First, strangely, the good news: it rained. When could such an event at Wimbledon ever be said to be good news? Answer: on the day the new Centre Court roof was unveiled in front of a capacity crowd and a worldwide television audience.
Of course the splendid programme of exhibition matches featuring Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf, Tim Henman and Kim Clijsters would have been played with the new roof closed no matter what the weather, because actually the event was a required test under health and safety legislation ahead of the Championships next month.
But if you’re going to be showing off a shiny new roof, it does make the day all the more satisfying if the British weather doesn’t come up with one of its amusing little jokes by producing an afternoon of blazing heat.
Fortunately it seemed that on this of all days, the weather gods grasped what the script required of them. For one thing, the rain held off until the scheduled moment the roof began to close at exactly 2.39pm – and then, satisfyingly, as play got under way in the mixed doubles match at 3.25pm, a lengthy spell of that particularly frustrating brand of on-off rain which has blighted many a Wimbledon day began outside Centre Court.
The only disappointment, on the inside, was that you couldn’t particularly tell. The rain was too light to hear on the translucent fabric of the roof, although it would certainly have been heavy enough to scupper all thoughts of grasscourt tennis without the new structure in position.
If the weather obliged, then the tennis did, too. It could scarcely fail, with such a line-up. No British audience had ever seen Andre Agassi and Steffi Graff play mixed doubles together – and, as Tim Henman pointed out with a smile after he and Kim Clijsters triumphed, the husband-and-wife team will never have the chance for revenge. This day was a one-off, and all 15,000 present will find themselves asked time and again in the coming weeks: “What was it like under the roof?”
So what was it like? Inevitably – indeed, by definition – it was simply different, and clearly an extraordinary achievement. When the roof first closed, what became evident most quickly was that the unpleasantly cold and blustery May afternoon was literally shut outside.
Under the new structure, the air was still and temperate. The air management system was audible only to those who consciously paused to listen for it, and even then only just. Other sounds were altered – ball on racket was amplified, as was the public address system, but on the other hand the steady traffic of jet aircraft on its way into Heathrow was almost entirely muffled. The light was different, too, a little like a cloudy day in the open air.
Above all, however – and as with all such Big New Things – what was most striking was how quickly all this strange newness became almost ordinary. The focus switched naturally to events on court, which is just as it should be here at SW19.
In terms of the tennis itself, Henman and Clijsters won the opening match of the day, defeating the husband and wife team of Agassi and Graf 7-6. After a short break, Agassi beat the former British number one 6-4 before Clijsters was a 6-4 winner in the final match of the day against seven-time Wimbledon champion Steffi Graf.
“This is a part of history,” said Agassi. “It’s a day we’ll always remember. It’s been a privilege for me and my wife to be here.”
Not just them. On the Centre Court 15,000 people witnessed the future in motion – and it works.