Behind the Scenes at Wimbledon / Telegraph Magazine
Wimbledon's 15,000-seat centre court is serene and empty except for the 24-hour security guards protecting the most hallowed patch of grass in world tennis before the championships that start on Monday.
The scoreboards still proclaim the results of last year's singles finals, but the emerald sward before me is not the one on which Andy Murray and Serena Williams won their trophies. That was shaved off immediately after last year's championships, Neil Stubley, Wimbledon's head groundsman, explains as we sit on a couple of front row seats.
The court was then relaid with seven tons of topsoil and 54 million grass seeds – seeds of perennial rye that scientists are constantly refining to achieve maximum resistance to drought and wear, and optimal density and colour. Throughout the winter that grass is spoon fed nutrients and encouraged to grow with sodium lights. Since early April, using electric mowers to preclude any possibility of an oil spill, its height has been reduced by exactly a millimetre a week to a uniform eight millimetres. “It's like family,” Stubley says of his pampered pelouse.
As the championships loom a soil impact machine known as a Clegg hammer tells him the exact hardness of the court. Four probes sunk through the 275 millimetres of soil tell Stubley the moisture content every 50 millimetres. Chlorophyll tests tell him whether he needs to give the grass more liquid fertiliser. Though the surface looks stunning to me, Stubley is not satisfied. “It needs a little more consistency and brightness of colour,” he says.
But producing one flawless court is just the start. Stubley's 32 full-time and seasonal groundstaff must produce 40 equally flawless practice and tournament courts. Moreover every court must play exactly the same, though some are shaded, others exposed and several have their own micro-climates. Thus each is tested daily for moisture and hardness, and has its own nightly irrigation programme drawn up with the help of Wimbledon's own weather forecasters.
“You need to know every square inch of every court to know how it performs,” says Stubley, 43, who joined the groundstaff 24 years ago and became the eighth and youngest head groundsman in Wimbledon's 149-year history in 2012. “You manage them independently, then bring them all together so come the championships Andy (Murray) and Roger (Federer) can play on any one of the 22 practice courts two hours before coming on to the centre or number one and they'll be identical. That's the challenge. Every single court has to be consistent.”
Today's courts are dramatically better than those of 20 years ago. “You don't get any bad bounces any more,” Stubley declares unequivocally. But he admits that absolute perfection is unattainable. As fast as his science advances the players grow bigger and more athletic, imposing ever greater stress on the courts, and there is always the danger of a fox urinating on an outside court.
That means sleepless nights for Stubley. “From about four weeks out I go through every single worst case scenario,” he says. “I even wake up sometimes thinking it's a week before the tournament and all the base lines have worn out already. It takes me about five seconds to realise it was a dream.”
Wimbledon is not only the world's oldest and most famous tennis tournament. It is arguably its single most logistically challenging sporting event, with nearly 500,000 spectators watching approximately 534 players play 674 matches in 16 different competitions within the space of 13 days and just 13 acres.
Only the two world wars have stopped the championships taking place. There are sometimes rain delays. There was once a small, late-evening fire in an office, the odd streaker has garnered brief attention, and in 2002 a couple of pranksters managed a 20-second knock-up on the centre court between matches. But it is astonishing how smoothly Wimbledon runs each year, how seldom there are glitches.
That record is testament to the skill and commitment of those who run the event, many of whom have worked at Wimbledon for 20 or 30 years and regard themselves as temporary custodians of an almost sacred institution. It is also due to the quite astonishing attention to detail that I discovered during two days of largely unfettered access to those stalwarts. “We live for details. We love details,” said Sarah Clarke, the championships' director who began working at Wimbledon as a school leaver 33 years ago.
That relentless quest for perfection is embodied in 'The List', which Clarke compiles after every Wimbledon. It consists of suggestions for improvements submitted by any of the 8,000-strong workforce. They range from major structural projects, like the retractable roof over being built Court One, to such minutiae as the colour of the petunias, chipped railings or a squeaky door. Last year alone no fewer than 1,700 suggestions were submitted.
I found the ball girls and boys – the “BBGs” - training in the indoor tennis courts adjacent to the championship grounds, and watched them energetically jogging, sprinting and star jumping before standing stock still for three long minutes.
About 800 15-year-olds from 32 local schools apply each year, and 170 are selected for their fitness and detailed knowledge of the game. Anyone who turns up for the
selection process chewing gum, wearing make-up, with shirts untucked or laces untied stands no chance. At weekly sessions from February they are taught how to march, hold themselves erect, roll balls with pinpoint precision, feed balls with upright arms, or stand with with legs apart, arms at a 20 degree angle to their bodies with palms turned forward and fingers together to show they have no balls.
