. “So I needed a hat. I thought it would be a bit of fun.”
Initially, he experimented by wearing a wide-brimmed hat. But shortly prior to his third year in the players’ box, Spearing asked one of his friends at The Club in Abu Dhabi – where he has been a former chairman and long-time member – to look out for a hat.
“I thought it would take a few days, but my friend said he had a spare hat in the pro shop. It was black, not cream. I said, ‘I can’t wear black!’ He joked about me having to pay for it. I packed it in my bag and with the help of Terry Wogan, I became known to tennis fans.”
As the longest-serving Honorary Steward, the 78-year-old expat can be found on Church Road from 7:30 a.m. each morning making announcements to ‘The Queue’ or directing thousands of ticket holders to locate their entrance gate, or, as a distributor of wrist bands to the members’ enclosure.
“Many fans walk past and glance at me,” said Spearing. “A few seconds later, they return and ask me to pose for a photograph.
“Once I am finished outside the grounds, I have time for a quick cup of coffee and then I have to be on the main concourse at 10:30, prior to heading to the players’ area, lunch and then onto Centre Court for the first match of the day.
“Now Centre Court has a roof, it can make for long days. But I love my role.”
Today, each competitor is permitted 19 guest spaces in the players’ box. “Kim [Andy’s girlfriend] often arrives early to get her spot in the players’ box,” he said.
Over the years, Spearing has got to know the wives, girlfriends and coaches of many of the sport’s serial titlists at The Championships. “I always liked the artistry of John McEnroe, but not his tantrums.
“When Barbra Streisand was the girlfriend of Andre Agassi, she came one year in 1993. I have always been a big fan of her as a singer and an actress, and I admit to being star-struck that day. I wanted Agassi to win all his matches so that she would keep coming back.
“Once, when Agassi was sat in the players’ box, I asked him why everyone called Jim Courier, ‘The Rock’? He turned round, looked me directly in the eyes and said, ‘Because he is so consistent and always delivers.’ I always liked him as he grew older.
“When Pete Sampras was engaged to his future wife, Bridgette Wilson, I could not take my eyes off her big diamond engagement ring.
“Roger Federer’s parents are wonderful and Andy Murray’s team is always kind. Of course, the more each player competes on Centre Court, the more you get to know who they are with.”
In the 2013 New Year’s Honours Lists, Spearing became a ‘Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’ for his services to British business and the British community in Abu Dhabi.
He insists that he will keep making his journey from the United Arab Emirates to the All England Club for years to come.