Atop the outer south wall of Center Court at Wimbledon, a small rectangle has been cut into the lush green ivy, revealing a numerical figure that few, if any, of the 42,000 spectators that enter the courts each day of the tournament go unnoticed. .
Similar to the Coastal Warning Slogans, it is a signal system – from 1 to 8 – issued by the Met Department at Wimbledon, for tarpaulin crews to stand up or rush to work. The number “1” means the possibility of taking a shower. The number “2” means that the referee has the discretion to stop the match. On Saturday, when the first drops of rain fell on the already rain-soaked Wimbledon, the signal clicked “4” out of “3.”
Immediately, standing in the last row of No. 3 Court where he could see the digital beacon on center court, Richard “Winston” Sedgwick used a simple hand signal to relay the information to the crew, who scurried into action. A six-member team ran up to the pitch, grabbed the purple ropes to untie an 8,000-square-foot tarpaulin and pulled it over the court in about a minute, as the captain shouted instructions heard all about pitches, similar to rowing teams: “Three, two, one, Pull Up” and “Stay Together. Again!”
“There is pressure to do it right,” Sedgwick said. “If you don’t, they can’t play. So we have to work very hard and very quickly.”
The covered crew members are arguably the most important people at Wimbledon, their quick and precise action protecting the delicate turf, allowing tennis to continue on each of the 18 courts in what is usually the wettest Grand Slam event of the year.
It’s a physical job, requiring a certain degree of sport, and if there’s a day with intermittent showers and the cannabis goes on several times, by the end of that day the material toll leaves the crew “broken,” Sedgwick said.
George Spring, a cattle farmer in New South Wales, Australia, has been the Director of Court Services at Wimbledon for 22 years, overseeing the entire operation. It begins when his wife, Louise, recruits dozens of college students who make up the crews. In all, 200 people work on court services crews over the course of the two-week tournament.
They train for four days before the tournament, including a half day on the court, where they learn and practice how to pull on the tarps, take them off, and prepare the nets and the rest of the court for play once the rain stops.
The movements must be in concert, and the crew rehearses their ballet before the first ball is hit.
“It’s like team sports,” Spring said. “If you have a good leader and good leadership, you will be in good shape.”
Aircrews were particularly important at this Wimbledon Championships, as it stopped raining on five of the first six days. It wreaked havoc on the schedule and forced many players to work on consecutive days, which is never the plan in a two-week event like Wimbledon. During the first six days, 96 matches were suspended, with 34 on Wednesday and 30 on Saturday. Several doubles teams had not even played their first matches by Saturday.
And this isn’t even the wettest Wimbledon – not even close.
“I was here in 2007, which is notorious for rain,” Spring said. “There wasn’t a day when we didn’t pull a lid on the courts.”
The two main arenas, Center Court and No. 1 Court, have retractable roofs, but the crew still spread a larger canvas, requiring 20 people versus the six in the outer courts, while the roofs are closed. Center Court is the only full-time staff club in Wimbledon.
Court services crews arrive at 7:30 am and operate until approximately 10:30 pm each day. Fabrics can be slippery and heavy and people move quickly, so sometimes a crew member would sprain an ankle or pinch a muscle.
On Court No. 1, Elinor Beasley, who grew up in Wales and played tennis at Northern Arizona University (she’s transferring to Youngstown State this fall), has been pulling the tarp for two years.
Last year was mostly sunny, and she found herself hoping for rain just to get in on the action. When he arrived, the adrenaline started pumping.
“I was so nervous,” she said. “The crowd was screaming and I was soaring on my toes. It’s a very exciting and fun experience. It’s the kind of performance I do in front of all these people.”
When she returned to Arizona, she said to her teammates, she said, “You all have to come to Wimbledon. You’re watching the best tennis in the world up close, and it feels like you’re on a team.”
Court services crews are also responsible for other tasks, such as holding umbrellas over players’ heads during change-ups and providing them with towels and drinks, but they can also accommodate other unique requests. A player once ordered a soft drink, Spring said, which is not part of the usual sports hydration fluids available at every stadium. Spring went to the concession stand, bought a soft drink and returned it.
One year, when the bananas available to players were very green, Spring said, he sent a crew member to a Wimbledon grocery store on a bicycle to buy the ripe ones. Rafael Nadal, who hasn’t played this year, likes a certain type of dried date, which he gets spring from the rep on the floor. Saturday night, there was a request for room temperature water.
But the most important task is getting those fabrics in and out of the courts quickly and completely. When the digital beacons (there are a few of them, mounted on either side of Center Court and on the outside walls of Court #1) flash the number “5,” it’s the call to inflate the tarp. After the crew secures the tarp with large clamps, the blowers 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 tarp is not blown at all.
“6” means contraction; Spring said the “7” is an invitation to uncover and roll up the tarp, which can weigh two tons when wet. When it’s secured, the number “8” will flash, meaning it’s time to dress the courts – replace the nets, set up the chairs and distribute towels and drinks to the players.
Colorful ropes wrapped inside the rolled up tarp make it even simpler. Crew members pull the purple ones to unwrap them in the rain and the green ones to unwrap them again when the sky is clear. The entire detection process, including network creation, takes approximately 10 to 15 minutes.
At night, the crew put the tarps back on. On Saturday, play was suspended on all outdoor courts due to rain. When it stopped, the crew pulled up the tarps again, but only for less than an hour. The tarp pullers were so effective at keeping the field dry that the lawn had to be watered at the end of the day.
Spring said that in all his years, there were a few times when malfunctions caused delays of an hour or so, but not a full day.
“Maybe that’s why I’m still here,” he said.
And at Wimbledon, so does the rain.