Wimbledon Centre Court roof

Wimbledon Centre Court roof

If you are intrigued by what goes on behind the scenes at Wimbledon, Chris Gorringe‘s book Holding Court is a must-read. Gorringe tells the story of his 26 years journey as All England Club chief executive. The book is full of anecdotes about legendary players (McEnroe, Sampras, Borg to name a few), but also describes in details the structure of the Club, the organization of the Championships, and Wimbledon’s Long Term Plan.
A few pages are of course dedicated to the Centre Court roof, which has been the real star of the 125th Championships so far.

Enjoy of few extracts of Holding Court:

“When we had first laid out the LTP (Long Term Plan) in the 90s, a retractable roof had been possible in as much as the technology was available, but what had not been proved to our satisfaction was that you could have a sliding roof that would work for grass court tennis. We had not seen a roof design that would: retain the grass at a quality that would withstand two weeks of play, and that would not make it sweat and be slippery; that would provide the right ambiance for the spectators; and that would allow grass to grow for the rest of the year.”

Australian Open roof vs Wimbledon roof

“We did not have all the answers, but certain members of the media and our committee wanted it as they had be to the Australian Open and seen the roof in action there.
However, the Australians had a different set of circumstances. When they moved from Kooyong’s private members’ club to Flinders Park (now Melbourne Park), in order to finance the set-up, the main centre court had to be a stadium design, not just a tennis arena. They needed the stadium to be used for as many days a year as possible, for concerts or whatever, which meant adding a roof but saying goodbye to grass. Once grass is taken out of the equation, the addition of a roof becomes very much easier.
Theirs is infinitely heavier than ours, is not translucent in any way, and is presumably specially designed in order for it to work well for concerts or musical events: there is no escape of noise or light through their roof. As well as having the roof over the main stadium at Melbourne Park, they have also built an adjacent stadium – again another multi-purpose building with a roof on it.”

Wimbledon Centre Court roof


“By the turn of the millennium, tests and expertise on roof structures had improved. We were now using HOK as our architects, who are the premier builders of sports stadia in the world, and who, incidentally, were behind the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff. Although that stadium had different requirements from our own, grass on a rugby pitch being less sensitive than grass on a tennis court, HOK were able to prove to us that the roof would work with no detrimental effects to the court. One of the points we made clear was that we wanted as good if not growing conditions for the grass.

The new Centre Court

With the technology proven, our priorities changed, and we deviated from the Long Term Plan, creating instead a new three-year plan for Centre Court. In addition to the roof, we would extend (and upgrade) the seating form an existing capacity of 13800 to 15000. We would also have extended and upgraded catering and hospitality facilities for the public and debenture holders.
The first two levels on the east side would hold both canteen-style and waitress service restaurants for the public, the latter being 25 per cent bigger than the existing Wingfield restaurant. There would also be a new, large Wimbledon shop in the south-east corner. The third level would be for debenture holders, and would include self-service on the east side and table-service dining areas overlooking courts 14 and 17. The would also be private suites and bar areas on the fourth level.”

“Before we could start work on the Centre Court and its surrounds, we had to remove everything that was currently inside the building, including the museum, with all its artifacts, and the Championship offices. That meant having a new museum building, which now accommodates all the office staff for The Championships on one level, with the ticket office and shop, museum, library, meeting rooms, plant rooms and storage rooms all on the ground floor and below.”

Wimbledon Centre Court roof

In 2009, this latest immense building project came to fruition. The most visible, and I am sure most discussed element is the roof. The roof is made of a special waterproof fabric that is very strong, translucent and highly flexible. Its translucency allow natural light to reach the grass, although artificial lightning is also necessary. An air-conditioning system, supplying 143000 litres of conditioned air per second to the bowl, provides players and spectators with the optimal internal conditions. The roof folds concertina style, which allows it to be stored in a very compressed area when not in use.
It takes about ten minutes to close (less than half the time needed by the one at the Australian Open) and then it will be between ten and thirty minutes before play can restart, depending on climatic conditions.
For those who love their statistics, apparently it would take 290 million tennis balls to fill the stadium with the roof closed.”

The opening ceremony

“In order to check that the roof and all associated parts were operating well prior to The Championships, the Club staged an opening ceremony on Sunday 17 May 2009. This would include musical acts and several exhibition matches on Centre Court featuring some former Wimbledon greats, but prime billing would be the closing of the roof.
Although the roof would have been closed anyway for test purposes, the weather was almost perfect: wet and windy! After fine singing from Katherine Jenkins, Blake and Farryl Smith, play started at 3pm. Andre Agassi and his wife Steffi Graf lost to Tim Henman and Kim Clijsters 6-7, followed by Agassi beating Tim Henman 6-4 and Clijsters beating Graf 6-4. All the matches were of the highest standard and were played in absolutely the right spirit. Most importantly, the conditions for both the players and spectators under the closed roof seemed to work extremely well. It was in every way a joyous and successful occasion.”

Wimbledon Centre Court roof

“You could have put money on the fact that, once the Club had a retractable roof over the Centre Court, the weather for The Championships would be perfect. And so it turned out. Almost. On the second Monday, light rain came for the first and only time during the Fortnight, during the fourth round ladies’ singles match between Dinara Safina and Amélie Mauresmo. To the delight of the Centre Court crowd, the roof was closed to conclude the match, which was won by Safina. But the best was yet to come.”

Andy Murray vs Stanislas Wawrinka

“Although the rain had stopped, it was predicted to return, and so the referee decided to keep the roof shut for the final match of the day. This was a decision that was long debated before and after the Andy Murray vs Stanislas Wawrinka fourth round match. Obviously, in normal circumstances, the match would have been played without the roof closed, but it was felt that in order to get the final fourth round match finished that evening, it would be safer to keep the roof across.
As it turned out, it was one of the most dramatic and memorable matches of The Championships, with Murray coming back from a two set deficit to win 6-3 in the fifth.
The match finished at 10.38 pm. Anyone with a Centre Court ticket that day got their money’s worth and will always be able to say that they watched the first match played at Wimbledon under a roof. There was hardly an empty seat in 15000 seat stadium. The BBC even delayed their main evening news and cleared their prime evening TV schedule to cover the match. They were rewarded with an audience share of 54% and a peak viewing of 12,6 million in the UK alone.”

Ten years ago, it was right to be wary of the appropriateness of a roof for Centre Court. In 2009, I think we can be proud of another hugely innovative step forward that will help retain Wimbledon as the premier tournament in the world, and still on grass.

Follow our Wimbledon coverage on Tennis Buzz. More pics of the roof in the Wimbledon gallery. Enjoy!

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