Like everything that Wimbledon does it was, of course, a class act.
The baptising of the Centre Court roof, perfectly organised and professionally presented by “a bunch of amateurs” as the All England Club tend to call themselves, had the lot. Star names to baptise the grass ahead of the 2009 Championships, a full house of 15,000 who had scrambled to pay £35 a head for the tickets (which had all gone five minutes after they went on sale) and even some predictable input from the weather.
As the husband-and-wife team of Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf (30 Grand Slams between them) emerged to play a one-set mixed doubles against Tim Henman and Kim Clijsters (one Slam between them) it started to rain. But no-one noticed. Why should they, at this new-look Wimbledon? Everyone was dry and happy. Warm, too, since the roof not only blots out rain but cuts the sort of chilly wind which was blustering around today.
There had been rain, too, heavy rain, in mid-morning of this special day for the Ceremony of the Roof – something that had been three years in the construction and nine long years in planning. The roof was prudently closed until shortly before the gates were opened to admit the paying customers at noon.
At a price that can only be guessed at – since Wimbledon, as chairman Tim Phillips says, “never discuss costs” – the roof weighs 3,000 tons overall. Of that, the moving part – “the folding fabric concertina” as BBC TV presenter and former tennis champion Sue Barker described it – accounts for 1,000 tons. Its translucence gives an impressive amount of light, as the audience and the assembled VIPs discovered when the ceremony of the closing got under way.
Before that happened, there was the opportunity for the crowd to greet some of the great Wimbledon champions – Pat Cash and Boris Becker were present to see the action, as were Britain’s trio of post-war ladies’ singles champions Virginia Wade, Angela Mortimer and Ann Jones.
Cash said: “On a day like today [the roof] is perfect.” He then added a typical touch of humour by adding: “It is going to rain today but not during the Championships, so this may be your only chance to see it.”
The four players actually doing the hard work were then presented to a rousing welcome. Agassi called Centre Court “the stage of my first triumph” (his 1992 Wimbledon win), while Graf revealed she had first come here at the age of 12. “It meant the world to me then and it still does,” she said. “There is no other [sporting] place in the world with such tradition and heritage. And this is another special memory today.”
There were songs by Katherine Jenkins, Faryl Smith and the four-man classical/pop group Blake, with the musical entertainment getting under way to coincide with the roof closing, announced as an eight-minute task but one which seemed to be closer to six. The choice of “Amazing Grace” for the opening number by Jenkins and Smith was particularly appropriate as, with a barely discernible rumble, the roof inched its way towards full cover. Blake’s rendition of “Hallelujah” was also apt.
Inevitably, a couple of pigeons were trapped by the closure and fluttered wildly about in search of an escape route. Everyone else was more than content to watch the unfolding pageant on this very special day. Jenkins brought laughter when she nominated Agassi as her favourite player while the giant TV screens showed Becker sitting in the Royal Box trying not to look embarrassed – or disappointed.
She also revealed that what she called “my jewelled flip flops” were being worn under orders “because I don’t want to make holes in the grass.”
And so, after head groundsman Eddie Seaward and referee Andrew Jarrett had run their hands over the turf to make sure the airflow system had removed all the inevitable condensation caused by the closure of the roof over a full house, the court was pronounced fit for purpose – the entry of the champions. The new-look Wimbledon was in business.