They learn how to hand dropped rackets, towels and drinks to players. They are told to note players' superstitious quirks – some will want to re-use the ball they have just won a point with, for example – and to record those quirks in a book for the benefit of their colleagues. They are instructed how to respond if players shout at them, or ask whether they thought a ball was out - “I'm sorry, Sir (or Miss), I can't comment”. There is even a regulation waist height for wearing shorts - “We tell them this is not a fashion statement,” says Sarah Goldson, the physical education teacher who leads the coaching team.
The training is military in style and precision. There is no larking about, no talking. The BBGs are known by numbers, not names. Any who underperform, suffer injuries or miss a session without good reason are dismissed. The process is ruthless. “It has to be,” Goldson insists. “We put them under significant pressure because they'll be under pressure when they're standing on the championship courts with all those people watching them.”
The culling continues as the number of matches decreases in the second week. By the end just 80 remain. As the culls are announced “there's quite a few tears,” says Goldson. The best BBGs do the finals. About 60 others form the guards of honour before the trophy presentations. All leave with their Ralph Lauren uniforms, a can of used balls, a certificate, photograph and a stellar entry on their CVs. When they apply for jobs “it doesn't matter what else they've done. The questions are always about being a BBG. I think it's because of the discipline involved,” says Goldson, whose charges invariably receive flawless ratings from the international tennis authorities.
Equally high standards are required of Wimbledon's 330 umpires and linesmen. A 30-page officials' manual stipulates, for example, that the linesmen and women have to walk on to the court in a prescribed manner, and check the net height the start of each set - not just of each match. They must all dispense with their jackets together, or not at all. They cannot roll up their sleeves, or drink water except when the players are changing ends. They also undergo a mandatory eye test before each championship.
The umpires must ensure that players are not wearing coloured headbands, wristbands or shoe laces, or logos that are too big or advertise rival sporting events, and have installed vibration dampening devices correctly on their rackets. They must make announcements in a prescribed manner, know how to pronounce the players' names, and address the women as 'Miss' or 'Mrs'. “I'm not sure we've ever had a Ms,” says Adrian Wilson, the chief umpire, a West End property dealer who began working at Wimbledon as a linesman 26 years ago.
The umpires' performances are assessed by independent evaluators, the linesmens' by the umpires, and the best are given the ultimate honour of officiating at the finals. “There's really strong competition,” says Wilson.
The balls are the responsibility of Brian Mardling, 69, a retired tax accountant and genial former Wimbledon umpire.
Two lorry loads – about 57,000 balls in all – arrive from Slazenger, Wimbledon's supplier since 1902, and are stored in two rooms beneath the centre court at a constant 20 degrees celsius. Before play each day two dozen cans are delivered to every court. Six new balls are introduced after every nine games, and the stock is replenished after every match.
Mardling monitors the matches on a computer screen in the distribution office near Court 14, watching out for five-setters that might require extra balls. John Isner and Nicolas Mahut used 41 cans during their record-breaking, 11-hour, 183-game epic in 2010, with Isner winning the final set 70-78. “I had to continually take balls up to that particular court to keep the match going,” Mardling chuckles.
Andrew Jarrett, the championship referee who returns from his home in Panama each year, oversees the whole caboodle from what he calls “mission control” - an office lined with screens showing the draw, order of play, progress of every match and much else besides.
Jarrett guards the silver crowns used for coin tosses – he describes Wimbledon as “the cutting edge of tradition”. He determines who plays when and on which court – he once let David Nalbandian start early so the soccer-mad Argentinian could watch his country's World Cup quarter final later in the day. Guided by four weather forecasters who can tell him precisely how many inches of rain will fall over Wimbledon in the next few minutes, he decides whether to pull on the covers and close the centre court's roof.
Jarrett, a former professional player who once took a set off John McEnroe, is in charge of discipline too. He enforces the dress code with the help of a 100-page e-book of items rejected in the past, and fines players for audible obscenities or damaging the court with their rackets. Generally, though, he reckons “they're far better behaved than they were in my day”.
Jarrett feels the stress, particularly when facing a backlog of matches because of rain. But, he insists: “It's a huge privilege to be involved. We're the support cast trying to ensure the best players compete at the highest level in the best conditions in the world. That's the goal of all of us here at Wimbledon.”
The players certainly receive every assistance. A fleet of 165 limousines ferries them to and from the ground. They have their own hairdressing salon, travel agency and theatre booking office inside the grounds, not to mention a three-strong office that will dispense £31 million in prize money this year (even first round losers receive £30,000).
Over the next fortnight they will have more than 3,000 rackets restrung by 19 on-site racket stringers who will start work at 4.30am each day and use some 30 miles of gut. Andy Phillips, the stringing services manager, says few of those rackets will have broken strings: the players will simply want them restrung fresh for every match. The superstitious will want the knot tied to a certain length. “If they win they'll come back and say 'who strung my racket?' We'll say so and so, and they'll say he has to string it again'.”
