Centre Court fans no longer at mercy of rain gods

Never again will Wimbledon stage a men’s final such as last year’s rain-soaked epic in which Rafael Nadal ended Roger Federer’s five-year reign as dusk fell over south-west London.

The contest which finished in near-darkness thanks to two rain breaks will be consigned to Wimbledon folklore as the All England Club prepares to unveil its newest innovation when the grasscourt grand slam begins on Monday—a translucent retractable roof over Centre Court.

The showers and fading light added extra drama to the five-set thriller won by Nadal 12 months ago but such episodes are usually an unwelcome sight for weather-weary Wimbledon fans.

Never again, promise organisers, will Centre Court ticket holders go away from the championships disappointed that they did not catch any tennis because the British rain gods decided to play spoilsport.

“People have a life time ambition to get a seat ticket here on Centre Court and I always feel terribly sorry for them when it rains and they miss it,” All England Club chief executive Ian Ritchie told Reuters in an interview.

“Previously if you came, for example, from the States and you only had a ticket for one or two days, there was always in the back of your mind the possibility that it was going rain. You could come all the way over and not see anything.”

While the roof will keep 15 000 visitors to southwest London happy on a daily basis, the other beneficiaries will be the millions of global television viewers who will be guaranteed live action from Wimbledon almost everyday come rain or shine.

To do that Wimbledon has erected a 1 000-tonne concertina structure over Centre Court which unfurls at 20 centimetres a second. The two sections of the translucent roof take about seven to nine minutes to lock together and turn the most famous tennis stage in the world into an indoor arena, complete with bright floodlights.

Traditions maintained
The addition of lighting means matches will be played to the finish and not suspended overnight.

“All the players are excited to see how it’s going to really work especially with the lighting as well and having 15 000 people in a stadium,” said Federer.

“We appreciate it very much that Wimbledon has gone forward by mixing innovation and tradition.”

Some critics have suggested that building a roof over such an iconic structure goes against the belief of a tournament which prides itself for upholding age-old traditions, such as implementing a predominantly white dress rule on competitors.

Ritchie disagreed.

“I don’t think that will intervene with the tradition at all.
Any time you change anything, you can say that’s a break with tradition,” said Ritchie.

“But our guidelines are very clear; playing on grass, white clothing and no [overt] advertising.

“But if you are staging a global event, you need to move with the times and if that means we are able to offer live tennis, I think that is a huge plus point.

“We are in a 180 countries around the world on television and people want to see live play. The great as Borg-McEnroe [1980] tiebreak has been I think everyone has seen it [a replay during rain breaks] enough times.”

Rain playing havoc with the scheduling of matches has long been a major headache for Wimbledon officials.

But before everyone starts rejoicing that such problems have now been consigned to the pages of Wimbledon’s official record books, they can think again.

The Wimbledon Compendium has many pages highlighting how the weather has plagued the tournament with entries such as ‘Days which have been completely rained off’ or ‘First weeks badly interrupted by rain’.

The author of the book can now look forward to adding a section on ‘Days which have been completely rained off except on Centre Court’.

This is because if there is wet weather, non-Centre Court ticket holders will still be left out in the cold as during the fortnight up to 20 courts are used at the championships.

There is, however, one scenario that could stop play altogether on the grounds—if it rains non-stop for four or five days.

While organisers have installed an air management system to remove condensation from within the bowl and to stop the grass sweating, if the surface is unable to breathe naturally for a few days running, it will become too slippery to play on.

“That would concern me but I don’t think that’s going to happen frankly because the most we’ve ever had in records in the years is three days without play,” Wimbledon’s head groundsman Eddie Seaward told Reuters.

“Obviously the grass is paramount and we would nurse the grass through if we have to. But (if it did rain for three or four days) we’d get to the stage where we’d have to just say it would not be playable.”

Andre Agassi, who was given the honour of being one of the first to play under the new roof at an exhibition last month, gave the covered surface his thumbs up by saying: “I was really impressed with what I saw. That’s an environment that lends itself to some spectacular tennis.”

Let the show begin. - Reuters

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