When it ushers in a new era in June, it will be a boon for spectators, players, broadcasters and officials. But it will put an end to impromptu performances by Sir Cliff Richard, and won’t do anything for umbrella salesmen and exhibitionists in union flag ponchos.
As the All England Club unveiled the retractable roof at Centre Court on Tuesday that will lead to the biggest scheduling shake-up in Wimbledon’s 132-year history, organizers admitted “indoor” matches could potentially continue long into the evening — even if the weather is fine.
The 16m high dome, designed to ensure all but the highest lobs remain in play, will end frustrating days when little or no play is possible because of rain and prevent the need to peer through the gloaming during a crucial deciding set — at least for those lucky enough to have Centre Court tickets.
But the 15,000 spectators may need the odd caffeine injection. Although All England Club executives said Wimbledon would remain primarily an “outdoor daytime event,” they said yesterday that deciding sets would be played to a conclusion. With no final set tie-break, matches could stretch long into the night.
Opinion remains divided on whether the roof, the centerpiece of a revamp of the leafy corner of southwest London that becomes the focal point of the sporting world for two weeks from late June, will help Wimbledon retain its pre-eminence or steal some of its charm.
At the flick of a switch the translucent roof, which covers 5,200m² and is a retractable rather than solid design, will begin to move into place. It will take eight to 10 minutes to fully cover the famous court, with a further 20 minutes allowed for airflow systems to reduce condensation and recreate an “outdoor” atmosphere. Lights are designed to replicate a bright summer’s day.
“Unlike a football or rugby pitch, the grass has to be bone dry before we can start play. I think people will be surprised how bright and airy it is,” said Ian Ritchie, the All England Club’s chief executive, adding that every effort would be made to retain Centre Court’s unique character.
But he also said the local authority and the police had given their blessing for matches to continue into the evening if required.
“The real advantage the roof gives us is certainty,” he said. “We will still schedule the same number of matches, but if they do over-run, we will shut the roof and play them to the finish.”
On rare occasions, that could mean playing until 10pm or 11pm.
Tim Henman, whose 2001 semi-final against Goran Ivanisevic famously ran over two days, may be among those wondering what might have been if rain hadn’t stopped play. The news will also be welcomed by the BBC, which sees audiences go up the later play goes on.