By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON (Reuters) - Record crowds lined up for day one of the 2013 Wimbledon tennis championships on Monday as action got underway early on Center Court with pigeon-scarer, Rufus the hawk, clearing away pesky bird life and forecasts for a dry day.
With his own Twitter account and Facebook page, Rufus has become one of Britain's best-known birds, deployed from 5 a.m. daily to clear pigeons roosting at the All England Club at Wimbledon that hosts the world's oldest tennis tournament.
This year, his handlers Anna and Imogen Davis, are keeping close tabs on Rufus who was stolen from their car overnight last year and was missing for three days before being found, abandoned in his transportation cage, on Wimbledon Common.
Anna Davis, from the company Avian Control Systems, said she suggested using hawks to clear the courts of pigeons about 14 years ago while at Wimbledon as a spectator and has been coming every morning of the two weeks championship ever since.
"With Rufus and the pigeons it ends up being fight or flight and the pigeons usually opt for flight," Davis told Reuters as the grounds keepers prepared Center Court for Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, and Andy Murray later in the day.
By 10 a.m. Rufus is off duty and the courts cleared for the arrival of tennis fans, thousands of whom line up outside the ground, even camping overnight, for a chance to see their idols.
For Wimbledon is one of the few major British sporting events where people can still buy premium tickets on the day, if they are prepared to spend up to 24 hours in a line, known as The Queue, that has become as much a tradition at Wimbledon as strawberries and cream... and rain.
Meteorologists from Britain's national weather service, the Met Office, said the forecast for Monday was cloudy but dry, while the rest of the week was also looking fine.
Every day, several thousands tickets are sold at 20 pounds ($31) each for unreserved seating and standing room on courts 3-19 while those at the front of the line get the 1,500 tickets available for the top three courts - Center, One, and Two.
Over the years, The Queue has transformed to epitomize the British obsession for orderly lines, with strict rules ensuring fairness, no queue jumping, and civility, and a list of websites and Twitter accounts giving tips on how to line up.
Wimbledon spokesman Jon Friend said the line this year built up at a record pace after opening at 8 a.m. on Sunday, with organizers issuing advice to stay away after 3 1/2 hours. Usually it takes six hours before the line reaches that stage.
"You can't really predict or control the numbers but this really shows the popularity of tennis," Friend said.
Tennis fans in The Queue said the wait could be almost as fun at the tournament that dates back to 1877.
Judy Bourne, a retiree from Cheltenham about 84 miles north west of London, has camped out at Wimbledon for 34 years and ended up being 85th in the line this year, ensuring she got Court One ticket to see her favorite, Rafa Nadal.
"I just love the wait. You get to know people and I have made some good friends over the years," she told Reuters.
Japanese honeymooners Takahiro and Sayako Ikawa, both 32, from Osaka, lined up for two days to get into Wimbledon, coming 36th and 37th in the line and getting Center Court tickets.
"It was a really English queue. Everyone was very nice and polite," said the couple, taking photos of themselves holding their tickets inside the gates.
(Editing by John O'Brien)