The retractable roof of Centre Court is open today, but it overhangs just enough of the structure to cast angular, latticed shadows below. The air is still, temperatures are in the low 20s and there’s just a little cloud overhead. In other words, perfect conditions for Andy Murray to open his defence of the title he won here nearly a year ago
But almost every one of the 15,916 seats is empty. And the only trace of Murray’s presence is the scoreboard in a corner of the court that displays a record of the last match he played here – a straight-sets defeat of Canada’s Milos Raonic that gave him the right to lift the famous gold-plated trophy for a second time. That’s because, on the day of my visit, there are still six weeks before the start of the holiest fortnight in the tennis calendar.
There’s no shortage of activity, though. A groundsman methodically patrols the playing surface, trimming the grass with a bright red electric mower. Other members of the 17-strong ground staff stride purposefully along the outskirts of the court, past the drainage systems that have existed since it was opened in 1922, into the bowels of the stadium and through to one of the outside courts. Their boss, Neil Stubley, finishes speaking to a small tour party on the other side of the stands before making his way over and folding down one of the dark green seats next to me.
The mowers, Stubley explains, are bespoke: 21 inches in width, in order to create the perfect number of grass stripes in the gaps between the white lines on the court. But even with specialist equipment, he has his work cut out. During the two weeks of the Championships, some of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club’s courts will be subjected to more hours of play than top football pitches get in a whole season. ‘We’re constantly trying to improve, to find that extra one or two per cent,’ says Stubley, whose official title is Head of Courts and Horticulture. ‘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. By the time the 2016 final rolled around, the court was still covered in lush green grass.
There have been some plaintive murmurs that the courts here have changed since Becker’s day – to the detriment of the serve-and-volley players who used to hold sway. But Stubley points out that the 2008 final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer was played on the current grass (dwarf perennial rye grass, to be precise) and is widely considered one of the best matches ever played.
He still worries, though. ‘We’re front of shop. The whole world is going to see [if the courts aren’t up to scratch].’ As a result, in the days and weeks before the tournament he only expects three or four hours’ sleep a night. ‘I lie there for hours thinking what would happen in all these different scenarios. But by the time I actually get out of bed, I’ve almost got an answer to all the questions I gave myself. It keeps you focused.’
On the old site of Number One Court stands the Millennium Building. The ground floor has a hairdresser’s salon, a nail bar, a box office and the prize money office, which together ensure 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. (Even players who lose in the first round take home £35,000. Prize money for the winners of the singles titles is £2.2 million.)
On the top floor, I meet Anthony Davies, who, as head of food and beverage, is responsible for making sure that everyone at Wimbledon is properly fed and watered. 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, says Davies, but he has also noticed an increase in demand for sushi. As a result, sushi specialists are now among the 338 professional chefs who work here during the Championships.
All told, this is the largest annual catering operation in Europe. With a total of 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 logistical challenges, too – such as ensuring that the 28 tonnes of strawberries arrive safely. Each day, two tonnes are picked, delivered, hulled and served.
But not all visitors to SW19 have the same tastes. During the Championships, Rufus – a 1lb 6oz Harris hawk with a one-metre wingspan – is let loose by handler Imogen Davis at 5 o’clock every morning in order to weave his way through the buildings at 30mph and discourage the pigeons from disrupting play.
By 4pm on most weekdays from February to the end of June, training for prospective ball boys and ball girls (BBGs) is underway. The 250 or so who were put forward by their school and then made it through the online application process will be whittled down to a final group of 60 and trusted to do the job for real during the Championships.
On the practice courts in the southwest corner of the grounds, some of the hopefuls go through a strenuous looking warm-up before forming into lines with military-grade precision. One of the trainers in Goldson’s team instructs 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, must 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.
‘Sixty-six!’ booms the trainer, singling out a lanky lad who was marginally out of step with the others. ‘You fell asleep there!’ Sixty-six doesn’t make the mistake twice – next time he moves with an extra bit of snap.
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, Heather Watson or Genie Bouchard.
For members of the public who haven’t been fortunate or organised enough to get tickets in the online ballot, the best chance of getting courtside is to join The Queue. Now something of an institution, it offers the chance to buy a limited number of tickets each morning for that day’s play.
According to Nick Pearce, the Head Honourary Steward and the man with ultimate responsibility for the line-up, an early start is advisable for people hoping to secure ground passes. To be among the lucky few to snare tickets for the show courts, though, you will probably have to go one better and spend the previous night camping in Wimbledon Park.
As many as 12,000 people arrive each morning, so queue cards are used to keep track of everyone’s rightful place. But there are still those who try to cut in. ‘If people spot it, they’ll usually shop ‘em in,’ laughs Pearce. ‘We always try to handle things with a lightness of touch, and politely direct them to the proper place to go.’
Once inside the gates, those without a seat for Centre Court can still see the day’s marquee matches by taking advantage of Wimbledon’s ticket return system. Helen Parker, head of the Wimbledon Foundation, explains that when patrons leave the show courts and don’t intend to come back, their tickets are resold at a knock-down price. It’s usually near the end of the day, but provides an opportunity for people to see the biggest names in tennis without shelling out for a full-price ticket. With the help of HSBC, which donated an amount equal to the value of return tickets sold, the scheme generated £350,000 last year. In total, the foundation gave £700,000 to projects ranging from a children’s charity in India to social initiatives in the local boroughs of Merton and Wandsworth.
As Parker and I walk up past Henman Hill – or Murray Mound, if you prefer – she points out the new temporary kiosk being built to help the system run as smoothly as possible. It sits on a plateau close to the spot from where Sue Barker, John McEnroe and the rest of the gang deliver the BBC’s daily highlights programme, and provides an excellent vantage point to look out over the activity unfolding below.
A red crane towers above Number One Court and the builders below as they work on the new £70-million retractable roof that is scheduled to be finished in time for the summer of 2019. Workmen add a fresh coat of black gloss paint to the wrought iron fences, while a smattering of tour groups, security guards and ground staff walk from place to place, taking pictures, checking passes and putting up nets.
Soon, all the finishing touches really will be finished, hundreds of thousands of people will stream through the gates and there will be nothing anyone here can do, apart from cross their fingers for fair weather and – who knows – perhaps more British success.