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Wimbledon `99: Break point for people's chairman

A visionary's 10-year reign draws to a close. By Andrew Longmore
THE TIMING is masterly. In December, John Curry will hand over the keys to the most precious 14 acres in tennis and sit back to watch the show. His successor as chairman of the All England Club, Tim Phillips, will take over just as the members are being asked quietly to vacate the clubhouse which has been their home for over a century. In the long run, the advantages of the new facilities on the site of the old No 1 Court will become apparent. But, in the short term? Well, it won't be Curry's problem.

"That's the biggest thing at the moment," he says. "Our members are going to have to move from their lovely area and they're all thinking, `How is this going to affect me?' They will probably grumble a bit, but the facilities will be better for everyone."

This is typical John Curry. A bit of bluster, a pinch of "like it or lump it", all part of the kick and cuddle style of management which has characterised his 10-year reign as chairman of Wimbledon. He has the four- square build of a bulldog and much the same level of toleration. "If conflict is required, I'm a front row forward," he laughs.

There cannot have been a more momentous decade in the history of the All England Club or its Championships. When Curry took over, the ongoing debate about the future of grasscourt tennis was threatening to turn nasty, relationships bet-ween the tournament and the ATP Tour were on the sharp side of rocky, British tennis continued to flounder, television, sponsors and public had begun to demand more for their money.

In the wake of Hillsborough and the Taylor Report, Wimbledon, like every other sporting venue, had to shape up. But the AEC, in the manner of so many treasured English institutions, had an instinctive understanding of the man they needed to guide them to the verge of new millennium. Curry had proven commercial acumen, clear vision and the courage to ruffle a few exotic feathers.

A decade on, his success can be measured in the balance sheet which shows a rise in the Wimbledon surplus to the Lawn Tennis Association from pounds 9.2m in 1989 to just over pounds 33m last year and in the smooth upgrading of Wimbledon's image. "An agent for change," Curry calls himself, a description confirmed by a wander around the pristine food courts, the bright new gardens planted in Wimbledon colours and the new No 1 Court, all part of a radical redevelopment programme.

"I go through tremendous traumas. I mean, look at that building," he points towards the new press and members' complex to be completed next year. "It's a building site and that worries me. But then I walk around it and get excited. The question is: can we maintain tradition but accept the commercial reality and the need to improve physically, which is required in this day and age? So far, so good. I feel a lot more comfortable now than when we started."

Curry has been a fierce defender of the "predominantly white" ruling on clothing, garded by many as anomalous in these businesslike days as Wimbledon's obduracy over the issue of equal prize money for men and women. "Besides the grass, the core of Wimbledon is that we address the parties in completely the reverse order from everyone else," he says. "We put the players first, the fans second and television and the media third. Every other tournament has the media first, the fans second and the players third."

Curry went to school a mile up the road from the Club, was made a temporary member in 1962. Having learnt the game from his mother, as a 16-year- old junior he was once caught hitting a ball across an empty Centre Court during the lunch break at Junior Wimbledon. "I said to my doubles partner, `Come on, we're never going to play here so let's hit a few balls'. There was no net, no lines, nothing."

He used to stand high up in the bleachers on No 1 Court after school and once played truant to watch his first final, Lew Hoad v Ken Rosewall on a Friday in 1956. He still recalls the winner Hoad hit inside the service line off a full-blooded Rosewall smash. He thought his memory might have been playing tricks until at a recent tennis dinner in Australia they showed a video of the point.

Curry regrets that the standing areas became an early casualty of post- Taylor policing, but risked more than just his reputation by implementing the first People's Sunday in 1991, an experiment repeated with rather less success two years ago. Under Curry's guidance, Wimbledon has become more open, less overtly stuffy. Former regimes would not have allowed the gates to stay open until 10pm so that spectators could watch the finals of Euro 96. Curry has always prided himself on being a people's chairman, in an elitist sort of way. But he also remains a genuine fan.

"My hair still stands on end when I see a great player playing well," he says. "Those are the things I'll remember, a running forehand from Sampras, the emotion of Graf's victories. But the best moment is having a barbeque with the Australian heroes of my youth - McGregor, Sedgman, Fraser, Rosewall, Cooper - every year at the Australian Open. My very first year as chairman, I invited Fraser and Sedgman over as my special guests to Wimbledon and it stemmed from that. They live next door to each other and take it in turns. It's just a great evening."

It would be a fitting full stop to his chairmanship if Tim Henman, the one class product of the millions pumped into British tennis by Wimbledon each year, recorded the first home victory since the days of the late Fred Perry. Curry returns to his lofty chairman's perch. "I just want to see the best players win," he says. In December, after the club's AGM, he can come down again, be one of the boys, snooze quietly in the sunshine without fear of embarrassment, take up his favourite post on the balcony overlooking the outside courts on a late summer's evening and chunter to his fellows about having to move into that damned new clubhouse.