Roof can't come soon enough at Wimbledon

6/26/2006 - Tennis

WIMBLEDON, England -- None of his 41 previous grass-court opponents had managed to find a way to solve Roger Federer's game on his favorite surface, leaving it to the elements to step into the breach on a wet opening day at Wimbledon.

Federer got through just 35 minutes of his first-round match Monday against France's Richard Gasquet, leading 6-3, 1-2, when a soft mist began falling on a cool, overcast day.

A Federer win would push him past Bjorn Borg to establish a new Open era record for consecutive grass-court victories with 42 straight. His last loss on grass came here in 2002 at the hands of Croatian qualifier Mario Ancic, now the No. 7 seed and a possible quarterfinal opponent for the world No. 1.

The precipitation increased in volume throughout the afternoon, turning the All England Lawn Tennis Club into a rain-slickened shopping mall, one sure to fill the coffers of the club but forcing many to go to Plan B, with so little tennis played on the first day of The Championships.

All told, only 18 of 64 scheduled matches got under way before play finally was abandoned just after 7:20 p.m. local time. The 46 other first-round matches were postponed but Tuesday's forecast also calls for showers, which will make it difficult to get in a full complement of matches.

It was with days like these in mind that the tournament committee hatched plans to construct a retractable roof over Centre Court, scheduled to be completed in time for the 2009 Championships.

That process will begin in earnest shortly after this year's tournament is finished, as the existing Centre Court roof will be removed and the east side of the arena demolished. That will mean no roof at all for the 2007 Championships, but even southeast England enjoys a respite from the wet stuff once in a while. One can only hope that late June-early July of next year is just such an occasion.

Phase two of the project will see the installation of the fixed element of the new roof, slated to be in place for the 2008 tournament.

The third and final phase, to take place between the 2008 and 2009 tournaments, is scheduled to see the completion of the retractable, translucent roof; and the installation of all-new, wider seats and what the club calls "climate-control," which sounds suspiciously like air-conditioning. Or, on a 57-degree day like today, central heating.

Though the AELTC has not released any dollar figures, the project is likely to cost several hundred million dollars and be fully operational in time for the 2009 tournament. Capacity on Centre Court will be 15,000 in lieu of the present 13,798.

It all can't come soon enough for water-logged players, fans, media and tournament officials, with Wimbledon interrupted by rain for the 11th consecutive year. But Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam tournament with an off-day on the middle Sunday, so officials are used to facing thorny scheduling issues when the weather comes calling.

England's Tim Henman, competing in his 13th Wimbledon, is as used to the vagaries of English summer weather as any player. He told the Associated Press, "I've had my share of rain delays over the years. It's just a question of being patient and making sure you're ready to go. It can clear up so quickly and 10, 15 minutes later, you've got to be out on court."

Somehow, though, every year the matches get squeezed in, the strawberries and Pimms get consumed and most everyone goes home happy. Federer certainly hopes that's the case for the fourth consecutive year -- that is, if the London skies and the state of his game permit.

Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at lobsandvolleys@yahoo.com.