Wimbledon lays foundations for brave new world

Construction work on the new Centre Court roof has offered an unusual glimpse behind the scenes at the All England Club. Paul Newman reports
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For two weeks of the year it is the hottest ticket in town, but for most of this winter the local residents of Wimbledon have been enjoying a free view inside Centre Court.

Within a fortnight of Roger Federer hitting the title-winning shot at last year's Championships, the All England Club began dismantling the stadium's East Stand as part of the most ambitious project in its history, to build a retractable roof over Centre Court.

For many weeks now passers-by in Church Road have been able to look through a gaping hole where the East Stand used to be and into the stadium, which was built in the 1920s.

Taking down the old roof was a major task and took three months to complete. The retractable roof will not be ready until the 2009 Championships and interim arrangements will apply for the next two tournaments. This summer there will be no roof at all on Centre Court; next year a new fixed roof will be in place, without the retractable cover.

Building has progressed well and the gap on the east side of the court is shrinking fast. Although high winds temporarily halted some of the work recently, the project is back on track and all the steelwork and pre-cast concrete terraces for the new stand should be in place by the end of the month.

An additional tier, consisting of six extra rows of seats, is being built on three sides of the stadium, which will increase the capacity from 13,800 spectators to 15,000.

New television commentary booths are being installed at the back of the additional tier in time for this summer's tournament, but most of the new seating area will not be in use.

By 2009, however, wider and more comfortable seats will be fitted throughout the stadium. Additional staircases and lifts will be installed and there will also be improved catering facilities as well as new lounge areas for Centre Court debenture holders.

Building work will be suspended and the site cleared up - and cranes dismantled - shortly before this year's tournament, which begins on 25 June. The work will resume and the cranes will return once the Championships are over.

The temporary absence of a roof this year will certainly change the atmosphere of the stadium, which has always had an intimate feel to it. Instead it will resemble the outdoor bowls which are popular in warmer countries. From the top of the new tier you can see up the hill to St Mary's Church and over Wimbledon Park golf course towards London.

Retractable roofs are used in two stadiums at the Australian Open, but Wimbledon's will be the first cover built over a grass court. The All England Club carried out exhaustive research into the effects of playing under a roof before deciding that it could control the atmosphere well enough to ensure that the playing conditions would not be adversely affected.

The roof will be used primarily to ensure that play can continue when rain is falling, though it could also be closed, like those in Melbourne, if the weather becomes very hot.

It will take only 10 minutes to open or close the roof, but play may be suspended for up to half an hour on each occasion to ensure that both the playing surface and the atmospheric conditions are right.

The roof will be translucent, allowing natural light to reach the grass when it is closed. During the rest of the year the new structure should help the grass to grow as it will allow more light into the stadium, particularly at the southern end.