Some players are rude and demanding, others charming, says Phillips. “Sometimes you get the feeling that someone's waiting politely at the counter and you look up and it's Rafa (Nadal).”
Dan Bloxham, head coach at the All England Lawn Tennnis Club (AELTC) and Wimbledon's bubbly master of ceremonies, greets the players, shows them the courts, explains the etiquette and traditions and, if necessary, how to bow or curtsy.
He takes me on what he calls the two-minute “walk of history”. That is the route along which he leads nervous finalists from the dressing rooms to the centre court past pictures of every Wimbledon champion since 1877, through doors held open by uniformed military stewards and the lounge of the royal box, down a flight of stairs, past the trophy case and title boards and into the cauldron through an arch bearing Kipling's immortal line: 'If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same'.
The dressing rooms themselves are off-limits to outsiders like me – an inviolable “inner sanctum” - but Bloxham offers some tantalising details. The televisions are tuned to football, rugby, cricket – anything but the tennis - so tense, jittery players waiting to go on court do not hear themselves discussed. There is also a one-hole putting green that Bloxham installed as a distraction. “That's my greatest contribution to the championships,” he jokes.
Elsewhere in Wimbledon's grounds the hospitality marquees are up, food kiosks are being erected, and stacks of Wimbledon-green umpires' chairs await dispersal. An army of yellow-jacketed workmen are sweeping, painting, drilling, weeding, trimming and mowing Henman Hill (aka Murray Mound) so the grounds will be immaculate when the public is first admitted at 10.30am on Monday.
They are helped by Rufus, a Harris hawk, whose owner, Imogen Davis, brings him to Wimbledon throughout the year, and early each morning of the championships, to prevent pigeons fouling the seats or eating grass seed. “You're never going to get rid of every single one, but he's doing a pretty good job,” she says.
Martyn Falconer, the head gardener, and his 16 assistants are tending some 50,000 plants including hydrangeas, petunias and lavenders that are designed to give Wimbledon the air of an English garden. The bane of Falconer's life is the iconic ivy that covers the outside of the centre court and requires endless tending. “It grows six inches to a foot in a week,” he complains. “It certainly keeps us out of mischief.”
Anthony Davies, head of food and beverage, is meanwhile preparing for what he describes as “the biggest annual catering event in Europe”. From 51 kitchens and 150 restaurants, food courts and kiosks his team of 2,200 - 330 of them chefs - will feed 39,000 spectators each day, plus 8,000 employees, 3,000 media, 500 players, 375 members of the AELTC, untold numbers of corporate guests, and assorted presidents, princes and prime ministers.
Amazingly, someone somewhere collates the figures. The above will consume 330,000 cups of tea and coffee, 320,000 glasses of Pimm's, 110,000 pints of beer, 29,000 bottles of champagne, 86,000 ice creams, 76,000 sandwiches, 16,000 portions of fish and chips and the odd strawberry - 28 tons to be precise.
The strawberries come from a family farm in Kent. They are picked from 4.00 each morning, individually checked, and rushed in chilled vans to Wimbledon where 50 caterers dehull them. The price for ten strawberries with unlimited cream and sugar has remained at £2.50 since 2010 because, says Davies, “they're such an intrinsic part of the Wimbledon experience.”
Another venerable Wimbledon institution is the Honorary Stewards Association – a select group of 210 men and women who greet the spectators, manage queues that can grow to 10,000 people, and generally dispense advice, information and bonhomie. They voluntarily work 12-hour days, provide their own uniforms, get to watch little or no tennis and must serve a two-year probationary period before joining the Association, which begs the question: why?
One answer is cameraderie. The Association holds an annual dinner, a couple of golf days, and is allowed to use Wimbledon's indoor courts once a year. It even has its own blue-and-white striped tie – or scarf for women. The other is pride. “They just love being involved in Wimbledon,” says Nick Pearce, 54, the chief steward who in normal life runs four party shops in London. “It's such a unique, fantastic sporting event you pinch yourself each morning and think how lucky you are to be involved.”
That spirit is also reflected in Wimbledon's distaste for commercialism. It has a long list of sponsors, and makes an annual profit of more than £30 million, but you will not see a single advertising hoarding anywhere in the grounds – least of all on centre court though the finals attract hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide.
When the championships are over the tennis nets will be given to local schools. Around £15,000 from the sale of used balls, and £340,000 from reselling the seats of spectators who leave early, will be given to good causes by the Wimbledon Foundation – as will approximately £2,500 raised by auctioning the plants to employees.
And success will be measured not by praise, but by the absence of any adverse comment on the BBGs, umpires, grass or catering because everything has gone so smoothly. “A successful tournament,” says Jarrett, the referee, “is one where on the following Monday everyone is talking about the wonderful tennis and not the controversy that's taken away from the tennis.”