High atop the outer south wall of Centre 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 entering the grounds each day of the tournament ever notice.
Similar to coastal warning pennants, it is a signal system — from 1 to 8 — issued from Wimbledon’s own crack meteorology department, for the tarpaulin crews to standby or rush into action. A “1” means possible showers. A “2” means the chair umpire has the discretion to halt the match. On Saturday, when the first rain drops fell on an already rain-soaked Wimbledon, the signal clicked to “4” from “3.”
Instantly, Richard “Winston” Sedgwick, standing on the last row of Court No. 3, where he could see across to the digital beacon on Centre Court, used a simple hand signal to relay the information to the crews, which rushed to action. A six-member team ran onto the court, grabbed purple cords to unwrap a 8,000-square-foot tarpaulin and hauled it over the court in about one minute, with the captains shouting out instructions heard all about the grounds, similar to rowing teams: “Three, two, one, pull,” and “Stay together. Again!”
“There’s 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 swift, 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 is a physical job, requiring a certain degree of athleticism, and if there is a day with intermittent showers and the tarp goes on and off several times, by the end of that day, the physical toll renders the crews “shattered,” Sedgwick said.
George Spring, a cattle farmer in New South Wales, Australia, has been Wimbledon’s court services manager for 22 years, overseeing the entire process. It begins when his wife, Louise, recruits the several dozen university students who form the crews. In all, 200 people work on the court services crews over the two-week tournament.
They train for four days before the tournament, including a pair of half days on court, where they learn and practice how to pull the tarps on, take them off, and set up the nets and the rest of the court for play once the rain stops.
Movements must be in concert, and the crews rehearse their ballet well before the first ball is struck.
“It’s like sporting teams,” Spring said. “If you’ve got a good captain and good leadership, you’ll be in good shape.”
The crews have been especially important at this Wimbledon, where rain has interrupted five of the first six days. It has created havoc with the schedule and forced many players to work on 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 had not even played their first matches by Saturday.
And this is not even the rainiest Wimbledon — not even close.
“I was here in 2007, where it was famous for rain,” Spring said. “There wasn’t a day we didn’t pull a cover on the courts.”
The two main show courts, Centre Court and No. 1 Court, have retractable roofs, but the crews still deploy even larger tarps, requiring 20 people vs. the six on the outer courts, while the roofs are closing. Centre Court is the only one with full-time Wimbledon employees on the job.
The court services crews arrive at 7:30 a.m. and work until about 10:30 p.m. each day. Tarps can be slippery and heavy and people are moving fast, so occasionally a crew member sprains an ankle or tweaks a muscle.
On No. 1 Court, Elinor Beazley, who grew up in Wales and played tennis for Northern Arizona University (she is transferring to Youngstown State this fall), has been pulling the tarp for two years.
Last year was a mostly sunny affair, and she found herself hoping for rain just to get into the action. When it arrived, the adrenaline began to pump.
“I was so nervous,” she said. “The crowd was screaming and I was getting really bubbly on my toes. It’s so exciting and such a fun experience. It’s a bit of a performance doing it in front of all those people.”
When she got back to Arizona, she said, she told her teammates, “All of you need to come to Wimbledon. You watch the best tennis in the world up close, and it’s like being on a team.”
The court services crews are also responsible for other tasks, like holding umbrellas over the heads of the players during changeovers and providing them with towels and drinks, but they can fulfill other unique requests, too. Spring said that a player once asked for a soft drink, which is not part of the usual sports-hydration liquids available on each court. Spring went to the concession stand, bought a soda and brought it back.
One year, when the bananas kept 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 procure ripe ones. Rafael Nadal, who did not play this year, likes a particular kind of dried date, which Spring gets from the commissary on the grounds. On Saturday night, there was a request for room-temperature water.
But the most important job is getting those tarps on and off the courts quickly and completely. When the digital beacons (there are a few, posted on both sides of Centre Court and on the outer walls of No. 1 Court) flashes a “5,” it is the call to inflate the tarp. After a crew has secured the tarp with large clips, blowers inflate it from the corners. Within seconds a dome, 6 feet high in the center, is formed, like a giant bouncy castle. If the rain is expected to pass quickly, the tarp is not inflated at all.
A “6” means deflate; “7” is the call to uncover and roll up the tarp, which can weigh two tons when it is wet, Spring said. When it is secured, an “8” will flash, which means it is time to dress the courts — replace the nets, set up the chairs and distribute the towels and drinks for the players.
Colored cords wrapped inside the rolled-up tarp make it all much simpler. The crew members pull purple ones to unfurl the tarp in the rain and green ones to roll it back up when the skies clear. The entire uncovering process, including setting up the nets, takes roughly 10 to 15 minutes.
At night, the crews put the tarps back on again. On Saturday, play was suspended on all of the outer courts because of the rain. When it stopped, the crews pulled the tarps off again, but only for less than an hour. The tarp pullers were so efficient in keeping the court 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 where malfunctions caused delays of an hour or so, but never for a whole day.
“That is probably why I’m still here,” he said.
And at Wimbledon, so is the rain.