Friday, 29 June 2012

Anyone for a downpour?

It’s one of the biggest challenges faced by the quintessential English game: the English weather. So what’s the Wimbledon Chairman’s plan for appeasing the Rain Gods? The Lady finds out… and it’s not more Cliff Richard

Written by Rachel Johnson

On a sunny day, there is nowhere most of us would rather be than in SW19, watching two fit, lithe, tanned young men in white shorts scamper about on emerald-green grass, while we sip Pimm’s. For Wimbledon is just one of those very special places that makes one feel that God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.

Until, that is, it rains. Which is why this year’s tournament is such a potential headache for Chairman Philip Brook – not only does he have to deliver yet another cracking championship to a tennis-addicted world and global audience, during a monsoon summer, but also, three weeks later, give up his club for the Olympics, which the All England Lawn Tennis Club just happens to be hosting. So no pressure then at all. New balls, please!

In order to gauge the atmosphere, I visit before the start of what I’ve decided must be called The Wimblympics. It is a sunny Wednesday. Possibly the only sunny Wednesday we are going to have all summer, if the gloomy forecasts are proved right.

From Southfields Tube I make the sacred pilgrimage on foot, the one that so many hundreds of thousands of the tennis faithful make every year, the 1,500 metres up to Church Road’s Gate Five, the closest entrance to the hallowed sanctum sanctorum of tennis, the Centre Court complex.

Wimbledon-02a-590

As I walk, I am worried what a soggy summer is going to do for the reputation and health of lawn tennis as well as that of the famed English tournament, the oldest and most venerable in the world, at this huge moment in its 126-year history. After all, if Wimbledon struggles to get all its matches and the tennis Olympics played in a monsoon summer, then could it be curtains for grass tournaments, in England, in general?

Every year, more grass courts are concreted over. As it happens, I go through the gate with Richard Williams, the father and coach of the Williams sisters, so I ask. He obviously thinks I am barking.

‘Ain’t got no grass courts I know of in the States,’ he answers in the deepest voice I’ve ever heard. ‘Don’t make no difference, though, what surface you play on. If I was poor, grass, dirt, water, grit – I’d win it.’

Doubts about the future of the grass game somewhat allayed, I sit in the boardroom with Mr Brook, who is a darkly handsome cross between Michael Middleton and Tim Henman’s dad, wearing a navy suit and purple-andgreen club tie. Over glasses of water, he tells me about the long-term ‘masterplan’ for the club (in brief – with the help of the Grimshaw partnership of architects, to make the broadcast centre more media-friendly and enlarge changing facilities) and then I lob the big question.

‘What if it rains?’ I ask. He winces. ‘Then we’re in trouble,’ he says. ‘We have a need for fine weather.’ And if we don’t get it, then contingency plans swing into play. Not just Cliff Richard organising a sing-along, but earlier starts, no rest days between matches for winners, and play on the middle Sunday.

Wimbledon-03-590

Still, if it rains throughout, it will be a dampener. Chairman Brook has no doubt that the club will manage. ‘My aim is to continue to provide the finest stage in world tennis,’ he says, twice. He also explains that Mrs Brook works just as hard as he does, co-hosting the Royal Box, and I quite believe it – holding an all-day event for worthies and celebrities and Royals every day for a fortnight would be a challenge even for readers of The Lady. But nothing like the challenge of holding the rain at bay, admits Brook. Indeed, it looks increasingly likely that the club will have to bow to the Rain Gods, and spend another fortune on another roof (in 2009 a £100m retractable roof was fitted on Centre Court), this time on Court One.

We leave the boardroom as Centre Court is, as we speak, being prepared for the tournament, and top seeds are in evidence. Teams of Oompa Loompas in polos and shorts of Wimbledon green are active with brushes and brooms in the stands. Media crews are staking out their positions. And sitting in a chair wearing a pair of grey tracksuit bottoms and white cashmere top, is Roger Federer himself.

The grass looks like a billiard table, smoothly green and perfect, as ground staff mark out the white lines of the court with infinite precision. But play hasn’t even started yet, and there will be only 20 days to restore the turf to its current pristine state after the Championship ends.

I have to admit, it all looks peachy now, on Centre Court, but the forecast is for rain, and more rain. But still. The guiding motto of the club is those two lines from If, which are inscribed above the entryway to Centre Court: If you can meet with triumph and disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same…

I sense that Chairman Brook and Wimbledon will weather triumph and disaster, just the same, and whatever happens, rain won’t interrupt play on his watch for long. Now where did I put my Pimm’s?



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