It takes up to 10 minutes to close the Centre Court roof — roughly the same amount of time that the dilatory Rafa Nadal wastes between serves.
To close or not to close? While Britain’s dodgy bankers and dithering politicians hog the headlines, there was another crisis brewing down in leafy SW19. Day 7 of Wimbledon 2012 should have brought a feast of tennis all over the grounds of the All England Club, with Andy Murray continuing his march towards the final. But this time it wasn’t just the soggy British weather raining on everyone’s parade — it was idiotic officials refusing to sanction extended opening hours under the Centre Court roof.
Before the Centre Court retractable roof was unveiled in 2009, tennis fans endured many frustrating afternoons during the Wimbledon Championships. If you were lucky enough to have Centre Court tickets you would sit freezing under the lowering skies, hoping against hope that Sir Cliff Richard wouldn’t grab the mic and start warbling. Meanwhile viewers on BBC1 or BBC2 would brace themselves for another trip down memory lane in the company of Sue Barker. Is the Borg vs McEnroe Wimbledon final of 1980 greater than the Federer vs Nadal smackdown of 2008? Who cares.
The new Centre Court roof cost up to £80 million (depending on which tabloid newspaper you read) and its vast web of steel trusses and glass is a thing of beauty. But the capacity to play on, whatever the weather, has become a focus for controversy. This court covering may be a masterpiece of engineering, but it’s not like a car roof — you can’t shut out the showers in an instant. It takes up to 10 minutes to close the Centre Court roof — roughly the same amount of time that the dilatory Rafa Nadal wastes between serves. Then there’s a further half hour delay while the Centre Court air management system creates the right environment for indoor play.
One of the more tedious aspects of this year’s Wimbledon has been the prevarication over whether to just start matches under the roof if there’s even a hint of rain in south west London. I’m sure most players would prefer to compete in a wind- and rain-free environment from the outset. (Serena Williams would just be happy if all her matches were scheduled on one of the two main show courts, instead of in a neighbouring borough.) In practice, matches like Nadal’s second-round encounter with giant-killer Lukas Rosol started outdoors and ended under the roof.
The Murray vs Baghdatis encounter on Saturday night was played in an atmosphere of feverish excitement as a new “beat the clock” element came into play. Wimbledon has to observe a curfew of 11pm for play under the Centre Court roof. Apparently Merton Council is worried about the possibility of marauding tennis fans turning the borough into an outpost of Wembley.
Wimbledon has been at pains to emphasise that it is “a traditional daytime, outdoor event”. So rather than move Andy Murray’s rain-affected Court One match with Marin Cilic to Centre Court yesterday evening, the powers that be decided to shut up shop for the night. “Murray Madness” shouted the Daily Telegraph’s headline this morning. I’m sure the players, spectators and TV broadcasters would have been thrilled if play had continued for another three hours under the roof. But the inflexible, minor public school bureaucrats who run Wimbledon didn’t get where they are today by giving people what they want.
A few weeks ago the British press sneered at the organisers of the French Open because the Nadal-Djokovic final had to be carried over to a second day. The issue then wasn’t just the weather but the 3pm Sunday start time, which was designed to accommodate US TV schedules. But we can hardly call roofless Roland Garros a “laughing stock” when Wimbledon refuses to play on the middle Sunday or after 11pm, and when matches on the two main show courts invariably begin at 1pm.
We do like to look down our noses at those garlic-chewing foreigners, with their potted geraniums and acres of uncovered red clay. Wimbledon sends Radek Stepanek off court for having the temerity to breach the “all-white” rule with his natty red and blue shoes. But it’s OK for Serena Williams to wear those eye-catching pink shorts and matching headband: that’s within the rules.
Wimbledon has a huge (retractable) roof but it really doesn’t know what to do with it. Let’s throw out the rule book and have some common sense. While we’re at it, could the BBC please impose a quota on those endless slo-mo replays of Andy Murray and others shaking their fists like over-excited toddlers every time they win a point. It’s not big and it’s not clever.