Wimbledon 1991: the first Middle Sunday
1991 is the year Agassi made his comeback at Wimbledon after a 3 year boycott, the year another German (Michael Stich) won the Championships, but it’s also the year of the first Middle Sunday in Wimbledon history.
In his book Holding Court, Chris Gorringe then All England Club chief executive tells the story behind the first Middle Sunday, “the best and worst day of his life.”
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same
Rudyard Kipling‘s words are boldly displayed in the All England Clubhouse, there to inspire players as they wend their way from the dressing rooms down to Centre Court. As I stood staring up at them in 1991, during the wettest Wimbledon in history, they has a striking resonance. The weather conditions had just forced us into scheduling an extra day’s play for the Middle Sunday of The Championships – but right now we had no tickets, no security, no catering, no umpires, no groundstaff, and no precedent to follow. Whether triumph of disaster lay ahead – who knew?
The worst start to The Championships
“It had been an absolutely dreadful start to the tournament. We had no play on the first Monday, and intermittent rain throughout Tuesday. Wednesday was even worse with just 18 matches played, and by the end of Thursday, things were dire. For the players, it was a terrible ordeal. It took Stefan Edberg, the defending champion, 73 hours to finish the first round match:
Thank God it’s over. I haven’t even been able to eat a decent lunch for four days
And he was on of the lucky ones – at least he had made it onto court. We were almost a third of the way through the tournament and yet had completed only 52 out of 240 scheduled matches. It was no surprise then, to find myself, chairman John Curry, Michael Hann, chairman of the order of play sub-committee, referee Alan Mills and Richard Grier, Championships director, gathered together during yet another rain delay, looking at the feasibility of play on Sunday – something that had never been done before.”
On Friday evening the decision was made to play on Middle Sunday for first time in Wimbledon history.
Facing the media
“There was not much to tell at that point, but I wanted to go out on air that evening to get the message to as many people as possible, and I knew I had to rush to catch the last live BBC broadcast at 8pm. There was a palpable excitement when I broke the news, not least because, after one of the worst starts to the tournament in living history, there was something else for the press to write about other than Andre Agassi‘s hair and kit. This year was Agassi’s first back at Wimbledon since 1987, and his flamboyant reputation and playing style had caused quite a stir. Agassi himself was revelling in the experience. He came off court after his first match, saying:
Wimbledon is something bigger than tennis. You walk out there and the classiness of the surroundings hits you. I have never enjoyed playing anywhere more
I am not sure whether he was a shrewd operator or a genuine enthusiast, but his comments certainly endeared him to the crowd, and guaranteed cheering fans wherever he went.
It was also crucial to talk to the media as they had to reorganise their scheduling, although, thank goodness, play on the Sunday did not clash with any other major UK sporting event.”
“Sunday dawned bright and sunny. I know, because I saw it. The forecast had been right, and we were set for a full day’s play, which was the first bit of good news. We opened the gates at 10, but had decided we could not start play until midday, because of the time it would make 25000 people to get through the turnstiles.
I positioned myself strategically to watch the first of the crowds coming through the turnstiles . The first people in took 56 seconds to get to their seats – just above the scoreboard, incidentally, where they were likely be seen on TV.
People queuing outside were in high spirits, cheering the golfers on the course opposite as they filed past, and their festive mood continued throughout the day. On Centre Court especially, the atmosphere was incredible. All the seats were full by 12 when play started, and I have never heard so much noise, so much singing. Even the Royal Box had a different feel to it, with past champions having been invited in place of the usual dignitaries. Mexican waves were rolling around the seats, and the crowds, enjoying the role of unseasonal pantomime audience, treated the players and ball girls and boys to a rapturous reception. Meanwhile the ‘villains’, the linespeople and umpire, were booed. It appeared to be a different crowd from the normal.
Gabriela Sabatini and Andrea Strnadova opened the proceedings and seemed bemused by the reception. During the warm-up, the crowd imitated their strokes, which brought out huge smiles from the girls. Sabatini said afterwards:
It was great fun. I couldn’t stop laughing.
The best was reserved for Jimmy Connors who was playing against Derrick Rostagno. He came onto court accompanied by chants of Jimmee, and the showman rose for the occasion. During the warm-up, the crowd counted every stroke up to ten, before tiring of it. ‘What’s the matter?’ retorted Connors.’Can’t you count past ten?’. Although ultimately losing, he came off court with a massive grin, and said:
Now that’s my sort of crowd
It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and successful days in the history of The Championships. It was splendid in every way.
By 4 o’clock the gates were closed and we had successfully let in 24894 people, all paying at the gate. It would be interesting to know how many were there who had never been to Centre Court before. Certainly, once in, very few people left, which did not suit everyone. I remember bar takings were down. It was a huge sense of achievement, thinking that we might have introduced so many people to the game and to Wimbledon, and that players and audience alike had revelled in it. Our biggest gamble had paid off.”
I am just grateful to have been a part of the day the Proms and the pantomime villains came to SW19
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