After a long spell of pandemic-strung sporting events, seeing a tournament as iconic and anticipated as Wimbledon back in full swing is as refreshing as a bowlful of strawberries and cream. Because imagining the All England Club empty during these hottest weeks of summer 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 from commuters at 8:30am on a Wednesday. It’s almost eerie. But then, the Wimbledon Championships have only ever been cancelled for three reasons. The first hiatuses — for the First and Second World War — are to be expected. But the 2020 cancellation? Surely our stiff upper lips and fierce backhands could have stood up to a COVID-enforced closure? Thankfully, last year, Wimbledon scooped up its racquet once more. And, this year, it’s back better than ever…
Last week, those freshly-cut, bright green lawns were prepared to see the footfall of thousands of spectators once again. Murray Mound (or Henman Hill, if you prefer) will — for the next three weeks — play host to bottle upon bottle of champagne, 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 weeks in the tennis calendar, and the Grand Slam is starting as we speak.
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, tells Gentleman’s Journal. “It might not sound like a lot, but if you do that every year, 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 (a total of £40,350,000 this year). All together, it ensures that players are well groomed before stepping out on court, well entertained after a day’s playing and well remunerated at the end of the tournament.
During the Championship, 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, notes previous Head of Food and Beverage Anthony Davies, but he has also noticed an increase in demand for sushi. Sushi specialists are now among the hundreds of professional chefs who work here during the Championships.
"We’re constantly trying to improve, to find that extra one or two per cent..."
All told, this is the largest annual catering operation in Europe. With over 2,500 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, training for prospective ball boys and ball girls (BBGs) is also 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 explains 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 says, 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.
If Wimbledon has shown us anything over the centuries, it’s that it can weather its fair share of storms; and the recent years have been no different. There may still be a fair share of masks and hand sanitiser at the Championships this year, but the spirit of Wimbledon remains intact. All you need to do now is cross your fingers for bright sunshine and British success.
Looking to do Wimbledon in style? Take inspiration from the best-dressed men at last year’s Championships…
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