Wimbledon gets the light right with roof

By Barry Newcombe. Picture from David Ashdown, The Independent
The opening of the new roof on the Wimbledon Centre Court in June will set fresh challenges for the media.

Because play can continue through any rainfall, the odds are that there will be some later finishes than ever before in the history of the august championships, when the quality of light and slippery surfaces meant play rarely could continue much beyond 9.20pm.

Without doubt the roof extends the hours available for play because any match which starts under the roof will finish under it. Wimbledon insists that they operate an outdoor, daytime event, but the roof offers a clearcut option to play on at Centre Court when it is raining elsewhere in the complex.

Tim Phillips, chairman of Wimbledon chairman, said: “We could finish after 10pm. The scheduling will still be the same as an outdoor daytime event, but there is no absolute cut-off time.”

This week, when the media were shown the roof in position for the first time – naturally it was a bright sunny day at the time – the interest from photographers centred on the quality of light and whether the roof would create shadows. On both issues they were reassured.

“I thought they have got it absolutely right,” said David Ashdown of The Independent. “With the balance of daylight which is allowed in and the elimination of shadows. There are no shadows that I could see on what was a perfect sunny day.

“I expect the light will be much softer because of the way it is deflected throught the roof. I can’t see any disadvantages whatsoever. We will have to wait and see how much light there will be on the players but at night we have been told we will be working with 1200 lux, which is fine.”

The public will be able to see the 56,000 sq ft roof in action for the first time on May 17, when former Wimbledon champions Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf will join Tim Henman and Belgium’s Kim Clijsters on court.

Many writers at Wimbledon work on their desks at the Press Centre – where they have the facility of following television coverage of all of the courts. But if the Centre Court, under its roof, is the only court in operation at any given time because of bad weather elsewhere, then there is every chance that writers will be on court.

“My first impression is that it has not lost its cathedral feel,” said Neil Harman, The Times correspondent. “You feel you are walking into a bigger auditorium than it was before. The intimacy is still here.

“Our working conditions will not change. We have lived and thrived in the conditions which we have had at Wimbledon over the years. It is actually fun on the Centre Court to sit on Press seats which are like park benches.

“When the roof first closes to allow play we will all be sitting there holding our breath, but when have Wimbledon ever got anything wrong?”

The roof, which weighs 3,000 tons and is estimated to have cost £20 million, has been designed by the same architects who worked on Sydney’s and more recently London’s Olympic stadium. The roof is a folding concertina design and it takes 10 minutes to close. After that, it will take up to 30 minutes for the air management system to stabilise the court so that playing conditions are as perfect as they can be.

Th system controls humidity and prevents either condensation on the inside of the roof or sweating of the grass, either of which could prevent play. There is room now on for 15,000 spectators, who will be sitting in new cushioned seats.

If the spectators look around they will need note that the roof is 16 metres above the court, and there are not many matches where the ball is hit that high.

Tickets for the special public trial event in May sold out in five minutes – the BBC will cover the events live from 3.30-5pm. Entertainment for the crowd will also include an appearance by the singing star Katherine Jenkins. Will “Singing in the Rain” be part of her repertoire?

At the Championships, when Centre Court is the only one in play, large screens on No1 Court, Court 2 and the Aorangi Terrace will convey the action to other spectators.

It will, of course, be a big moment when the roof goes on at the Championships for the first time. I asked Tim Phillips, chairman of the All England Club, about the mechanisms involved and who would press the button which set the roof in motion in its journey across the court. “The button presser,” he replied.

SJA chairman Barry Newcombe has been covering tennis at Wimbledon for more than 40 years

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