Tim the people's torch bearer on People's Sunday

For the third time in 14 years Wimbledon's traditions were shattered as the All England Club were forced by dismal weather to announce play on the middle Sunday of The Championships, a day normally regarded as sacrosanct to offer a rest to competitors, officials and the residents of the area immediately surrounding the world's greatest tennis tournament.

After the loss of a complete day's play last Wednesday further prolonged rain yesterday left the tournament with a backlog of 120 matches and by mid-afternoon the decision had been taken to follow the years of 1991 and 1997 by staging play on what became known as People's Day, with unrestricted admission to the show courts for people queueing on the day.

There will be 11,000 tickets for Centre Court and 10,000 for Court One available on a first-come basis, priced at £35 for Centre and £30 for Court One. Another 7,000 tickets at £15 will allow access to Courts 2-19.

The decision to open up Wimbledon today was made, said the chief executive Chris Gorringe, after consultation with the local authorities. "It is obviously a huge inconvenience for a lot of people," Gorringe admitted, "not least our neighbours in this residential area of London.

"We are encouraging only people who live relatively close to Wimbledon to turn up on Sunday. We are only going to be able to sell unreserved tickets on the day and everyone will have to pass through the main turnstiles in Church Road. There will be extra security staff on duty to get people into the ground as quickly as possible."

Late yesterday there were still hopes of being able to stage a limited amount of play, not least in order to avoid the full ticket cost refund to which Wimbledon are committed by a complete wash-out. But the scene at the All England Club was a depressing one, with spectators circling the walkways aimlessly and umbrellas being furled and unfurled every few minutes under a uniformly dark grey overcast.

When the decision about today's additional programme was taken, players due on court in matches later yesterday were sent home. Among them was Tim Henman, whose third-round contest with Hicham Arazi had been scheduled third on Centre Court behind matches involving the two defending champions, Roger Federer and Serena Williams.

At least Henman had seen some gentle activity in the morning when Sir Roger Bannister lit the Olympic Torch in the Royal Box on Centre Court and it was passed on to Henman for a ceremonial lap of the Wimbledon real estate before being handed over to Virginia Wade, women's champion in 1977, for the next leg of its journey through London. Appropriately, considering the weather, the flame promptly flickered and died as Henman took possession and needed to be relit before the British No 1 jogged circumspectly through the grounds, a broad grin masking his concern that any further spillage of fire from the torch might ignite his tracksuit.

The tent cover on Centre Court was lowered for the ceremony, attended by many personalities from the world of sport on what has become established as Sportsmen's Day on the middle Saturday of the tournament. However, it was soon erected again with the rainfall varying from steady to spots-and-drizzle, watched by such as Lord Coe, jockey Pat Eddery, golfers Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, athletes Jonathan Edwards and Colin Jackson, Newcastle United manager Sir Bobby Robson, Jane Torvill and, from the world of tennis, Monica Seles.

The referee, Alan Mills, said that 262 matches had been completed so far, when about 380 should have been played, with another 400 still to go, including events like the junior tournament.

"So far this year we are ahead of 1991 and 1997 in matches completed," said Mills. "But I try to make sure that singles players play their matches on the right days and get a day off. If we didn't play tomorrow [Sunday], some of the girls will have played four days in a row going into the semi-finals and then just one day off between the semis and Saturday's final.

"In this sort of championship that's asking too much. And if some of the girls are playing doubles and mixed, then there would be absolutely no chance of those events finishing by next Sunday.

"This year, for the first time, we cut the mixed doubles entry from 64 to 48, and that helps a lot in this situation. Then, when we start the junior events, we could play the early rounds of junior doubles as one pro set or something like that."

Gorringe explained the reduction in capacity for the two show courts today as a safety precaution. "We don't want too many people coming. In 1991 I was probably the first ever tournament director urging people not to come to his event.

"One of the biggest differences between 1997 and now is the heightened level of security that we're all living with. The Championships used to be played over 12 days, now it's 13 days. We've done that pretty successfully over our history. It's only very rarely that we need to have, as it were, a 14th day."

Wimbledon, and its local population, can expect more of a carnival atmosphere today than is normally the case, with no corporate input and the tournament, and its environs, flooded with "ordinary" sports fans who do not normally stand a chance of gaining admission.

"I think it's good for Wimbledon," said Gorringe, "because it so often brings a different type of person to The Championships. And the experiences we have had in the past have been very, very good.

"We know the neighbours are not very keen on us playing middle Sunday because of all the car parking restrictions. But we're having to do it in order to conclude The Championships on schedule, which is our main aim."

Wimbledon's gates open at 9am and play will begin on all courts at 11am. And today's Wimbledon weather? "Much better," promised Mills.

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