Players like Kim Clijsters, who 10 years ago had to endure two days of start/stop play against Steffi Graff due to rain, will welcome the new technology. For Head Groundsman
Eddie Seaward MBE, the project is both a blessing and a curse.
It’s been a long work in progress; including four years of research before we reached the planning stage. The research investigated how the roof would affect the grass,” explains Eddie. There were, he says, added complications in that the research results were being based on a new stadium that hadn’t even been built! A survey had revealed that the venue had only a 50-year life expectancy and that it needed to better accommodate disabled spectators by incorporating wider seats. To do this, and still have room for the same numbers of spectators (indeed, the new design has 1,000 more seats), the stadium height had to be increased by a minimum of six metres, which could potentially have significantly impacted light levels on the playing surface.
“Four companies assisted with the research and the STRI helped me to interpret their results and to transfer the core data onto light and shade maps,” Eddie continues. “Results were coming in daily all year round – sometimes up to 300 pages of data per day – with every change to the drawings impacting on the research data. We needed to be 100 per cent sure that the roof would work before we applied for planning approval.
“The Club is very attuned to the fact that the grass needs light, so if we couldn’t retain or improve on the existing levels the project wouldn’t have gone ahead. As it turns out, light levels have actually been improved with the new design.” This has been achieved by designing the static part of the roof (on its perimeter) to let in as much light as possible; and the south end of the stadium being kept at original height.
The roof is in two sections which allows it to be opened or closed to maximise the light available on any given day. The 10 trusses which form its main structure are 100 tonnes each and, due to their size, were built on-site three at a time then a pair of 50-tonne mobile cranes lifted each truss into place. Despite their size and complexity, this stage of the build took only two weeks and the playing surface remained untouched.
Eddie explains that despite the obvious benefits of the work, the project does create potential headaches for Eddie and his team: “Unlike a football pitch, where you can have a bit of moisture on the leaf, for tennis there can’t be any moisture. The effect of 15,000 people breathing in the stadium when the roof is closed, combined with them entering and leaving with wet clothes meant we have had to install a sophisticated climate control system. The system pipes air in under the grounds and buildings directly into the Centre Court roof. Then we have air conditioning which is climate controlled and is linked to the dew point in the roof to eliminate condensation, as well as being linked to the dew point in the grass, to prevent anything untowards forming on the grass. And in between there’s a layer of air conditioning that will give comfort to the spectators and players without impacting on the movement of the ball.
“Our roof is incomparable to anything else. When conducting our research we looked at every grass pitch roof structure in the world (there are hundreds), including the Saporo Stadium in Japan, and each one is different to what we have. All we could do was look at what didn’t work for existing roofs and ensure we avoided the pitfalls.”
The project has been one of exacting precision from start to finish and, as it has taken three years to rebuild the stadium and install the roof, last year Centre Court was used without any cover – and while players and spectators waited for the rain to clear so play could continue, Eddie had some very different concerns.
“We were all sweating to a certain extent last year as we played late on the Men’s Final,” Eddie recalls. “If the referee had stopped the final for any reason and postponed play until Monday our build schedule would have been knocked right off course. The cranes, which had been taken down for the fortnight of the tournament, were due back in at 8.00 am on the Monday morning. The schedule was tight and every minute vital – last year we cleared the site of workmen and machinery only 48 hours before the players arrived.”
At the time of writing and with only five weeks until A Centre Court Celebration, Eddie admits that Wimbledon looks like a building site, but he remains totally confident: “Each week, each day has been meticulously planned to the last hour. We can’t move the event, or cancel or postpone it – the work has to be completed on time.”
Aside from the exacting schedule, the build has given the team other issues to overcome. For example, while the roof was being built it remains either static at one end or closed, often meaning that the grass missed out on crucial hours of sunlight. “Yesterday, for example, we had beautiful sunshine but the roof was closed all day. Fortunately, we have the technology to overcome this with the grow lights,” explains Eddie. Following discussions and a short term loan of Chris Hague’s rig from the Parken Stadium in Denmark, he commissioned a specially-designed lighting rig that extends across the court. “It was rather fortuitous,” he recalls. “I was speaking about the roof at the IOG SALTEX show a couple of years ago and Chris was in the audience. Afterwards we got talking and he agreed to loan me his old set of lights and they worked very well.”
The irrigation programme will also need to be altered when it is known how much additional moisture the air conditioning will draw from the grass. The STRI has inserted various probes in the court so moisture readings can be taken during this year’s tournament, and the readings will be compared to those taken last year then the irrigation adjusted accordingly. This year, however, it will be a case of trial and error, based on Eddie’s best judgement: “For instance, it will depend on whether it has been raining and if the roof has been closed all day I will irrigate underneath the roof, put he cover on then open the roof. If it rains overnight, I’ll have to close the roof again in the morning to get the seats dried.”
During the tournament, Eddie will need to adopt an approach that is different to the norm. “Usually, if rain is likely I am on Centre Court with the referee deciding if we put the covers on. We won’t necessarily be able to do that now. If it’s an overcast day, the referee may decide to play with the roof closed to avoid interruptions. That will mean I’ll have to sit outside as I won’t be able to tell if it’s raining or not with the roof closed. This year I’ll probably just have to let them get on with it!”
Everything else has remained much the same, however, including the rye grass seed used on all courts.
For this month’s all-star event, it’s a case of fingers crossed for sun on the Saturday, when the grass courts are opened for members, and rain on the Sunday. “The roof will work, there’s no doubt about that, because it has been exhaustively tested. On the day I will mainly be on Centre Court with tests for moisture and traction taking place before and after play. As we will have TV crews present we can’t interrupt play to carry out tests. Ideally it will rain, but if not we will spray the terraces beforehand and then we’ll just play it by ear. The big test will be the air conditioning; you can’t test that properly until you have 15,000 people in there. We have filled the stadium with smoke, with the roof closed, to check air movement and leaks.
“If it’s an overcast day the roof will be closed and if light levels are low we will have to turn the sports lights on. They are fixed to the roof but we need to test where they are directed. It’s no good if a player looks up to take a shot and is blinded by the lights. We will look to the players for feedback on that. In the next couple of weeks we will string the court out into metre grids and measure the light in each one to check that it is even. We’ve got some experts from the States coming over to do this.”
Asked how he was coping with the pressure of the timescales and media glare, Eddie says he is excited by it all: “It’s something new, so I’m enjoying it. I’ve been here for 19 years and the challenge excites me. It’s another opportunity to show that you can grow grass under difficult conditions.”
That said, he acknowledges it will be nerve ‘racking on the day but he’s ready and the team are ready for the challenge with most of them having seen the project develop from scratch. With five new staff arriving mid-April, four from Myerscough and one who has been on a work exchange in Australia for six months, as well as six from overseas, they will work alongside the existing 15 permanent team members who include two machinery mechanics, a water engineer, 10 grounds team staff as well as Eddie’s Deputy, Mark Sheafer and Senior, Neil Studley.
It’s just as well Eddie enjoys a new challenge because the club is now also considering further modernisations including demolishing the old Number 2 court, now Number 3, to allow for another new outdoor court stadium.
So does the new roof mean that games will run like clockwork now? Unfortunately not, as there are 17 other courts, all uncovered. But it should mean that the TV crews will always have something to show from Centre Court. And that’s good news if you are not a fan of Sir Cliff Richard.