Tuesday, September 26

How the roof turned Wimbledon into post-watershed entertainment | Wimbledon 2022

We have learned a lot about Wimbledon in this centenary celebration of the club’s fabled Centre Court, scene of probably more 20th-century sporting drama than any single arena outside Madison Square Garden.

The tennis, generally, has been dependably sublime, hitting repeated peaks. The commentary has swung between ooh-aah Iga, ta-ra, and, bloody hell, Nick’s at it again. McEnroe has gone from grey to white, and Sue’s face might yet crack entirely while smiling at his old jokes in her farewell fortnight. Billie Jean has been an enduring Queen. And the weather has … not been awful.

But the air, as ever, has been heavy with impending inconvenience, especially towards the end of long days as the clouds gather, the rain spits a little, the lights on Centre Court begin to glow and the 56,000 square feet of fabric forming the biggest umbrella in town rumble into place over the sacred turf that a hundred years ago accommodated the uncovered anarchy of Suzanne Lenglen. The French iconoclast would have had plenty to say about the French Federation putting a roof on her eponymous court at Roland Garros – and would have regarded it as sacrilege at Wimbledon.

The roof is a mechanical marvel, of course, the material chosen “because of its ability to flex and fold repeatedly without cracking” – which, at the end of the first week, sounded like the All England Club apologising for turning an outdoor jamboree of strawberries and drop shots into an invitation to finish the night quietly in a large tent before your parents get home.

Sally Bolton, the club’s chief executive, was not in apologetic mood on Monday, though. While Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have led the complaints about the tournament being turned into a night event by stealth, Bolton sees it as an inevitable compromise.

Certainly juggling so many matches, seeking to spread the big stage among the leading contenders and satisfying local and international TV demands is always tricky.

“The reality of running a tennis event is that once you start the day you have no idea when the day’s going to finish,” she pointed out. Fair enough.

“Matches are long and short,” she added, “so it is pretty unpredictable. We have seen some matches go late this year. We think about that in the scheduling process but we’re certainly not moving to night sessions, I’m certainly not seeking to have players playing late – but of course at the other grand slams they are playing far later into the evening.”

Dinara Safina (left) and Amélie Mauresmo play the first ever point under the Centre Court roof in 2009. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Yet it is this very powerlessness over time and circumstance that undermines her logic. While the All England Club might say they do not want a night tournament, that is exactly what they’ve got – just as they have in Melbourne, Flushing Meadows and Roland Garros. Except those majors make no apologies for it.

Wimbledon clings to a glorious past, while struggling to accommodate an often difficult present.

The memorable 2008 final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal was the last before the roof went up. Rain ensured it began at 2.35pm, more than half an hour late. Two more rain breaks interrupted the almost unbearable drama, which finished in the Spaniard’s favour in near darkness at 9.15pm, an epic final very nearly ruined by the uncontrollable elements.

So, the roof, which had been in construction since 2006, was regarded with mild curiosity by traditionalists and the rest of us, and smiles by the All England Club when it was rolled into action for the first time at 4.40pm on Monday 29 June 2009, during the fourth-round match between Amélie Mauresmo and Dinara Safina.

It was widely hailed as a necessary and forward-looking innovation. That match, however, finished quickly and did not inconvenience the locals. It seemed as if Wimbledon (always more adventurous than the club’s image would suggest) had pulled off another coup.

It was only when Murray (later to employ Mauresmo as his coach) and Stan Wawrinka finished their fourth-round match under cover at 10.38pm – just a few minutes later than Djokovic’s longer-than-predicted fourth-round win against Tim van Rijthoven on Sunday night – that some of us wondered: was this going to be the norm?

Those concerns were heightened the following year when Djokovic’s match against Olivier Rochus finished at 10.58pm – and Merton council confirmed there was an 11pm curfew. It seemed as if the fun had gone out of the new plaything.

Ever since, the roof has been alternatively a useful fallback and a lurking villain, a reason to question the demands of the modern sports entertainment business. The BBC, you can be sure, are thrilled when they hear the motors whirring overhead.

Yet, for all its obvious usefulness, the roof will never be truly loved. It is the e-bike parked next to the old banger in the garage: used functionally rather than for pleasure.

Wimbledon was meant to be played in the fresh air, with a hint or even a cascade of sunlight. While we live in a climate more suited to bog snorkelling, many of us are not happy burying memories of great tennis set against the glowing firmament – however fleeting and unreliable those recollections may be.

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