The summer of 2011 will see The All England Club celebrate its 125th Championships but in the meantime another big milestone has just passed.
May 17 marked the first anniversary of the official opening of the Centre Court roof, that gloriously memorable Sunday afternoon when even the distinguished participants, Steffi Graf and her husband Andre Agassi, Tim Henman and Kim Clijsters, were well aware they were not the stars of the occasion.
It was the roof that a packed stadium had come to see. To find out whether it worked, how it worked and what the place looked like when Centre Court, the world’s most famous patch of grass, was fully covered against the elements.
Just fine, was the verdict as Wimbledon staged another of its class acts. But how has the roof fared over the past year?
Gary Mayle, the AELTC’s Long Term Plan Projects Manager, is the man with all the answers and he detailed them as we sat inside the roof’s control room, a windowless structure behind an unmarked door whose location inside the Centre Court building has to remain a secret because of counter-terrorism precautions.
“There have been small issues,” said Mayle. “Things wear out, for instance, and get replaced from site spare stock. But nothing untoward.”
Since the 2009 Championships the roof has undergone regular and stringent testing. The club’s maintenance staff opened and closed the 1,000 ton moving section of the roof every day to identify any glitches.
And every six weeks a five-strong squad of experts from the companies which designed and built the structure has visited to conduct more rigorous tests.
This same team will be back for The Championships to act as its operators. “It is too complex a mechanism to ask somebody from the Club to solve any problems that may arise,” Mayle explained.
During the past winter, on the occasions when the temperature sank below five degrees centigrade, the roof was not operable so it remained open and snow fell on Centre Court, just as it had in previous, pre-roof years.
“But the roof has been designed to withstand unexpected snowfalls when closed, so it would not have caused a problem,” Mayle pointed out.
Currently, in the run-up to The Championships, the opening and closing tests have been reduced to once a week, clear enough indication that all concerned are happy with the new Wonder of Wimbledon. There will be more sophisticated changes for this year’s tournament, too. The software which made it possible to extend one of the trusses over the south end of Centre Court to offer shade to the Royal Box has been reconfigured to provide a mix of shade for spectators in other parts of the stadium.
However, the closing process will still produce a moment when everything comes to a complete halt, which last year evoked puzzlement and a worry about breakdown among the audience.
“It is just the controls going through the checking process for about 60 seconds to allow for recalibration and while the trusses are locking into position,” was Mayle’s reassuring comment.
At the 2009 Championships the roof was called into action just once, on the second Monday, to allow a women’s match to conclude and then to stage the first full match under its shelter, a fourth round men’s singles between Britain’s Andy Murray and the Swiss, Stanislas Wawrinka.
Murray’s five-set victory went on long into the night and produced a record late finish for The Championships, and the All England Club have taken steps to minimise the possibility of something similar happening this year, out of concern for nearby residents.
They will be hoping, of course, that fine weather will also minimise the use of this wonderful addition which has become, according to Mayle, an object of fascination.
“The roof is of major interest all over the world. People are always asking us how long it took to construct [five years is the answer, because work had to be planned around the tennis] and how it works.”
Although there was no cake to mark the occasion, and certainly no candles – security would not have permitted that – all concerned fervently wished Wimbledon’s wonderful roof a happy first birthday and a quiet time during the upcoming Championships.