When Katharine Rowe let out her sprawling five-bedroom terraced home in a leafy southwest London street to a top doubles tennis player during last year’s Wimbledon, she braced herself to come back to a house scattered with “broken things”.
Luckily her fears were unfounded but she did get an eyeful as soon as started taking an inventory of her rooms — left behind was a stash of foreign porn magazines.
“I was expecting things to have been broken but they were really good guests, which is why I’m happy they are coming again,” Rowe, a florist who will be going on a two-week holiday to Cornwall during this year’s tournament, told Reuters.
“When people ask me if they left behind any mementoes, the first thing I think of is that we had a few interesting (adult) magazines left behind. And a very nice towel.
“The magazines were left behind in various different rooms. Luckily my children are four and one so they didn’t register them. My husband thought it was really funny. They weren’t English ones.”
Rowe’s property is one of 250-odd houses Joanna Doniger has on her books at Tennis London — a short-term letting agency that specialises in renting out private homes within walking distance of the All England Club to players such as Roger Federer and the Williams sisters.
The firm was the brainchild of two women drivers who used to ferry players from central London to Wimbledon during the early 1980s.
With the journey often taking more than an hour through London’s congested roads, they decided to come up with a win-win situation for players and local residents in an area which lacks hotels.
Home owners can look forward to earning rent at three times the going rate for a short-term let — 1,000 pounds a week for a one-bedroom flat to 10,000 pounds a week for a top-end, five-bedroom house — while players can now stroll into the Wimbledon grounds at short notice and no longer need to worry about the traffic.
Competitors do, however, have to be fairly confident of their chances of winning the tournament as the minimum lease is for two weeks.
Doniger took over the company 17 years ago and thrives on the “moments of glory and moments of complete panic” she has to endure during the Wimbledon fortnight as she tries to fulfil the roles of being ‘mother, letting agent and problem solver’ to her clients.
She has only ever blacklisted one player, for failing to pay his rent.
“I once had a very well-known player who was very frightened of spiders,” she added.
“I can remember him ringing me up in the middle of the night and saying: ‘Joanna we have a very serious problem here. There are spiders everywhere. Just get rid of them’,” the 56-year-old, who runs her business from an office in Chelsea and takes a 15 percent cut of the rent, told Reuters.
“There were hundreds of little spiders so I got Rentokil (pest controllers) in the next day. So every year after that he took a house, we got it debugged before he got there because he really, really did not like them. It was funny; he did not think it was funny but we all thought it was funny.”
Getting calls in the middle of the night from panic-stricken tenants is par for the course for Doniger, who says she is on call 24 hours a day during the two-week championships — and she takes it all in good humour.
“I get woken up at 3a.m. quite often, mostly because people have lost their keys and they can’t get in. I have a locksmith who will go around immediately and let them in for a lot of money. He’ll do it within half-an-hour,” said Doniger, whose letting business turns over about half a million pounds a year.
“We once had someone who had knocked off a tap and there was water spurting out everywhere, I got a plumber there in half-an-hour. The burglar alarm going off at 3a.m. is another common problem because they are all foreign and don’t know how to turn it off.
“Doesn’t matter what time, they can ring me. We deal with it. It’s a challenge.”
Planning for those challenges begins months before the players arrive in London. Doniger has a very strict check-list before agreeing to take on a property.
It has to be walking distance from the Club, and have big beds because “players are enormous and they are much bigger than they look on TV”. Properties have to be modern, they must have nice bathrooms with power showers, they need to have big televisions and wifi, be spotlessly clean and very, very private.
“We once had a player who used to like to have a very large bed and…every year we had to put in a super king and had to take out the windows to get the bed in,” said Doniger.
“I do rent to (American) John Isner (who is 2.06 metres tall) and I think he’s used to having his feet sticking out of the bottom of a bed as we don’t need to bring in a special bed for him. Maybe he sleeps across the bed, I don’t know,” she added with a laugh.
Owners who tick all the boxes could be in for a summer bonanza at this year’s tournament, which opens on June 20, provided they can put up with the stress of allowing total strangers to take over their house.
“We hope the weather is really sunny and hope our tenants are on the courts (at Wimbledon) rather than being messy in the house,” Rowe said, summing up the feelings of many landlords in an area where property prices can run into millions of pounds.