Wimbledon `99: Ace service beyond the baseline

The SW19 Show is far more than just tennis. Alex Hayes goes backstage to talk to a set of star performers
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The Independent Online

I LIVED in Wimbledon as a child in the early Sixties, and my parents used to have umpires staying in the house during the Championships. For two weeks, our home would basically be turned into a bed and breakfast. Years later, having moved back to Wimbledon and bought my family home, I decided to continue the tradition. But I wanted to go the whole hog and actually vacate the house for the fortnight.

The main reason for this is because the Championships have become so big now that Wimbledon Village isn't very pleasant during the tournament. You can't park anywhere, most roads are made one-way, restaurants are continuously booked up. Basically, the whole thing is a nightmare. So I go and stay with friends during the first week and then go on holiday for the second.

It is a bit of an upheaval as you have to clear the cupboards and put the dog in kennels. It is also a security risk, as the house is empty during the day. That is why I don't want to be identified. But otherwise it is not too much of a problem. The only necessities are a power shower, large beds and a maid, really.

The first year I rented the house, I had Gigi Fernandez and Conchita Martinez staying. That worked very well, but I think they were an item and then broke up, so both players were too superstitious to come back.

Last year, Monica Seles came with her mother, brother, coach and trainer. It meant I had to clear even more space than usual as the dining room alone was filled with her rackets and dresses. She was very kind and her mother even called me on my mobile one day because she was worried that the goldfish might need feeding. In fact, there was a feeding pump in the tank, but she was not to know that. It showed she cared.

Monica Seles has now bought a flat in London, so this year, Tommy Haas will be staying in the house. Because he is the first male player to stay here, I guess I may clear my bedroom a little more. You know, just to make it a little more masculine. But otherwise, I'm not worried. Let's face it, they are here to win the tournament, they are not bothered about any bits and pieces that may be lying around. I think they just enjoy the peace and quiet when they get back to the house after a long day at the club.

There is no doubt that this is a lucrative business, as I will earn in excess of pounds 2,000 for the two weeks of the Championships. I guess it is a nice way to pay for your week's holiday, really. And then, of course, if you hang around during the opening week, the players are usually very generous with their tickets. So you get to see some live tennis as well.


I AM in charge of the 150 honorary stewards, whose main purpose is to assist the public around the All England Club grounds.

The first 12 stewards came to Wimbledon in 1927, when the management felt there was a need to have people controlling the crowds. Then, as the crowds and popularity of the Championships grew, so too did our numbers, though I should point out that the average age has dropped equally dramatically. I first became a steward in 1978.

An average day during the fortnight will start at 6.30am, when a small team of stewards will help the fans who have camped out overnight in the hope of getting some tickets and seeing some tennis. The main purpose is obviously to make sure that nobody is trying to jump the queue, and that everyone is kept informed as to the number of tickets available and their price. But we are also there as a friendly face. In fact, we often wake them up.

When the gates actually open at 10.30am, we have stewards standing around to give the public basic information, such as where the various courts are situated, where they can buy a coffee, etc.

It is at midday, as play starts, that our day really kicks off, though. It is then our job to make sure that there is no congestion building up and that people know where they are going. We also sometimes solve disputes. I remember spending a long time trying to persuade a lady that her hat really was too big and was blocking several spectators' view of the tennis.

We're volunteers, drawn from all walks of life. Some of us are friends or relatives of another steward, many are retired servicemen who still want to be associated with Wimbledon. A few of the stewards are ex-umpires, who may no longer have the eyesight required to sit in the high-chair.

Most importantly, however, we're here because we love being part of the greatest tennis event in the world.


MY ROLE is to get 200 ball-boys and ball-girls ready for the Championships. They are aged between 15 and 16 and can participate in no more than two Wimbledons. I am assisted by eight instructors.

