7 July 2002

Brough Scott says the grass courts at Halle may be protected, but the All England Club are unlikely to follow suit

Udo Hardieck is the technical director of the Halle grass court tournament, which this year Pete Sampras chose for his pre-Wimbledon warm-up. Halle, in German Westphalia, has a roof over its stadium. “When I look at Wimbledon, says Udo, “I just don’t understand why they don’t do it.”

The statement immediately ignites an old bushfire of spectator rage, for which the All England Club are now so ready that they rush out two PR-prepared pages to try to snuff it out. It gets more difficult each year, and as Tim Henman and Lleyton Hewitt came off court on Friday to leave an exasperated crowd watching the rain, Hardieck’s words crackled in the memory.

“When the weather is looking bad,” said Hardieck, “we consult with the ATP official. On his signal we contact a man who presses a button and the roof closes in 28 seconds. We have being doing it for seven years. We did have some problems with the surface and with the micro-climate but with improved technology there is no reason why you should not put a roof on a grass court anywhere.”

Memories of those 17 young sweats hauling the covers on to the Centre Court as if they were training for the Royal Tournament add to the relevance of the advice from our German friend. “Of course the grass sweating can be a problem but while we can’t cool the stadium we can heat it to avoid an atmospheric imbalance. Believe me, it is possible.”

When you hear senior commentator Gerry Williams saying on radio that he has been calling for it for 10 years, that it is only a matter of time and that Halle’s groundsman is the son of Jim Thorn, the long-time Wimbledon grasskeeper, you imagine that the change has to be imminent.

Indeed Tim Phillips, the chairman of the All England Club and The Championships, admits to the possibility. He said: “We owe it to tennis fans to investigate all the possibilities for play to take place even when it is raining. At the same time we must have positive answers to a number of vital questions and above all else, it is essential that neither player safety nor the grass growth on any of the courts is affected by such a structure. We continue to carry out experiments that might give us the solution to these potential pitfalls and only when we have these answers will we be in a position to decide whether or not this is the best way forward.”

It’s a skilful statement but it does not convince that doyen of tennis writers, John Parsons, that a roof is on its way. “Halle have had all sorts of problems,” he scoffs. “Even this year, Yevgeny Kafelnikov’s match had to stop because the grass got too slippery. Wimbledon’s courts have to stand up to four times the amount of play. If you want a grass tournament you have to have our system.”

Spectators and television schedulers may continue to shake their heads in fury, but the odds still looked stacked against them.

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