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Wimbledon special: Serving up tradition with a spin of modernity

Wimbledon is strict about some traditional rules, but it has been ahead of the other Slams in some respects

A file photo of a Hawk-Eye display at Centre Court. Photo: Alamy
A file photo of a Hawk-Eye display at Centre Court. Photo: Alamy

On 13 July 2017, Jurij Rodionov, then 18, sent the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club (AELTC) officials at Wimbledon into a tizzy, just as his third-round match in the boys’ singles clash was about to start.

The chair umpire noticed something amiss and a supervisor was summoned on court. Rodionov pulled down the waistband of his shorts to display the colour of the underwear.

The officials were aghast. The supervisor promptly ordered new underwear—white, to be precise—over her walkie-talkie, and, minutes later, the match resumed after Rodionov changed into new undergarments. He went on to beat his opponent, Blake Ellis of Australia, in three sets.

The all-white rule at Wimbledon is among the few of the tournament’s strictures that have become more rigid with time. But for every hint of colour frowned upon, Wimbledon has embraced modernity and even paced ahead of the other three Grand Slams—the Australian Open, French Open and US Open—in some key areas.

In 2009, the AELTC inaugurated a state-of-the-art retractable roof over Centre Court. Faced with massive rain delays and washed-out days in the past, the tournament became just the second Grand Slam to have a roof over its main court so play could continue uninterrupted.

“For me, it was a major step that (also) forced them to place lighting inside Centre Court," says Mark Woodforde, the former top-ranked doubles player turned commentator from Australia, on email from California.

The AELTC had never intended to have night sessions—it is located in a residential suburb. Local rules state that play should not extend beyond 11pm, so as not to cause a nuisance to residents in the neighbourhood.

Yet, in 2012, Britain’s Andy Murray won a thrilling encounter under the closed roof against Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus in four tightly contested sets. The match ended at 11.02pm.

“The officiating team was about to go on court, stop the match and push it to next day, but, fortunately, Murray finished the match," says a tournament official who did not want to be identified.

Murray went on to reach the final that year but lost to Roger Federer.

In 2019, No.1 Court will also have a retractable roof. The US Open got a roof over Centre Court in 2016; the French Open’s roof will be operational in 2021.

But the AELTC is not content simply with building roofs, notwithstanding that this particular roof is a highly advanced one. The Wimbledon Park Golf Club, established in 1898 and located about 1.6km from the AELTC, stands on grounds that belong to the AELTC, and are on lease from the tennis club. Although this lease ends in 2041, the AELTC has been in talks with the golf club for an early handover. Its plans for this space are not known.

Wimbledon has been quick in adapting to on-court technology. Hawk-Eye was adopted in 2007 on the Centre and No.1 courts. Nos.2 and 3 followed in 2009 and 2011, respectively. The US and Australia Open, however, beat Wimbledon to it by a year.

That brings us to another tradition at Wimbledon; to number courts instead of naming them after famous players, like the other Grand Slams do.

Certainly, AELTC has stubbornly avoided on-court advertising. A long green wall, devoid of any advertisements, makes up the boundary that separates the courts from the stands. No advertisements there.

Woodforde says it doesn’t make any difference to the AELTC. “They are the wealthiest of all (Grand) Slams, sponsors gravitate towards them; it is the elite of tennis. I love that they choose this path," he says.

But the AELTC is subtle. You don’t need to look any further than the scoreboard of Centre Court, for instance. The name of the company that maintains the time at Wimbledon: Rolex. Next, look underneath the umpire’s chair and you’ll notice bottles of Robinsons flavoured Barley Water, the only beverage brand that’s allowed to be displayed on Wimbledon’s tennis courts.

What if a player wants just water? Plenty of water bottles can be had, but they are kept in containers so that the brand name doesn’t show. “Those with a keen eye will notice some subtle branding on court at The Championships for our official suppliers. However, the AELTC is careful to ensure any branding stays true to the traditional look and feel of Wimbledon, that is, ‘tennis in an English garden’," says a Wimbledon spokesperson on email.

Nothing shouts tradition at the AELTC like its all-white rule. Its 10-point detailed rule, emphasizing the extent of “white" that the players must have on them, speaks of the AELTC’s seriousness in enforcing the rule.

Perhaps Rodionov forgot to read point No.9, which says: “Any undergarments that either are or can be visible during play (including due to perspiration) must also be completely white except for a single trim of colour no wider than one centimetre (10mm). In addition, common standards of decency are required at all times."

Over the years though, Wimbledon has moved from its “predominantly-white" rule to an “all-white" rule. “I would like to see a little colour. I do like mostly white. They’ve gone all-white. It’s a little bit of a mistake, but I think they probably felt that it becomes more difficult to judge what is predominantly white and what is not. If one puts a stripe and 4mm or 8 inches, which one is permissible? I could see why (AELTC has the rule) but I think it’s too bad," says Patrick McEnroe, a former player and now an ESPN commentator, over phone from the US.

But despite the AELTC’s stringent rules, players don’t mind, says McEnroe, because the tournament has “top-of-the-line facilities".

Mickey Adagra, a general practitioner and a regular doctor at The Championships, says the medical centres (there are three) on the club premises are “just like a treatment centre you see at a top UK hospital. There are advance trauma life support (ATLS) doctors with ambulances present at the AELTC round the clock during play hours."

Adagra explains, over the phone from London, that some of these ATLS doctors “go in air ambulances in their day jobs and are well-trained to take care of extreme situations like bombings, stabbings and such events".

Medical facilities, he adds, aren’t just equipped to handle injured players but also ball boys or girls who could be dehydrated or spectators who might injure themselves. Adagra will be on duty during the second week of The Championships 2018, including the men’s final.

But here’s what remains etched in Patrick McEnroe’s memory. In 2012, he partnered with Swede Joakim Nyström for the senior men’s invitation doubles, one of the competitions at The Championships to honour past champions.

McEnroe, who was commentating with ESPN, remembers rushing to the players’ locker room after finishing his assignment at about 7pm, to change and get ready for the match. The pair lost the match and McEnroe headed to the house he had rented at Wimbledon Village, where he was staying with his family. Before going to bed at around midnight, he noticed his phone ring but since he didn’t recognize the number, he didn’t answer. Next morning, when he was in the players’ locker room, the head attendant came up to him and handed him his wallet. McEnroe realized he had left his wallet in the locker room the previous evening.

“It turns out that the same attendant had come to my house at midnight but when he couldn’t figure out exactly which house I was living in, he tried calling me. Since I did not answer my phone, he went back," he says.

“I was playing in the old guys’ doubles event, nobody cares. I wasn’t even a star. Still, he (the head attendant) drove all the way to personally hand over my wallet. It’s just an amazing gesture. I think the players appreciate that," he says.

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