James Lawton: Cliff's Centre Court sing-song seals case for Wimbledon roof

Ghastly memories of rain-affected occasion eight years ago sweep away any opposition to much-needed improvement at All England Club
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The Independent Online

Tim Henman's cautious welcome for the expected announcement that the All England Club will finally move to put a retractable roof on the Centre Court is guaranteed a contemptuous response from "soccer" enthusiast Henry Kissinger.

When concerns similar to the ones raised by Henman this week about the difficulty of preserving healthy grass in an indoor stadium were put to the former Secretary of State - in his role as an adviser to the successful American bid for the World Cup of 1994 - he said, "You know a few years ago, we put a guy on the moon - I think we should be able to come up with a few blades of grass." You might say Kissinger, having received a Nobel Peace Prize soon after bombing a large slice of South-East Asia, has always had an exaggerated sense of the possible, but his point was surely unassailable.

It certainly adds a touch more comic relief to the tortuous debate about whether Wimbledon is right to nudge its way into the 20th century now the 21st is four years old.

To be fair to Timmy, it has to be said that even though he is one of the most abused victims of the chaos that comes to the old tournament with a drop of rain, his worry is exclusively horticultural. He says: "I used to be against the roof, but I think it's important to keep the ball rolling for the spectators and TV. It's just that with grass, you have to be very careful." That is splendidly altruistic from a player who has so many times watched his chances go with the drizzle.

As it happens, "Broadway" Joe Namath, the New York Jets quarterback not noted for his earnest approach to life, was also circumspect when asked about the possible effect of new playing conditions created by Astroturf. "I can't really say," said Namath, "I haven't smoked it yet."

Really, it is quite hard to take the Wimbledon debate too seriously. When the German dream of a replica of the great tournament took shape, the founders were utterly faithful to the style of the original. They even imported red telephone kiosks. But they also noted that in Westphalia, as in SW19, it quite often rains in mid-summer. So of course they included a retractable roof in the plans for the show court.

It meant that a smooth running tournament in Halle was the norm by the time Wimbledon reached that day - 3 July 1996 - when, I will always believe, the case for a retractable roof, some day, however distant, became ultimately unanswerable. It was the day you had to say that the inconveniences facing the players - and the sheer misery of the spectators - had reached unacceptable limits.

It was bad enough that Henman trailed out of the tournament after being required to walk on to the Centre Court five times before losing in three sets to Todd Martin. As ever the gentleman, Henman said that all the interruptions had not deflected from the fact that the big American had been the better man. However, he did add a little waspishly: "I feel I should have won the tournament. I knocked up so many times." On average it was nearly four times a match. Undoubtedly, performing seals had more continuity of action. It also happened that Steffi Graf's beautifully poised semi-final with Kimiko Date had to be adjourned just when soggy fans believed they were beginning to get a little value for money.

All of these hardships paled soon enough, however, when Sir Cliff Richard and several good-hearted members of the British armed services put themselves in charge of the entertainment. It was also a fact that an old cynical rumour emerged. It was said that umpires and line judges knew that play was over for the day a good hour before the general public was informed. Why was that so? Could it really have been that as long as they stayed, wet and miserable, besieged by Sir Cliff but still hoping against hope that they might see a bit of tennis, the cash registers would continue to ring.

It is a familiar cynicism that attaches itself to so many of the great events of British sport, and at its heart is the underlying belief that the public will put up with more or less anything in their pursuit of a little world-class diversion. The All England club will to do well to remember this when they get round to making their announcement. They may think they are stepping boldly into brave, uncharted country when they discuss their breathtaking plan to give the Centre Court a roof. Of course they are not. They are doing something necessary - and respectful to all those who have made Wimbledon what it is.

For those who experienced 3 July 1996, there is an additional bonus. It is , finally, the knowledge that the suffering, which was so excruciating at the time, may not have been entirely in vain.