Abu Dhabi man is cult figure on Centre Court

It has been a Wimbledon of surprises, but one constant on Centre Court this year, as always, is David Spearing, the tournament's longest-serving honorary steward and long-time UAE resident.

David Spearing, is celebrating his 40th year as a honorary steward at Wimbledon. The Abu Dhabi resident's task is to escort the families and coaches of the players, watching the games shoulder to shoulder with the rich and powerful. Photo by Stephen White / CameraSport
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It has been a Wimbledon of surprises, with seeds crashing out even before the second week of the world's oldest major tennis championships. But one constant on Centre Court this year, as always, is David Spearing.

Sporting his trademark black Panama hat, Mr Spearing is the tournament's longest-serving honorary steward by at least a decade. This year marks the 40th consecutive Wimbledon for the Abu Dhabi resident.

His task is to escort the families and coaches of the players, watching the games shoulder to shoulder with the rich and powerful. This year's crop already includes JK Rowling, Pippa Middleton and the singer Grace Jones.

Mr Spearing is a warm, talkative Briton who moved to Abu Dhabi in 1968, when the emirate was still one of the "Trucial States".

An active philanthropist and member of countless clubs and committees in the UAE over the years, the Wimbledon anniversary isn't his only cause for celebration this summer. Last month he was at Buckingham Palace to receive an MBE from the Queen, "for services to British business and to the British community in Abu Dhabi".

He says he is "delighted and honoured" by the accolade, although he also says that people keep joking that he should have got it for his long-running stewardship.

Mr Spearing has got to know many of the top players' families well at Wimbledon, including Andy Murray's and Roger Federer's.

Tensions were high when the two players faced each other in last year's final. As Mr Spearing puts it, with "every TV set in the world tuning in" to see if Murray would be the first Briton to win the tournament since 1936, or if Federer could tie Pete Sampras's record of seven Wimbledon titles.

But an hour before the match began, Federer's father, Robert, sought out Mr Spearing, "put a hand on my shoulder," he remembers, "and said 'David, you're famous!' What a thing for him to say on that day!"

It turned out that Mr Spearing had been profiled in a Swiss newspaper, and by August, he found an envelope on his desk from the elder Federer with the article inside. The stamps used showed Roger winning his championship trophy.

Mr Spearing also met Dustin Hoffman last year, but does not always recognise the stars that cause the biggest stir. Two years ago, Rafael Nadal was playing Novak Djokovic in the final, and people started muttering to Mr Spearing that he was sitting a couple of seats down from someone pretty famous.

"They told me something like he was a rapper - something like Jay C? Joe Z?" It was, of course, Jay-Z: one of the world's most successful hip-hop artists, friend of the US president and husband of the singer Beyoncé. "We were chatting a little bit," Mr Spearing says sheepishly, "but I didn't know much about who he was." The children of his nieces and nephews filled him in afterwards.

Mr Spearing has never married, and it is because of this, he says, that "Wimbledon is good for me, to get away". As a civil engineer up until retirement, he would regularly work long hours, seven days a week, rarely taking time off.

Following an engineering degree at Cambridge University in the 1950s, he joined the British construction firm Halcrow - which has helped transform Abu Dhabi over the intervening six decades - and was persuaded to take a six-month post in the Abu Dhabi office in 1968.

He worked on the first commercial buildings in Abu Dhabi, helping build a 5-star hotel and a palace, before launching his own practice in the UAE - and he ended up not leaving. In 2001, he retired from the business, but continues to do private consultancy work.

Any time away from work is spent helping out with clubs and schools and building communities. Mr Spearing founded Abu Dhabi's Oxford and Cambridge Alumni Association, has joined the advisory committees for technical colleges, became the chairman of the UAE branch of the Institute of Civil Engineers and of the Royal Society of St George, and assists in a school for children with special needs. It was these activities that led to his MBE.

He's also been chairman of the Abu Dhabi entertainment complex The Club, whose logo adorns his distinctive black Panama. The manager who gave it to him - he'd been looking for an ordinary light-coloured one - told him, "If you wear it I won't charge you." Now, Mr Spearing says: "I should be charging him!" He laughs. "It's become the thing I'm known for, the black hat in the family box."

One of the perks of being an honorary steward - an unpaid position from which Mr Spearing vows never to retire - is being able to stay to watch games, and because of his seniority, he has had one of the best seats in the house to some of the best matches played since the days of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.

"It's still a great crowd," he says in an interview on Wimbledon's YouTube channel, "but there's much more bias than there used to be. In the old days it was very polite British applause for whoever did a good shot. Now there's much more rivalry."

Due to his position alongside Wags and coaches, it's been pointed out that Mr Spearing is one of the most photographed non-players in Wimbledon. The family box is often the first place players look when deciding whether to challenge an umpire's call or if a match is getting away from them, and cameras will turn to family members - Serena and Venus's dad Michael Williams, Murray's mum Judy or Federer's wife Mirka, for example - to gauge reactions at a crucial moment.

The number of guest seats per player has recently been upped from six to a dozen, and the spares are often given to celebrities. Federer has been known to invite Gwen Stefani, her husband Gavin Rossdale, and the editor of US Vogue, Anna Wintour.

Popping flashbulbs behind Mr Spearing are often a sign he's talking to a celebrity. He realised that a lot of photographers seemed to be interested in the back of his head as he chatted to one elderly gentleman before the 2001 semi-final between Tim Henman and Goran Ivanisevic, and had to be told by fellow stewards that he was talking to the billionaire Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One rights holder.

It was about then that the Irish broadcaster Terry Wogan asked listeners to his BBC radio show who the man in the black hat in the family box every day at Wimbledon was, live on air.

Since then, Mr Spearing has been profiled in UK newspapers including the Daily Telegraph, Independent, Express and Daily Mail, to whom he talked about the growing trend for Wimbledon winners to clamber up the stands to greet their family, cheered on by an adoring audience.

The All England Club traditionally frowns upon the practice, but many players have gone ahead anyway.

Mr Spearing has high hopes for Murray, though, whom he ranks alongside Djokovic as one of the very best in the game. Both players have reached the quarter-finals and could to meet in the Sunday's final.

Exciting as it is, the job of an honorary steward isn't all about hobnobbing with the stars. It also involves early starts, long days and menial chores like handing out wristbands to the fans who camp out for days in the hope of snagging a ticket. But Mr Spearing isn't complaining. "There are people who come and camp out every year," he says, "then they'll spend the day at Wimbledon and join the queue again the day after. I know them as personal friends now.

"People joke, 'You sit in this box watching the world's best tennis and you say you're working'. But my greatest pleasure is helping people."