Almost as familiar as strawberries, freshly mown lawn and pristine white attire is the first drop of Wimbledon drizzle. As predictable as a Roger Federer forehand flourish, the rain arrives to disrupt play and the routine is always the same; the mad scramble for umbrellas, the dash of the ground staff to cover the court, the wheeling of the umpire and the players’ race for cover. Within seconds, the court is safely protected and conversation in the commentary boxes can turn to subjects off-piste such as equal prize money or fashion disasters.
So when the senior officials at the All England Club took the seismic decision back in 2005 to build a roof over Centre Court, they knew exactly what would happen. It would never rain again in London during the last week of June and the first of July. And they were not far wrong.
The roof was completed on budget and on time for the start of the 2009 Championships and only one match was played under its unique concertina-like covering—Andy Murray’s five-set win against Stanislas Wawrinka. Even then, the move appeared mainly precautionary, with sunshine reported in nearby Wimbledon village. Last year, it wasn’t required once during a glorious fortnight.
Derek Berwin/Fox Photos/Getty Images
Adverse weather brings logistical nightmares for the officials at the All England Club. Former referee Alan Mills may be retired but probably can’t go for a stroll without his trademark walkie-talkie. He developed the nicknames “rain man” and “prophet of doom” and certainly when his familiar head appeared around the backboards, we knew there was trouble in the air.
Andrew Jarrett has fulfilled the role as Championships referee for the past five years and his regular day involves frequent checks with the meteorological office in London. The latest charts and satellite printouts are always available and the information is so localized that he can be pretty confident that any imminent precipitation can be predicted to a couple of minutes.
“We take great care in preparing for every eventuality and endeavouring to maintain the published schedule,” says Jarrett, 53. “This means making use of the latest technology, where we can, to give us an edge. The on-site Met office team keeps us informed of the likely immediate and longer-range weather patterns.
“This at least helps us to plan for what can be the unplannable and is useful for keeping the players, the spectators and the world’s media informed of what we expect to happen. Of course, it doesn’t always work out how we would wish, but at least the Centre Court roof now means that we can continue to provide live tennis entertainment however much the weather may try to dampen our spirits,” says Jarrett.
Covered up: Centre Court empties out during another rain break at the All England Club. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
The weather has certainly played its part in Wimbledon history (the tournament celebrates its 125th edition this year) and many players can claim assistance from the elements as much as from their coaches. Possibly the most famous recent example was Goran Ivanisevic’s extraordinary semi-final turnaround in 2001 against Tim Henman when the home favourite was seemingly heading for a first Wimbledon final, taking firm control of the match winning the third set to love.
The heavens opened in the fourth set and when they returned on the Saturday, Henman, having lost any momentum he had gained, drew level at two sets all with Ivanisevic. The rain came again after five games of the decider, forcing another overnight cliffhanger, before Ivanisevic pounced on the Sunday. He went on to win the title, as a wild card, beating Patrick Rafter on the third Monday in front of a capacity crowd which had turned up to buy tickets on the day.
While the frequent rain interruptions neither assisted Rafael Nadal to victory, nor directly denied Federer in the classic final of 2008, nobody can deny that it added to the drama. When Nadal finally converted match point, gone 9.30 in the evening, the flashbulbs went off like fireworks on Centre Court and the image would not have remained so vivid without the delays and the rain.
Competing at Wimbledon can be an exercise in extreme patience. When the rain arrives, players have to pass time either in the locker room, restaurant or lounge. There are snooker tables, Internet terminals and plenty of seating areas but it’s never enough. Just imagine, especially during the first week, how many people are swarming around with all the main draw players, men’s and women’s, singles and doubles. Sometimes it is impossible to get a seat in the player lounge and much as they would like to return to their hotel or house, the player normally has to stay on site in case the weather clears and the match is called.
On our BBC Radio network, 5 Live, we sometimes invite players into the commentary box for a chat. I remember Kim Clijsters coming in once and while she was entertaining on the air, she almost bumped her head on our low ceiling and I feared we were at risk of ruling her out of title contention.
Unfortunately, for players and spectators alike, a rain delay is one of the dullest periods. Tim Henman, the British favourite, always used to enjoy a game of backgammon with his coach. Andy Murray checks his fantasy football team on his laptop. Boring? Absolutely! That’s a rain delay for you! At least in 1996, the Centre Court crowd had Cliff Richard to entertain them.
The decision to cover Centre Court, the core structure of which remains the 1922 original, was not taken lightly. Exhaustive engineering studies and scientific tests were undertaken before a design and process was agreed, which would protect the grass courts, avoiding the risk of extra moisture while transforming the stadium into a modern-day retractable-roofed sporting theatre.
The main benefit is the protection of the final few days of the Championships, with all the matches scheduled for Centre Court. As Jarrett says, “Even if it’s a great forecast for two weeks, it only used to take a half-day of rain on finals day and we’d (be) playing into a third Monday.” Not any more.
Many people wonder why Wimbledon didn’t build a roof on No. 1 court when that opened in the late 1990s. The answer is simple; No. 1 court has fewer seats than Centre Court, so if it rained on finals day, several thousand ticket holders would miss out, unless they were willing to hang from the rafters. The US Open is currently faced with the same issue as it struggles to find an undercover solution for the huge Flushing Meadows complex.
So the 2011 Championships arrives with an encouraging long-term weather forecast. Although, as anyone from England will tell you—and we are obsessed by the weather—don’t believe anything the forecasters say. It could rain, it could shine but, on the 10th anniversary of the “people’s Monday” when Ivanisevic beat Rafter, the roof will ensure continuous play on Centre Court and virtually guarantee an on-time finish.
Jonathan Overend is BBC Radio 5 Live’s tennis correspondent and has been on the circuit for eight years. He recently won the UK’s Sport Journalists’ Association’s Broadcaster of the Year award.
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