Wimbledon – ANYONE FOR TENNIS…?
Rain or shine, Wimbledon is one of the highlights of the British summer. ANNA POINTER visited the All England Lawn Tennis Club to see how preparations for this year’s Championships are taking shape…
On this chilly morning in early spring, all is peaceful on Centre Court. The 15,000 green seats currently lie empty, but in a few weeks’ time each will be filled when the 131st Wimbledon Championships take place. The club was originally dedicated to croquet, until, in July 1877, the first “gentleman’s singles” tennis event was held there, after which the name changed to The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club. Initially an amateur event that occupied club members for a few days each summer, The Championships have become far more prominent than the club itself. These days the two-week tournament draws half a million spectators every summer, and employs a workforce of 6,000 in addition to the 200 permanent staff.
Operating as a members’ only club for the rest of the year, the site in London’s SW19 spans 42 acres and comprises 41 grass courts, eight clay and five indoor courts. In addition, there’s a thriving museum, cafe and charity arm.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
The club’s purple and green colour scheme dates back to 1909 – but no one is sure why. “Some say the green represents grass and purple for royalty,” explains Johnny Perkins from the club’s communications team. “But we have no idea if that’s true.” Johnny plays a key role in coordinating media coverage of The Championships. “Every year, we’re watched by a billion people worldwide, which is phenomenal.” Unusually, this year’s tournament begins later than normal, in the first week of July. “We’re moving by a week to give players a longer break after the French Open. It will be our latest official start since 1895.”
LABOUR OF LOVE
Deputy head groundsman Grant Cantin is originally from Canada and this year marks his 16th Wimbledon – and the courts are his biggest passion. “I’m obsessed. I have nights worrying what could go wrong.” From his seat in the corner of Centre Court, it’s Grant who calls for the covers in wet weather. “It’s tricky if they want to finish a game, but if it’s coming down heavy, the players must go off. If the rain is prolonged, we put the roof on.” There is one peril being so close to the action, “I’m often hit by a ball, which really hurts.”
Seventeen permanent ground staff keep the courts in tip-top condition. The process starts in September when all courts are reseeded and levelled. In spring, line-painting, rolling and mowing starts, with grass length gradually trimmed from 13mm to 8mm for the tournament. Grant says, “We cut the courts every day – the players can tell if it’s even 1mm too long. Lines are repainted daily, too.”
Grant’s team is kept busy mowing and rolling the smaller courts. “They’re given the same amount of love and attention as Centre Court,” he says. An irrigation frame helps keep the courts watered.
BACK IN TIME
Wimbledon’s museum houses 25,000 artefacts charting the history of lawn tennis – dating back to 1555. There are hundreds of vintage wooden racquets and trinkets, as well as an array of players’ tennis whites. Collections manager Anna Spender is responsible for the displays, and says, “We have so many weird and wonderful things that tell our story – like a box of wigs worn by past players. During The Championships we approach fans with eye-catching memorabilia to see if we can use it in our exhibits.”
Documentation officer Malin Lundin handles all the museum loans and paperwork. “This racquet dates from the 1880s,” she says. “I’m wearing gloves because the natural oils on your hands can mark the wood. Despite its age, this one is surprisingly intact.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Executive chef Gary Parsons leads a team of 12, rising to 350 during The Championships. He says, “We run 49 kitchens during those two weeks and make everything from sandwiches to fish and chips, plus 11,000 hospitality covers a day.” They frequently receive unusual requests from players, too – “Pasta with honey is one of the strangest.” Focusing on English country garden ingredients, Gary adds, “We source everything as locally as we can. This year we’re doing purple asparagus to match the club colours.” Strawberries are also a staple, with 70,000 punnets supplied by a farm in Kent during the fortnight. “They’re picked at dawn and arrive here late morning.”
The museum also houses the Kenneth Ritchie Wimbledon Library. “We’ve got at least 8,000 tennis books here,” says librarian Robert McNicol. “There are periodicals and magazines from 90 different countries and Wimbledon programmes going back to the early 1900s.” Although the library is only open to the public by appointment, Robert adds, “If someone knocks on the door we won’t tell them to go away.”
DISH OF THE DAY
The chefs spend months working on new menus for the tournament and host regular tastings for hospitality clients in the run-up. “We’ll present them with 20 starters, main courses and desserts which they have to whittle down,” Gary says.
Gardener Robin Murphy started working at Wimbledon 13 years ago. “I was only supposed to come here for a six-week summer job and I’ve never left,” he says. “In spring we do a lot of planting, pruning, mulching and deadheading. During the Championships, it’s all about weeding, watering and cutting.”
Following in Centre Court’s footsteps, a state-of-the art roof is currently being constructed on No.1 Court, which will be completed in 2019 – meaning far more matches will be unaffected by the soggy British climate.
Head gardener Martyn Falconer manages a team of six, with the numbers doubling in the summer. “May is hectic as 5,000 new plants go in. I’ve been here 17 years and there’s always a different challenge, whether it’s bad weather or a plant shortage.” One of the biggest jobs is cutting the grounds’ mile of hedging. “When you trim the front, top and back, you’re talking three miles. With a plant budget of £120,000 per year, Gary adds, “We use lots of hydrangeas, which are excellent value for money.”
During weekly training sessions, the hopefuls spend two hours doing sprints, lunges and high-kicks as well as ball skills. Deputy BBG manager Pete Dando says, “They are each assigned a number. It sounds cruel but we’d never be able to learn all their names.”
NEW BALLS PLEASE
Each year, around 1,000 children from local schools apply to be Ball Boys and Girls (BBG) – with 150 selected after weeks of training at the AELTC Sports Centre in Raynes Park. BBG manager Sarah Goldson says the process is tough. “It’s strict, and if they don’t make the standard, they have to go. We look for fitness, concentration, ball-rolling and feeding skills, as well as urgency. Some of them don’t know what that is.”
Helen Parker runs the Wimbledon Foundation, the club’s charitable arm. “Ticket resales on each day of The Championships now raises over £300,000 per year for community projects,” she says. “We run a learning programme, plus our Junior Tennis Initiative provides free lessons at local primary schools. We’re such a big local business, so it’s great to give something back.”
BIRDS’ EYE VIEW
Tasked with keeping pigeons away, nine- year-old hawk Rufus is a Wimbledon favourite, flying over the courts each morning of the competition. He and handler Imogen Davis visit twice a week during the rest of the year, too. “He wears bells and a tracking device because there’s a risk he’ll go off and do his own thing. He’s had me chasing him around London several times.” During the tournament, Rufus spends much of his time posing for fans’ selfies. “He’s even got his own Twitter account @RufusTheHawk.”