Henman raises the roof at Wimbledon

Briton joins Agassi, Graf and Clijsters as new addition passes first test with aplomb

For the first time in the All England Club's history, rain fell and Wimbledon smiled. With a cold wind bringing frequent showers, yesterday brought the sort of afternoon that has driven club officials to distraction in the past, but this was the day when Wimbledon unveiled its new retractable Centre Court roof, arguably the club's most daring innovation in the 132 years since Spencer Gore, having paid his one guinea entrance fee along with 21 other competitors, won the first men's singles championship.

Only when the roof is used for the first time at next month's championships will it be possible to pass a more definitive judgement but, after yesterday's test event, Cliff Richard singalongs and endless TV replays of the McEnroe-Borg tie-break will now join white balls and wooden rackets in Wimbledon's past.

Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, Tim Henman and Kim Clijsters delighted a 15,000 crowd with three hours of knockabout tennis, but it was their verdict on the conditions that will have pleased the All England Club the most.

''I was a little worried that with the roof closed there might be a bit of moisture and the court would be a bit slippery, but I was really impressed with how solid it felt,'' Agassi said.

''The sound was magnificent. I think when you get two people out there who can really play and move and hit the ball, you will see titanic battles of the sort we've never seen before, and I say that even considering last year's final. It's an environment that lends to some spectacular tennis."

Henman added: ''It's been a real treat to play in the conditions inside when it's been so miserable, cold, wet and windy outside."

Solid roofs like those at the Australian Open can make a tournament feel just like any other indoor event, whereas one of the great benefits of Wimbledon's fabric cover is that it is 40 per cent translucent, allowing in plenty of natural light. Extensive artificial lighting is also used, but unless you look upwards you can be forgiven for thinking that the court is still open to the elements.

Wimbledon said that it would take up to 10 minutes for the roof to close, but it was shut within seven as the 10 steel trusses pulled across the 5,200 square metres of waterproof Tenara.

An equally impressive part of the operation is the new air management system, which regulates the atmosphere inside the stadium and ensures there is no condensation, which is essential to player safety and the state of the grass. There was a 44-minute gap between the roof beginning to close and play starting. Inside it felt like a classic English summer's day.

Ian Ritchie, Wimbledon's chief executive, said: ''It was interesting to get the feedback from everybody who played on court because the humidity and the air control was one of the big issues for us. We'll get a lot of data to see how it's all performed, but the feedback we already have technically is that it worked extremely well."

Yesterday's three one-set matches saw Henman and Clijsters win the mixed doubles 7-6. Agassi earned revenge in his singles against Henman, clinching his fourth match point to win 6-4 with a vintage forehand pass.

Clijsters, who will rejoin the tour this summer following the birth of her baby last year, wrapped up the afternoon with a 6-4 victory over Graf, who looked in exceptional shape considering that, at 39, she has not played competitively for 10 years. At Graf's last Wimbledon, in 1999, the second Tuesday was completely rained off. That, we can be sure, will not be happening again.

Right as rain: Vintage matches defined by delays

Andre Agassi's first-round match with Grant Connell in 1991 was not completed until the sixth day due to persistent stoppages for rain

*2001 semi-final: Goran Ivanisevic beat Tim Henman 7-5, 6-7, 0-6, 7-6, 6-3. This was the closest Henman ever came to reaching the Wimbledon final. The Briton was leading by two sets to one when rain intervened. When they resumed the following day Ivanisevic took the fourth set, but the skies opened once again. The match ended on a third day.

*2008 final: Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7. A match acclaimed as Wimbledon's greatest. Federer was in danger of losing in straight sets when rain started to fall in the third. Federer looked sharper after an 80-minute break and took the third and fourth sets. At 2-2 in the final set there was another break, after which Nadal secured his victory at 9.15pm.

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