The two players who walk through the All England Lawn Tennis Club’s (AELTC) doors on to Centre Court on 5 July for the men’s final will do well to heed the inscription written above their heads, taken from Rudyard Kipling’s If:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same
It is likely those players will again be Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who have contested the last three Wimbledon finals, with Federer leading 2-1. Last year’s third instalment of this rivalry captured the world’s imagination as Nadal ended Federer’s unbeaten five-year run at the All England Club and in doing so, became the first player to complete the French Open-Wimbledon double since Bjorn Borg in 1980. The only dampener is a serious knee injury, announced after his exit from Roland Garros, that could prevent Nadal from competing.
The new retractable roof was tested on 17 May during the Centre Court Celebration. Glyn Kirk / AFP
But there are plenty of talented players in men’s tennis willing to test both title aspirants. Leading the challenge is Britain’s Andy Murray. The 23-year-old has won three titles this year and moved to No. 3 in the world, the highest ranking ever achieved by a British player. It will be timely if Murray can end Britain’s 73-year wait for a men’s champion—2009 marks the 100th birthday of Fred Perry, the last British men’s champion. Also, Murray’s first grass court title at last week’s Aegon Championships in London bodes well for the local favourite’s chances.
In the women’s draw, Venus Williams will be the favourite to retain the Venus Rosewater Dish. She has won the two most recent Wimbledon titles to bring her total to five this decade—just one short of greats Suzanne Lenglen and Billie Jean King.
Indian players are well supported in London. I watched a mixed doubles match featuring Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi on Court 19 last year, and it was easily the biggest crowd I had witnessed for a match on an outside court, with fans occupying any vantage point, as far back as the stairs for No. 1 court. Mirza and Bhupathi were a relatively new combination then and lost, but having won the Australian Open title in January, they are two more players from whom more is expected this time round.
The year’s championships will be the first played with a roof over Centre Court. Construction of the roof began after Wimbledon 2006 and it was successfully tested on 17 May with the Centre Court Celebration that featured Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, Tim Henman and Kim Clijsters —who credits her training for the event as inspiration for her return to professional tennis (the former world No. 1 Belgian had announced her retirement in May 2007 from professional tennis citing recurring problems with injuries).
At the test event, it took around 7 minutes for the roof to close, but play cannot resume for at least 30 minutes after it’s closed—to allow time for the air management system to take effect. This is to remove condensation from within the bowl and stop the grass sweating.
When the roof is open, the only obvious changes to the appearance of Centre Court are the white trusses that are visible at either end of the court. There are 10 trusses, each one wider than a football pitch, that move and stretch a lightweight fabric called Tenara over the court to close the roof.
The fabric is 40% translucent, and the roof also features 120 lights, which theoretically will allow play indefinitely. In reality, the club is mindful of its patrons and local residents—AELTC chairman Tim Phillips stressed recently that the club considered Wimbledon a “day-time” tournament.
Not only does the roof keep the rain off, it also makes Centre Court an even more intimate environment. Agassi described the atmosphere as “magnificent”, while Clijsters said: “It has always felt on Centre Court as if the old roof brought the sounds of the crowd down on to the court, but now with the new roof it feels as if the crowd is right there next to you on the court.”
Putting a roof over Centre Court was a major project, and the most ambitious undertaken so far as part of the club’s “Long Term Plan”. The plan was unveiled in 1993, and since 1997 the grounds have been in a constant state of improvement, except, of course, for the two weeks when it stages The Championships.
The Long Term Plan is funded by the club’s sale of debentures. While last year’s tournament generated £25.667 million (around Rs201 crore) in revenue, all of it was channelled into the Lawn Tennis Association, which in turn invested in British tennis. A debenture buys a court ticket to each day of the championships, plus access to the holders’ facilities for five years. In April, the club issued 2,500 Centre Court debentures at a price of £27,750 for 2011-2015, which it expected would raise nearly £60 million. By May, the debentures had sold out.
The debentures will fund the Long Term Plan and further evolution of Wimbledon. On 22 May, the AELTC announced its next project; the construction of a 2,000-seat court on the site of the old Court 2—unofficially known by the sobriquet “The Graveyard of Champions”.
Game plan: The Wimbledon complex is undergoing a multi-year renovation programme. Matthew Harris
The new Court 2 will make its Championships debut in 2009. Located in the south-west corner of the ground, Court 2 can accommodate 4,000 spectators. It is a spectacular new arena, with the court built 3.5m below ground level so views across the site are not obstructed.
It is not just on major projects that the club sets the highest standards. For example, the 250 ball boys and girls drawn from local schools are put through a rigorous training programme. Once a week, for two-and-a-half hours, these 13- and 14-year-olds are put through their paces, learning the ball boy’s craft—a programme of aerobic exercises, coordination drills and theory. During the tournament, they are keenly observed, and the very best are used on Centre Court for the semi-finals and finals.
The ball boys and girls are part of an estimated team of about 6,000 officials and staff engaged during The Championships. Their roles range from collecting point-by-point data for the live scores on the website to driving players around.
Eddie Seaward is just the sixth head groundsman the club has had since 1888. He became the ultimate man responsible for the standard of the courts in 1991. There are 15 full-time staffers and 14 part-time ones for the lead-up to, and during, The Championships. Seaward says a typical day during The Championships will see him awake at 6am, studying the weather and making a decision about whether to leave on the covers. He will arrive at the ground at 7.30am and talk to the tournament referee; when they are finished, both will hope they don’t see each other again, because that means the weather is good and there should be no problems that day.
Seaward’s sole responsibility is the courts. The other gardening is left to the staff of local company Denny and Son Ltd, as it has been for the last 30 years. There are around 2 miles of yew, holly and beech hedges that are manicured precisely and more than an acre of flower beds are prepared. Some 50,000 plants and shrubs are planted around the grounds, including hydrangeas that are specially grown to be in full bloom during Wimbledon.
High standards are also what Nadal and Federer have set for whoever walks on to Centre Court on finals day this year. Whoever that is may also want to bear in mind another line from If:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”
Byron Vale is a freelance sports journalist who will be covering The Championships for Wimbledon.org. He is currently writing the Wimbledon blog and running the AELTC’s social media presence. He also owns and operates the live blogging website Livesportlive.com.
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