Order on the court: under the net of Wimbledon

Gentleman’s Journal learns how the stage is set for the oldest — and most prestigious — tennis event in the world.

Imagining Wimbledon empty during the first two weeks of July feels completely, unthinkably, unfathomably wrong. It’s like picturing a deserted Salcombe beach at the height of the summer, or the City of London free of commuters at 8:30am on a Wednesday. It’s almost eerie; unnatural and spooky. And yet, after another pandemic-packed year, such scenes are depressingly normal.

But then, the Wimbledon Championships have only ever been cancelled for three reasons. The first times — for the First and Second World War — are to be expected. But the coronavirus? Surely our stiff upper lips and fierce backhands should have stood up to a Covid-enforced closure. Thankfully, this year, they have.

Today, those freshly-cut, bright green lawns are being prepared to see the footfall of thousands of spectators once again. Murray Mound (or Henman Hill, if you prefer) will be home to bottle upon bottle of prosecco, punnet upon punnet of strawberries and whoops and cheers aplenty. And the greatest tennis players in the world will be serving, backhanding and volleying come rain or shine (thanks to Centre Court’s retractable roof). The Wimbledon Championships comprise the holiest fortnight in the tennis calendar, and it’s all kicking off again on 28th June.

So here’s a little look behind-the-scenes of England’s most English sporting event. Let’s start with the courts. With grass trimmed by bespoke mowers — 21 inches in width, in order to create the perfect number of grass stripes in the gaps between the white lines on the court — some of the AELTC’s courts are subjected to more hours of play during the Championships than top football pitches get in a whole season.

“We’re constantly trying to improve, to find that extra one or two per cent,” Neil Stubley, Head of Courts and Horticulture, told Gentleman’s Journal. “It might not sound like a lot, but if you do that every year [with the exception of last year, of course] for 10 years, it adds up to a big difference.”

Compare footage from several decades ago with the modern era and you can see the results of that attention to detail. In Boris Becker’s breakthrough victory as a 17-year-old in the 1985 final, Centre Court looked parched and yellow, with barely a blade of grass on large sections around the baseline and middle of the court. Cut to the 2016 final, for example, and the court was still covered in lush green grass.

And then there’s the Millennium Building, which houses a hairdresser’s salon, a nail bar, a box office and the prize money office. All together, it ensures that players are well groomed before stepping out on court, well entertained after the day’s play and well remunerated at the end of the tournament.

Pasta is a perennial favourite for competitors

In July the players will walk through the electric turnstiles and help themselves to buffet-style meals before taking a seat in the restaurant, which is a perfect vantage point to keep an eye on matches (and potential competitors) on the outside courts. Pasta is a perennial favourite for athletes’ nutrition plans, noted previous Head of Food and Beverage Anthony Davies in 2017, but he also noticed an increase in demand for sushi. Sushi specialists are now among the hundreds of professional chefs who work here during the Championships.

All told, this is the largest annual catering operation in Europe. With over 2500 staff required to meet the needs of nearly half a million guests, one of the major tasks before the Championships begin is recruitment. There are other longstanding logistical challenges, too – such as ensuring that the famous 28 tonnes of strawberries arrive safely. Each day, the strawberries are picked at 4:00am, collected from the packing plant at 9:00am, and then subjected to inspection and hulling at the Club before being enjoyed that very same day.

But not all visitors to SW19 have the same tastes. During the Championships, Rufus – a Harris hawk with a one-metre wingspan – is trained by handler Imogen Davis. He visits the Club most weeks during the year to deter local pigeons from getting too comfortable; and he flies for one hour every morning during the Championships, at 9:00am, before the opening of the gates.

By 4:00pm on most weekdays from February to the end of June (national lockdowns permitting, of course), training for prospective ball boys and ball girls (BBGs) is underway. 

Gentleman’s Journal witnessed the training first-hand back in 2017, where — on the practice courts in the southwest corner of the grounds — some of the hopefuls went through a strenuous looking warm-up before forming into lines with military-grade precision.

One of the trainers in BBG Manager Sarah Goldson’s team instructed the children to mimic the movements they would have to carry out in order to lift two balls off the ground and throw them to a player. But it’s not quite as simple as that. The BBGs, who are mostly aged 14-16 and referred to only by the numbers pinned to their shirts, had to perform the movement perfectly in sync and in the approved style. That means balls must be delivered by a BBG standing upright, with a straight arm extended above their head and, crucially, “fed” instead of “thrown” to bounce once before reaching the player at around waist height.

"The one exception is if a player asks whether the ball was in or out..."

Taking a seat on a balcony overlooking her charges, Goldson explained that the BBGs are subject to strict discipline and aren’t permitted to speak during training or while on court. “The one exception is if a player asks them whether the ball was in or out,” she said, with a smile. “Then they have to say ‘no comment’.”

It might sound tough, but making it as a BBG for the Championships is not without its perks. You get the best view in the house and, for a tennis-loving teenager, it must be a bit of a thrill to pass a sweaty towel to the likes of Novak Djokovic.

Of course, the Championships are not exempt from the tidal wave of change that has swept over every aspect of our lives since the pandemic first broke; and the ticketing system is reflective of that. From the first day, Monday 28th June, the Grounds will be operating at 50% capacity, as will Centre Court and No. 1 Court. The smaller show courts, however, will be able to fill to 75% capacity. There’s the aim to increase Centre Court and No. 1 Court allocations for the Fourth Round and Quarter-Finals; and the plan is to have 100% capacity at Centre Court for the Semi-Finals and Finals, with a small amount of tickets on No. 1 Court and Grounds Passes.

And you can’t just swan in, gents. All ticket holders for the Championships must follow strict entry requirements, including demonstrating a proof of Covid status upon entry. This could either be proof of both vaccinations (with the second dose 14 days ago or more), or a negative lateral flow test taken within the last 48 hours. Be prepared to play ball.

Face coverings are mandatory when moving around the grounds; but there’s no need to stay masked up or maintain social distancing whilst seated. Expect to see forms of social distancing around the Grounds, though, particularly with regard to queue management; and on that note, the Grounds will open earlier this year (10:00am) to manage flow of movement.

If Wimbledon has shown us anything over the centuries, it’s that it can weather its fair share of storms; and the storm of Covid-19 is no different. There may be as many masks as people this year, not to mention phone screens bearing proof of vaccinations being waved wildly every which way; but the spirit of Wimbledon remains intact. All you need to do now is cross your fingers for bright sunshine and British success; and if you’re hoping to scrounge a ticket and haven’t yet had your vaccine, you may want to order a batch of lateral flow tests, as well. It is 2021, after all.

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