Just like Roger Federer’s game, Wimbledon is the perfect blend of the classic and the modern. For all the enduring traditions at The Championships - the almost-all-white clothing rules, the hunger for strawberries, and the queue - the All England Club has embraced change and innovation.
From the construction of the Centre Court roof to the introduction of Hawk-Eye electronic replay and equal prize-money, to the improvements to the grass and rackets, Wimbledon has continued to evolve over the years. And those changes have been made with care and consideration, ensuring Wimbledon loses none of its elegance, poise, charm and soul. In partnership with Rolex, which is celebrating 40 years as Official Timekeeper of The Championships, ESPN takes a look at how Wimbledon has moved with the times.
If tennis looks different when played under the closed Centre Court roof - almost as if Wimbledon has been crossed with the Eden Project or Kew Gardens - it also sounds different. When Centre Court is transformed into an indoor arena, the impact of the ball on strings creates a new, fresh sound. More of a thwock than a thwack, some would say. Sitting in the very same seat, watching the same match, a spectator can have two distinct experiences of Centre Court, depending on whether the roof is open or closed.
Since the 2009 Championships, when the red button that activates the retractable roof was pushed for the first time, rain is no longer the adversary it once was. Not only does it protect The Championships from the British summer, it also allows matches to continue after dark. Weighing 1,000 tonnes and covering 5,200 square metres, the roof has not crushed Wimbledon's ethos: it remains a daytime, outdoor event. Even so, there is something thrilling about the first time you sit in or play on Centre Court at night, or what you might call Wimbledon after-hours.
The introduction of the Hawk-Eye line-calling technology has not affected the beloved theatricality of Centre Court, as some feared it would. Quite the opposite, you might say. When a shot is replayed on large screens, demanding the attention of 15,000 spectators, the players and the umpire – as well as the millions watching around the world – it brings a new human drama to the matches. How better to increase the tension on and around the grass than for a player to challenge on a set point or even a match point?
It was in 2007 that Wimbledon turned to Hawk-Eye, silencing the bleep of the Cyclops machine that had been keeping watch over the service-lines. While there are now fewer opportunities for players to argue with officials about line-calls, they still have plenty of scope to show their personalities in matches. Some of the modern generation occasionally demonstrate that the spirit of John McEnroe is still very much alive.
Perfection now lasts for longer inside the modern-day All England Lawn Tennis Club. If Britain is a nation which cares deeply about lawns, and Wimbledon is intended to be tennis played at a garden party, the untouched Centre Court grass is many people's idea of perfection: cut to a playing height of 8 millimetres, a vision of unadulterated, blemish-free green.
On the first Monday of The Championships, the reigning men’s singles champion has the responsibility of 'opening' Centre Court, the first player to step out onto the venerated turf. This year, the honour goes to Rolex Testimonee Roger Federer, who claimed a record eighth Wimbledon title last year by beating Marin Cilic in the final. The Swiss legend did not even drop a set throughout the entire championship, something that only Björn Borg – also a Rolex Testimonee – achieved previously, in 1976.
But the surface the two men achieved that feat on was not exactly the same. In the 1970s, the deeper they went into the tournament, the more the players wore down the grass, especially along the baseline and around the 'T' of the service boxes. But now, after changing the blend of grass, and also modern technologies, the turf stays greener and in better condition throughout the fortnight, enabling players to seek their grass-court perfection.
One of the most persistent myths at the All England Club, which will probably circulate again this summer, is that the grass has slowed down, giving more of an advantage to those who stay on the baseline. The reality, according to head groundsman Neil Stubley, is that the speed is still the same as it ever was. What has changed is the height of the bounce. It was in the early 2000s that the All England Club switched to 100 per cent perennial rye grass, which makes the lawns more resilient and the ball bounce higher and truer. In other words, it’s easier to play the ball.
Advances in racket and string technology allow players to hit the ball harder and faster than ever before. Consider the power that the likes of Rolex Testimonee Garbiñe Muguruza, who won Wimbledon for the first time last summer, and seven-time winner Serena Williams bring to Centre Court. At the same time, players have the hardware to generate huge amount of spins, sending the ball fizzing through the air with power and menace. But this isn't just about technology; this is also about advances in nutrition, training and sports science that have made this generation faster, stronger and fitter than any that came before it. Not to mention that the athletes’ careers are longer, and as successful, as is the case with Roger Federer, who continues to win Grand Slams® in his 20th year as a professional player.
Whereas players in the 1980s readily serve-and-volleyed, and took any chance to come to net, this generation is more comfortable at the back of the court. But, for all the baseline power and spin at modern Wimbledon, there is still space for artistry and elegance on the grass. After all, the most accomplished male grass-court player of all time, Federer, who this summer will be attempting to win a ninth Wimbledon title, has achieved greatness through playing tennis of astonishing style and sophistication. He maintains his enthusiasm for hitting volleys, despite being very much against the trend.
This summer marks 50 years of the open or professional era. Over the past half a century, there has been an enormous increase in the financial rewards, reflecting the All England Club's respect and recognition for the athletes.
At the 1968 Championships, the men's winner Rod Laver received a cheque for £2,000, while the women's champion Billie Jean King collected £750. This summer, if Federer retains the men's title, he will receive £2.25 million, while Muguruza will earn the same amount if she wins again. Introduced in 2007, equal prize-money illustrates how the All England Club values the women’s athletes just as highly as the men.
So much has changed and will continue to change at the world’s most famous tennis tournament. The pursuit of innovation coupled with the commitment to retain heritage and an unmistakeable air of greatness reflects Rolex’s own commitment to tennis excellence, best embodied in the 40 years of partnership with The Championships, Wimbledon.