Mills bows out, grateful for a great under-covers story

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The covers are cosseted, too. Stored for the bulk of the year in Warrington, where they are made by Stuart Covers Products, they are ferried down to Wimbledon in four 40-ton lorries, and at the conclusion of The Championships are taken back north, cleaned, inspected and tucked away in readiness for next year.

Mills, by no means a demonstrative sort, is aglow with gratitude for the equipment which has made his job easier. "We haven't had a wet court for 20 years," he said, early one morning last week after a night of storms. "Last night's weather brought back memories of what happened in 1985, when we were just starting with the new covers. On that occasion the Club was struck by lightning, there was a photographer swimming in a flooded stairwell on Centre Court. And not a drop of water got on to the courts. It was the same last night."

So take a bow, Donald Kenyon - "managing director, proprietor, call me what you like, we are only a small company". He thought of inflatable, roll-on covers in 1981 and basically the concept hasn't changed since then, though the firm now produce a hover-cover for Test cricket grounds. "The original one is at Lord's, as big as a railway carriage. It literally hovers out on to the pitch and sits down when you ask it to."

Though the company supply covers for all the first-class cricket grounds in this country and the West Indies, Manchester United's pitch at Old Trafford and at racecourses as frost protection, tennis - and particularly Wimbledon - is Kenyon's pride.

Two years after founding his firm he brought a sample to the All England Club, who swiftly recognised the improvement offered over the traditional heavy covers laid over the grass, which encouraged condensation. Wimbledon took one on trial, approved it, bought five more the next year and by 1985, just in time for the record rains, all courts had the inflatable covers in place.

They are made of a light, mesh fabric coated on each side with a special ingredient which helps to repel ultra- violet rays and the chemicals used on grass. "In the old days, some chemicals used to eat holes in the covers," Kenyon explained.

Kenyon acknowledges that the covers are expensive, especially at Wimbledon, where the courts are of different sizes, but declines to offer a figure. "I was asked many years ago not to give the cost." On the other hand, they are extremely durable and last for what Kenyon considers a worryingly long time, barring man-made disasters like the spectator who once stubbed out his cigar on the rolled-up cover on Court Two.

"It was still lit and drilled a hole which went all the way through to the roller inside, so as you rolled the cover out, every 18 inches there was this same hole in it."

Kenyon's team of eight live on site in the high-rise apartment building which overlooks Wimbledon. "We can see the rain coming from up there," he says. They are on duty 24 hours a day, in co-operation with the tournament's ground- staff, to deal with sudden weather changes.

"People often say to me it's a wonderful job, sitting at Wimbledon for three weeks," he smiled. Pointing to the All England Club's manicured acres, he said: "The simple answer is that my job is to see that stuff never gets wet."