Wimbledon in Sh128bn race to be tennis top dog

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It is a facilities arms race between tennis’s Grand Slams whose overall cost has run into billions, and Sunday’s unveiling of Wimbledon’s new Court One represents a further escalation.

It has taken nearly three years and features 11 giant trusses weighing 100 tonnes each, but the All England Club can now boast a second arena able to withstand the capriciousness of the British summer.

John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova and Venus Williams will be among those taking to the pristine lawn for Sunday’s test event, 10 years after Centre Court became similarly insured against the rain.

According to senior Club sources, the cost of this latest project and the refurbishment of the secondary arena has been around £200million. Unlike its more historic big brother, the circular Court One is only 22 years old.

The new roof is a consequence of the competition between the sport’s four majors, who have all made massive recent investments to upgrade themselves for players and spectators alike.

Now more than ever the quartet are the pillars of the sport, generating huge sums and able to offer prize money such as that at Wimbledon this year, which will total £34m. The healthy striving for excellence can be dated back to 1988, when the Australian Open moved to Melbourne Park, a venue that had a roof over Rod Laver Arena.

This blazed the trail, and it now has three courts with a roof. The US Open’s Flushing Meadows has two since last August, the huge Arthur Ashe Stadium being added to by the covered Louis Armstrong Stadium in a span of just two years.

Back in the Eighties, the Australian was very much the poor relation of the four, although that is emphatically no longer the case. Regularly voted as the players’ favourite event, it attracted 780,000 fans this year.

Tennis Australia have also extended their sphere of influence in the world game, having an interest in Roger Federer’s Laver Cup and now hosting the new ATP Cup team competition next January. The All England Club have been unnerved by their antipodean rival, and relations have become strained between the two over political issues in the game.

If a weaker link has emerged it is the French Open, the cradle of clay court tennis. It has faced a struggle to expand amid complex planning issues at its home in Paris’s plush 16th arrondissement. They have, however, launched a fightback and this year will unveil a stunning third arena built into neighbouring botanic gardens.

Sunk into the ground and surrounded by a greenhouse effect to blend in with surroundings, the Court Simonne Mathieu will house 5,000 fans. The main Court Philippe Chatrier should have a roof in the next two years.

The quest for pre-eminence is the reason why Wimbledon has paid £65m to members of its neighbouring golf club to reclaim early the lease it already owns. One of the long-term ambitions of the All England Club is to build a sizeable third arena.

At present, Court One will seat 12,345 fans but the next court down is Number Two, which can house 4,000. The acquisition of extra land means they are already within sight of achieving the aim of bringing the qualifying tournament ‘in house’ from Roehampton, catching up with the three others on this front. There will also be talks with the separate Wimbledon Club, which owns outright its nine acres across the road.

Wimbledon certainly does not lack for financial resources, and their last accounts recorded the Championships’ turnover at more than £250m. In HSBC they have a grateful sponsor happy to lend against such a consistent stream of income.

While the courts remain unbranded, apart from a few relatively discreet logos, they have become as voraciously commercial as any major sports event. Only last month, for example, they announced a deal with Chinese company Oppo to become the ‘official smartphone’ of The Championships.

Sunday’s event, which will also feature musical performances, will benefit homeless charities through the Wimbledon Foundation along with a silent auction.

Hopefully there will one day be a decent quotient of homegrown players to feature on the court, but it tells you a lot about the British game that Wimbledon now has two roofs for every GB female in the world’s singles top 100.

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