Every November, we send information out to a dozen local schools and ask them to put forward a number of potential candidates. Then, in February, we start training. It may seem like a long time before the Championships, but when you are dealing with 200 kids, four times a week from 4pm until 7pm, it basically works out as if each of them was coming in once a week. And that is actually not a lot of time to learn everything that is needed.

For the first two weeks of training, our main aim is to get the kids fit, because nowadays they're nowhere near as fit as they used to be. After that, we teach them how to hold their arm up straight and how to roll a ball without it bouncing. Then we run through a tie-break scenario, before ending with the ball-change routine.

Believe it or not, the ball-change was devised by a ball-boy many years ago, when I first came here. Before then, balls were just taken out of tins and thrown down each end. But this kid came up with the current system, which is choreographed and methodical. It works so well that the fastest change ever was completed in just 14 seconds, six or seven years ago.

During the fortnight, the kids work an average of six hours a day. Our biggest concern, therefore, is that they keep their concentration. The very best and most experienced ones will operate Centre Court and Court No 1. The others will rotate on the four show courts and outside courts.

The most notable moment that I can remember is when Bob Hewitt, who was having a rough time in his doubles match, gave his racket to a ball-boy and told him to play. It's quite common now, but that was the first time it happened.


I HAVE been the transport manager at Wimbledon for longer than I care to admit. Well, 26 years to be precise. Our task, here at the transport centre, is to provide courtesy cars for the senior and junior players and the VIPs, as well as organise the park and ride buses.

Before I started, the organisers were using normal taxis. After a player had won his match, an official would simply call the local taxi rank and that would be it. Obviously, as the Championships have grown over the years, that system became unworkable. There were just too many people to cart around.

Nowadays, we have 100 Ford Galaxy cars (seven-seaters), 48 mini-buses and 12 coaches. To give you an idea just how big an operation it is, I was recently told that Wimbledon is the largest annual transport event in the world. It's nothing like the Olympics, but it is still pretty impressive.

We are moving up to 7,000 people a day, so you can imagine we cannot assign a driver to a particular player. Basically, we operate on a first- come-first-served system, where the next available car is sent out.

All the drivers are given full police training. Many of them are black cab drivers, or would-be cabbies learning their Knowledge. Others are retired police officers, ambulance drivers, firemen. We do have a few housewives who we've trained up, but on the whole we tend to employ professionals. Not surprisingly, then, our accident count is very low. So low in fact that our insurance company has slashed our premium.

One amusing story I can remember involved Pete Sampras. He was being driven in from the St James Hotel by one of our lady drivers when a pigeon christened him through the sun-roof. Feeling sorry for him, the lady decided to write him a poem, which he loved apparently. The episode must have brought him good luck because he won that year.


WE HAVE 14 people here to string and re-string the players' rackets. As professional sportsmen and women, they have very specific requirements for their equipment. Our role, therefore, is to ensure that every racket which we work on is as similar to the previous one as possible. For them, consistency brings results.

I've been a restringer for over 20 years, but I've been working at the Championships for the last six. I am actually the head restringer now, so the buck stops with me. If there are any problems, I take the stick.

I play tennis and badminton myself, which I think helps me understand how important a well-balanced racket is to a player. In fact, it was that need that originally got me into restringing. On the whole, racket servicing in this country is not the best in the world, and I thought: "Well you can't do any worse than them." So I gave it a go.

We are the only stringing shop on site, so I would say that, at some stage, all the players will use us. And it is not just that they may have a broken string or need a new grip, they also often change their racket tension, depending on weather conditions and how the courts are playing.

All the players who use our own [Bow Brand] gut strings, get their service free of charge. That is a great help to the lower-ranked players who don't have the same financial clout as the more established competitors. As it happens, though, about 50 per cent of the players here use gut strings. I think that the likes of Tim Henman, Pete Sampras and Greg Rusedski prefer the gut because it gives them more resilience and power on the fast grass courts.

Most players are very friendly, especially if they've been coming here for a few years. They recognise you, often ask specifically for your services, and might even request that you string their racket exactly the same way as the previous year.