x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Abu Dhabi man is king of Centre Court

Spearing, 74, who has been a resident of the UAE since 1968, has graduated through longevity into becoming Wimbledon's chief steward.

Spearing escorts Kim Sears, Andy Murray's girlfriend, to her seat at the Centre Court box.
Spearing escorts Kim Sears, Andy Murray's girlfriend, to her seat at the Centre Court box.

Terry Wogan, the Irish doyen of broadcasting, takes credit for creating a Wimbledon cult figure out of an unassuming Abu Dhabi personality.

Seven years ago, Wogan asked the millions of listeners on his BBC Radio breakfast programme: "Who's that man in the big black hat who is in the players' box every day for the whole fortnight? Surely he can't be friendly with everybody who plays on Centre Court!"

Within minutes Wogan had his answer, endorsed dozens of times by Wimbledon devotees who phoned, texted or e-mailed with the name of David Spearing. Spearing, 74, who has been a resident of the UAE since 1968, has graduated through longevity into becoming Wimbledon's chief steward. He is the man with the coveted job of directing the guests of players to their seats just to the side of the Royal Box.

He has established friendships with a host of famous characters. And he has managed to deal with all but one in the efficient, professional manner he has honed over 36 years of meeting and greeting visitors to the world's most famous tennis venue.

The exception who endangered Spearing's fiercely guarded reputation of neutrality?

"Barbra Streisand," he answered in a flash. "She came one year [1993] when she was the girlfriend of Andre Agassi. 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."

Otherwise, Spearing has resisted the temptation to applaud his favourites. He has established friendships with families from the Federers to the Williamses, from the Henmans to the Murrays. He is particularly close to the entourage of Roger Federer, the six-time champion.

"The more they play on Centre, the more you get to know who they are with, and Roger's been on this court as much as anybody," Spearing said.

Federer's recent decision to take up residence at the exclusive Le Rev development in Dubai resulted in Spearing having to call upon all of his diplomatic skills with Federer's wife, Mirka, on Centre Court one afternoon. Spearing, a former engineer, takes up the story: "By an incredible coincidence I worked with an architect, Andrew Lemon, for many years. He was building a luxury block of apartments near to Dubai Marina.

"One day he rang and told me he had a friend of mine looking at the plans for the apartments. I thought 'Anybody who could afford an apartment there is going to become a better friend.'

"It turned out to be Roger and Mirka.

"A year or so after, I was sitting with Mirka in the box and passed on Andrew's regards. She told me 'Never mind his regards, tell him to get our apartment finished'."

Spearing, a Cambridge University-educated Englishman, watched as dispassionately as he could during the decade when Tim Henman went agonisingly close to providing the host nation with its first men's singles champion since 1936.

"Tony and Jane [Henman's parents] were there so often they became true friends," he said. "So did Lucy," who was Henman's girlfriend and is now the wife of the former British No 1. These days we are well into the era of Andy Murray flying the British flag almost single-handedly. Spearing did not need to show the Scottish player's mother, Judy, to her regular seat on Thursday lunchtime for the world No 4's second-round match against Jarkko Nieminen.

The Murray entourage will be just as at home for this afternoon's date with Gilles Simon of France. "Andy tends to have quite a gang in the box when he plays," Spearing said.

"So it is just as well we created more room a couple of years ago.

"Previously, players were allowed only six guests on Centre. Now they can bring 20 each so it makes my life so much easier."

So how much longer will he continue living the double life as a popular honorary member of The Club in Abu Dhabi (he joined that Mina Zayed institution in 1968 and is a former chairman) and enjoying two weeks in the public gaze at the height of the British summer?

"Well I know I will have to retire one day," said Spearing, who begins his exhausting daily schedule at 7.30 each morning handing out wristbands to those in the queue who are there early enough to qualify for show court tickets.

"But I have no plans to stop yet," he said. "Several of my fellow stewards have joked with me about stepping into my shoes but I always tell them that the day I leave this box I shall be horizontal in a different kind of box."

The distinctive black Panama hat which bears the logo of "The Club Abu Dhabi" will go with him.

"It has certainly got me noticed," he said. "The first year that Terry Wogan saw it he reckoned I looked like General Custer; the second year he likened me to Jack 'The Hat' McVitie, the notorious London gangster.

"I hope I don't suffer the same fate as those two. We've all heard of Custer's Last Stand. Perhaps not too many of today's fans are aware that Jack The Hat's body is apparently in one of the concrete columns that hold up Hammersmith flyover."

wjohnson@thenational.ae

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