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Tradition and innovation collide at Wimbledon
June 20, 2007 12:28 IST
Amelie Mauresmo stepped over the paint pots and surveyed the Centre Court, scene of her Wimbledon triumph last year but, without its roof, looking like a completely different arena.
"Could be windy," she said, as a stiff breeze whistled round the exposed seating and the cover protecting the famous green lawn billowed and sank.
Since Mauresmo and Roger Federer [Images] lifted two of the world's most coveted tennis trophies, 300 builders, four tower cranes and countless diggers, lorries and power tools have turned the All England [Images] Club into a huge, muddy building site -- then back into an international sporting venue.
It is part of a three-year project to modernise facilities, add a retractable roof to the Centre Court playing area so action will not stop for rain, build a new sunken Court Two and revamp others.
Part of Centre Court was reduced to its foundations but builders knew they had a deadline to get the stadium up and running, above all protecting the pristine playing surface, for the championships which start on June 25.
"It will be the only time since 1922 there hasn't been a roof at all," Wimbledon chief executive Ian Ritchie said last week.
"It'll be very different both to play and to visit as a spectator," he said.
Ritchie believes one of the attractions of Centre Court was the enclosed, almost cloistered feel with the roof covering most seating areas. This year, he suggested, the atmosphere might be more informal. Next year the spectators will be covered again and in 2009 the moving roof over the court will be installed.
This is Ritchie's second Wimbledon in charge and he bubbles with enthusiasm for the building project, for the tennis and for the institution that is the championships.
"Our view is that if you are a bit of an iconic sporting venue, if you keep the facilities the same you go backwards.
"The balance for us always is between tradition and innovation," he said.
"There are some things that are sacrosanct: We'll always play on grass; we believe it's right for people to wear mostly white; we believe there shouldn't be too much advertising around the place.
"That does not mean keeping a load of 1922 facilities. In some ways we are in quite a competitive market, particularly in the UK. There's a new Wembley, a new Ascot, a new Emirates Stadium at Arsenal, a rebuilt Twickenham...
"We take very seriously wanting to be at the top of the pile."
Wimbledon's aim is to create a timeless, relaxed atmosphere "like a walk in an English country garden."
But it is also a business with year-round commercial activities and an average surplus over the last few years of some $59.55 million.
"We are a private members club that has a bit of a do in the summer," Ritchie joked. "But everyone is entirely focused on what is best for the championships...We've been going since 1877 and we have a long term view."
One innovation that will add spice is the introduction of Hawkeye, the line-call tracker, to be used for the first time, though only on Centre Court.
"If the technology is there you should use it," Ritchie said. "I'd hate somebody to win a match or lose a match on a bad call."
So the tradition of arguing with line judges in the "You cannot be serious!" manner of John McEnroe looks like a thing of the past.
Much will remain the same, however. The flower arrangements and window boxes are just coming into bloom. The strawberries are on order and the tea marquees are up. The paint pots will be put away and painters replaced by smart-uniformed door staff.
The courts are also looking flawless before the first players crush the grass.
"The head groundsman is really pleased because he thinks Centre Court is in better condition than before," Ritchie said. "It's had more wind and more sun, more air."
Mauresmo said she is pleased the court is playing true and hurried off to the practice grounds after a brief chat about the weather.
Weather is a constant preoccupation at Wimbledon and this year the Centre Court spectators will be more aware of it than ever. With the retractable roof in two years' time they will not have to worry.
"Of course, the racing certainty in 2009 will be that we will have 13 days of unalloyed sunshine," Ritchie mused.