Wimbledon's roof takes Centre stage

SW19 enters era of fewer brollies and more volleys as organisers eye evening play
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The Independent Online

We might have known it would happen. On the day when the All England Club showed off its new retractable roof over Wimbledon's Centre Court, the sun beat down from an almost cloudless sky. Given the perversity of the British climate, this year's Championships will no doubt be played in the most glorious weather in living memory.

The roof will not be tested properly until 17 May, when it will be closed for an event featuring Tim Henman, Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf and Kim Clijsters. However, yesterday's unveiling gave a fair idea of what it will be like when matches are played under cover for the first time in the tournament's 132-year history.

Centre Court with the roof closed feels like a halfway house between an open-air court and a modern indoor stadium. The roof is made of a fabric that is 40 per cent translucent. The natural light goes some way towards preserving Centre Court's unique atmosphere, in contrast, for example, to the solid sliding roofs at the Australian Open, which shut out all natural light. Nevertheless, artificial lighting will be used when the roof is closed.

Tim Phillips, the Wimbledon chairman, who passed up the opportunity to reveal the roof's cost, stressed that having the roof did not mean that the All England Club would schedule more, or later, matches. "We will continue to be an outdoor, daytime event," he insisted, although "exceptional circumstances", such as a large backlog of matches, could change the situation. Were there future plans for night sessions, as at the Australian and US Opens? "Not yet," Phillips replied.

Nevertheless, having the roof opens up the possibility of tennis being played long after nightfall. For example, in last year's final, which finished in near darkness at 9.15pm, the match could have been halted to allow the roof to be closed if Roger Federer had broken serve when trailing 8-7 in the fifth set to Rafael Nadal.

Neither Wimbledon nor the local council has specified a cut-off time, although there might be logistical problems if 15,000 people leave the premises late and head for public transport or dark and muddy car parks. In theory, a match starting at 7pm could continue beyond midnight, although Wimbledon would not follow the example of Melbourne, where Lleyton Hewitt was still playing at 4.30am last year.

The familiar rain covers will still be used for short showers, but play should be possible within 30 to 40 minutes of the roof closing. The roof shuts inside 10 minutes, but it will take the air system up to half an hour to make conditions playable. More than 140,000 litres of air per second will be pumped in and out, preventing condensation on the inside of the roof or sweating of the grass, either of which could make the court slippery.

The intention will be to begin play with the roof open, but the referee will have the option of closing it 45 minutes before the start. Once a match has been started under the roof it will stay closed until the finish.

Among other changes, the capacity of Centre Court has gone up by 1,200 to 15,000, Hawk-Eye will be used on Centre, No 1 and No 2 courts, and the total capacity has been increased by 3,500 to 40,000. Prize-money has risen 6.2 per cent to £12.6m.

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Minutes the new roof on Centre Court at Wimbledon will take to close.

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