High up on the outer south wall of Center Court at Wimbledon, a small rectangle has been cut away in the lush green ivy, revealing a digital number that few, if any, of the 42,000 spectators who enter the court each day in the tournament ever notices .
Similar to coastal warning pennants, it’s a signal system – from 1 to 8 – issued from Wimbledon’s own crack meteorological department, so the tarpaulin crews can standby or rush into action. A “1” means possible showers. A “2” means that the chair referee has the option to stop the match. On Saturday, as the first raindrops fell on an already rain-soaked Wimbledon, the signal clicked to “4” from “3”.
Instantly, Richard “Winston” Sedgwick, standing in the back row of Court No. 3, where he could look over to the digital beacon on Center Court, used a simple hand signal to relay the information to the crews, who sprang into action. A team of six men ran onto the field, grabbed the purple cords to unwrap an 8,000-square-foot tarp, and dragged it across the field in about a minute as the captains shouted instructions that sounded all over the grounds, equivalent to rowing teams: “Three , two, one, move,” and “Stay together. One more time!”
“There is pressure to get it done properly,” Sedgwick said. “If you don’t, they can’t play. So we have to work really hard and really fast.”
The members of the covering crews are arguably the most important people at Wimbledon, their quick, precise action protecting the delicate grass, allowing tennis to continue on each of the 18 courts at what is usually the rainiest Grand Slam of the year.
It’s a physical job that requires a degree of athleticism, and if there’s a day of intermittent showers and the tarp goes on and off several times, by the end of that day, the physical toll will leave the crews “shattered” , Sedgwick said.
George Spring, a cattle farmer in New South Wales, Australia, has been Wimbledon’s head of court for 22 years, overseeing the entire process. It begins when his wife, Louise, recruits the several dozen university students who make up the crews. A total of 200 people work on the pitch service crew during the two-week tournament.
They train for four days before the tournament, including a couple of half days on the court, learning and practicing how to put tarps on, take them off, and set up the nets and the rest of the court for play when it rains. stops.
Movements must be consistent and the crews practice their ballet well in advance of the first ball being hit.
“It’s like sports teams,” Spring said. “If you have a good captain and good leadership, you will be in good shape.”
Crews have been particularly important this Wimbledon, with rain interrupting five of the first six days. It has wreaked havoc with the schedule and forced many players to work back-to-back days, which is never the plan at a two-week event like Wimbledon. Through the first six days, 96 matches were suspended, including 34 on Wednesday and 30 on Saturday. Several doubles teams hadn’t even played their first matches on Saturday.
And this isn’t even the rainiest Wimbledon – not even close.
“I was here in 2007 when it was famous for rain,” Spring said. “There wasn’t a day we didn’t pull a cover on the courts.”
The two main exhibition courts, Center Court and No. 1 Court, has retractable roofs, but crews are still installing even larger tarps, requiring 20 people versus the six on the outer courts while the roofs close. Center Court is the only one with full-time staff at Wimbledon on the job.
Court staff arrive at 7.30 and work until around 22.30 every day. Tarps can be slippery and heavy, and people move quickly, so occasionally a crew member sprains an ankle or tweaks a muscle.
On the No. 1 court, Elinor Beazley, who grew up in Wales and played tennis for Northern Arizona University (she’s transferring to Youngstown State this fall), has pulled the tarp for two years.
Last year was a mostly sunny affair and she was hoping for rain just to get in on the action. When it arrived, the adrenaline started pumping.
“I was so nervous,” she said. “The audience was screaming and I was really on my toes. It’s such an exciting and fun experience. It’s quite a performance to do it in front of all those people.”
When she got back to Arizona, she said, she told her teammates, “You’re all going to Wimbledon. You see the best tennis in the world up close, and it’s like being on a team.”
The Court Services teams are also responsible for other duties, such as holding umbrellas over players’ heads during shifts and providing them with towels and drinks, but they can also fulfill other unique requests. Spring said a player once asked for a soda, which is not part of the usual sports hydration fluids available at every court. Spring went to the concession stand, bought a soda and brought it back.
One year, when the bananas on hand for players were too green, Spring said, he sent a crew member to a grocery store in Wimbledon town on a bicycle to get ripe ones. Rafael Nadal, who did not play this year, likes a special kind of dry date that Spring gets from the on-site commissioner. On Saturday evening there was a request for room temperature water.
But the most important task is to get these tarps on and off the pitch quickly and completely. When the digital beacons (there are a few, set up on both sides of Center Court and on the outer walls of No. 1 Court) flash a “5,” that’s the call to inflate the tarp. After a crew has secured the tarp with large clips, fans inflate it from the corners. Within seconds, a dome, 6 feet high in the center, forms like a giant bouncy castle. If the rain is expected to pass quickly, the tarpaulin is not inflated at all.
A “6” means deflating; “7” is the call to uncover and roll up the tarp, which can weigh two tons when wet, Spring said. Once secured, an “8” will flash, which means it’s time to dress the courts – replace the nets, set up the chairs and distribute towels and drinks to the players.
Colored cords wrapped inside the rolled tarp make it all much simpler. The crew members pull purple to unfold the tarp in the rain and green to roll it back up when the sky is clear. The entire covering process, including setting up the nets, takes about 10 to 15 minutes.
At night, the crews put the tarpaulin back on. On Saturday, play was suspended on all outfields due to the rain. When it stopped, crews pulled the tarp back down, but only for less than an hour. The tarpaulins were so effective at keeping the pitch dry that the grass had to be watered at the end of the day.
Spring said that in all his years, there have been a few times when errors have caused delays of an hour or so, but never for a full day.
“That’s probably why I’m still here,” he said.
And in Wimbledon it is also the rain.