A retractable roof is to be built on the Centre Court at Wimbledon. After years of debate over the subject - and countless rejections of the idea - Wimbledon has finally decided to go ahead with the project in order to safeguard the commercial viability of the world's most prestigious tennis tournament. Details of the All England Club's "innovative plans for the Centre Court of the future", including the timescale of the project, are due to be announced on 6 January.
Rain delays are synonymous with the annual fortnight of The Championships, along with overnight ticket queues, strawberries and cream and Pimm's. However, the All England Club committee has finally decided to take steps at least to guarantee play for Centre Court spectators and a worldwide television audience. The television factor has been crucial, as broadcasters have grown increasingly frustrated by bad-weather interruptions.
The project looks certain to include provision for floodlighting, though it is understood there are no plans for night play. A firm of architects, HOK, has already begun work on the scheme. They are particularly experienced in this field, having been the lead architects for the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, which has a retractable roof.
For years Wimbledon had steadfastly refused to countenance installing a roof. However, Tim Phillips, the All England Club's chairman, underlined his committee's changing views on the subject before this year's tournament in June, when he said: "We know that it is physically possible to build a roof, as has happened elsewhere. We also owe it to tennis fans to investigate all the possibilities for play to take place even if it is raining." This contradicted Wimbledon's previous philosophy that putting a roof on the Centre Court was out of the question because they ran a 19-court championships, not a one-court event.
Tennis Australia's decision to put a retractable roof on the Centre Court in Melbourne - when the Australian Open moved to a rubberised concrete court in the city from the grass at Kooyong in the suburbs in 1988 - began to change that perception. Even so, Wimbledon decided against a roof for the new Court One in 1997, the same year in which the towering, roofless Arthur Ashe Stadium at the United States Open was inaugurated in New York.
The fiasco caused by rain delays at this year's US Open in September, highlighted by embarrassing scenes of the rubberised concrete courts being dried with hand towels, may prompt the US Tennis Association to reconsider. Melbourne Park, the home to the Australian Open, now has retractable roofs on three of the show courts in case of rain or extreme heat. The French Tennis Federation plans to put a retractable roof on a new court at Roland Garros, in Paris, the site of the French Open, where play is possible on the clay courts even in light drizzle.
Wimbledon, unlike the three other Grand Slam championships, is played on grass, hence Phillips' caution when previously discussing the option of a roof. "Above all else," the chairman said in the summer, "it is essential that the microclimate created within the court by such a structure does not adversely affect player safety (through slipping on damp grass) nor the grass growth."
Phillips added: "We continue to carry out experiments that might give us solutions to these potential pitfalls. At this stage we are looking at a range of options and only when we have a complete answer to all our questions will we be in a position to decide whether or not this is the best way forward for the future of Wimbledon."
While the installation of a Centre Court roof will be widely welcomed by broadcasters - and no doubt help the All England Club in future negotiations over TV rights - it is recognised that a roof on one court would be of only marginal assistance to the scheduling of the tournament in the early rounds. In the first week of the championships matches are played on up to 19 different courts. In the singles competitions alone, there are 64 matches to play in the first round of both the men's and women's events.
However, the roof could have an enormous impact on the latter stages of the tournament. Two years ago, for example, Tim Henman's semi-final against Goran Ivanisevic took three days to complete as the weather continually interrupted their match. Many observers felt that Henman would have won had the weather not intervened.
The All England Club's criteria for a roof were outlined in the following statement issued before this year's championships: "The structure must not affect the grass growth on any court. The integrity of the court surface is key and particularly so for tennis as compared to soccer and rugby. Problems experienced at stadia such as Halle [Germany], San Siro [Milan], Old Trafford and Cardiff prove that it is not that simple.
"Player safety: in the shut position the microclimate must be appropriate for world-class tennis players to perform at their best and in safety. The court surface must not become slippery through sweating otherwise it will defeat the object of having a roof.
"Full account must be also taken of the players' interests: whether they wish to play in what would be an artificial atmosphere for an ostensibly outdoor Championships.
"Player schedules: some players would get ahead of others [putting a roof on one court only would not alleviate a backlog of matches to any real extent and could be unfair to those players who were unable to play on the other 17 courts. There are over 650 matches to be played during the fortnight].
"Other points that must also be fully considered are: the Centre Court was built in 1922, so the structure must be safe from an engineering viewpoint. It must also be safe in the half-open position, particularly where strong winds are concerned. The need to understand airflows and how they affect the court/the ball in flight. The effect of lighting and sound effects. It should represent value for money."
The criteria appear to have been met as Wimbledon prepares to run for cover.
COVERING UP OTHER RETRACTABLE ROOFS
Cardiff has the only stadium in Britain built with a fully retractable roof, which, when closed, sees the acoustics and atmosphere enhanced. Humidity can rise a common problem of indoor arenas that can affect conditions and the playing surface but large extractor fans in the roof combat this.
Opened in 1996, it was the first stadium in Europe with a sliding, retractable roof. The 52,000-seat venue, home to Ajax, has a turf pitch housed in a giant, sliding, concrete tray.
Gerry Weber Stadion, Halle
The venue for the Halle grasscourt tennis tournament has had a retractable roof since 1994. Made of PVC-coated polyester fabric and foil, it takes a few minutes to operate. Another tennis venue with a retractable roof is Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open.
Big Eye Stadium, Oita, Japan
A venue for the 2002 World Cup, the lightweight retractable roof "winks" closed like the eye in the name suggests.
The first of many North American venues with fully retractable roofs was built in 1989.
PRESSURE FOR CHANGE THE SHIFTING ROOF DEBATE
* It is high time the All England Club put up a roof at Wimbledon... Interestingly, the public will still sit in the rain and have a good time. In Australia we couldn't get away with it. Wimbledon is still able to get away with it, but I doubt if that situation can go on happening forever.
Paul McNamee, the tournament director of the Australian Open, 1999.
* I've changed my opinion. If they could find a solution that didn't affect the grass, then I'd be for it.
Tim Henman, August 2001, after losing to Goran Ivanisevic in a rain-delayed Wimbledon semi-final.
* I would like it to remain the same. Wimbledon has its own atmosphere. Covering the court would affect it.
Boris Becker, 2002.
* The Gerry Weber Stadium in Halle has no ground-level cover because the 88 seconds it takes to close the roof is almost as quick as using a ground-level cover.
The Book of Tennis, 2002.
* We are looking [at a Centre Court roof], but plenty of years' worth of speculation are left in the story.
Tim Phillips, the All England Club chairman, May 2003.Reuse content