• Paul Rutherford

ZEN TENNIS

Alan Watts described himself as a 'philosophical entertainer'; read-widely, listened to, and followed during the 1960s counter-culture movement in California. Watts was an early bridge between the west and Asiatic beliefs, especially Zen Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism.


Unexpectedly, he came to mind during Wimbledon fortnight. (At least he was a break from the Boris Johnson circus.)


In The Nature of Change, Watts gives an example of the University of California, but the specific doesn't matter.

"A university - what is it? The students change every four years; the faculty changes, at a somewhat slower rate; the buildings change - they knock them down and put up new ones; the administration changes. So, what is a university?
"It's a pattern. A doing of a particular kind."

A doing like a tennis Championship. A doing that appears to embody tradition but is in constant flux.


Ts&Cs

The Wimbledon Championships is a business - a doing - run by AELTC, itself a subsidiary of the All-England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. (It started as a croquet club in 1870 and added 'tennis' seven years later. Oh, the wisdom in hindsight.)


With a total membership of just 565, the AELT&C is one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. Its membership is divided into five categories: full, life, honorary, temporary and junior temporary.


With only 375 full members, one of the easiest ways to join the 152-year old tennis club in southwest London is to win the Championship it runs. Failing that, marry a British prince.


Duchess of Cambridge, Patron AELTC

The Wimbledon Championships has a jarring juxtaposition: On the one hand, a tournament with global reach in an ever-changing world; at the same time it is elitist - and consistent.


Whether it's wearing whites on court, eating strawberries and cream on Henman Hill, or heading to the bar at Pimm's O'Clock, Wimbledon is always the same.


Philip Brook, the previous Chair of the club, once shared ‘The List’ as an insight into how the Championships work. In 2017 there were 1,500 items on it, ensuring excellence in everything. The alignment of the site’s benches in relationship to each other, the height of the grass on the courts, even the shade of the petunias in the flower baskets were all on ‘The List’.


But as any change consultant will tell you, stay the same, and eventually you die - organizationally or individually.

The Queue

Consider these figures: In 1968, the attendance to the Championships was 276,270. This year, even with the apparent slow start of empty seats, it generated its highest-ever figure: 515,164.


What changed?


MONEY

Back to the 1870s, it was the All-England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club that had established the sport’s rules, including that its competitions would be for amateurs only. Nearly a century later, it was the AELTC that had abolished the rule.


In the autumn of 1967, the club’s chairman, Herman David, denounced amateurism as a “living lie” and declared that in the future Wimbledon would be allow professional competitors.


The Open era was born. And the quality of play rose.

First Wimbledon Champions of the Open era
Billy Jean Moffat King and Rod Laver 1968

Taking inflation into account, the 1968 men's champion, Rod Laver, received the equivalent of £30,000. Billie Jean King, who won the ladies' singles, won the equivalent of £11,000.


(When Laver won his first amateur Wimbledon in 1961, in lieu of prize money he received a tie.)


MORE MONEY

Also in 1968, a lawyer-cum-talent agent called Mark McCormack signed his first tennis client: Rod Laver. McCormack had seen the value in associating brands with sport stars, and that winning tournaments was a step to their income, not an end in itself.


As the founder of IMG, he signed Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Björn Borg, Pete Sampras and Monica Seles. He negotiated the Wimbledon Championships' TV contracts, provided corporate hospitality services, and helped sign Rolex as a sponsor. Eventually, McCormack represented AELTC and the BBC.

To be accurate, McCormack and Rolex weren't the first on the Wimbledon dance card. Slazenger became the official supplier of the balls to the tournament in 1907 - 'the longest partnership in sporting goods history.'


There are now 14 Official Suppliers, the newest one joining this year.


TECHNOLOGY

On 1 July 1967 the first official colour television broadcast happened - four hours live coverage of the Wimbledon Championships, shown on BBC Two. Which, eventually, brings Slazenger back into the picture:


The tennis balls used were traditionally white but were switched to yellow in 1986 to make them stand out for colour television.

The most notable change came with the electronic review system, Hawk-Eye. It allows players to challenge line calls. It was implemented by Wimbledon in 2007 and is used on Centre Court, Court One, plus courts two, three, 12 and 18.


That also meant the scoreboards had to change. Centre Court and Court One had electric scoreboards from the 1920s, they have been regularly updated over the years with the current video boards being introduced in 2008.


In 1968, all the outside courts had manual scoreboards, operated by ball boys (ball girls were introduced in 1977). Electronic scoreboards became standard across the grounds in 2013.


EVEN MONEY

Billie Jean King, a 12-time Grand Slam singles champion, pioneered and fought for gender equality in tennis, eventually helping to achieve another breakthrough: equal pay at the Grand Slams.


In 2007, Wimbledon offered women and men equal prize money for the first time, sums which have continued to rise at SW19.


This year, Novak Djokovic and Elena Rybakina took home £2m each.

 Novak Djokovic and Elena Rybakina
Singles Champions 2022

Technically, financially, politically, Wimbledon has kept changing while maintaining a surface of quasi-Victorian gentility (the age from which wearing whites became the norm - because 'working people' wouldn't be able to keep whites clean.)


MORE OR LESS?

To a sporadic viewer, a one-time ballot winner - that's me! - AELTC and the Wimbledon Championships seem to be at a crossroads. The path so far has been taken with considerable skill and a lot of foresight. This year, the highest-ever attendance figures. This year. the top players still came, despite the ATP and WTA holding back ranking points, a response to the Russia-Belarus exclusion.


At the same time, all the available research shows less tennis participation. Despite the multiple attempts by the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) to promote the sport "from grassroots participation through to the professional game".


Sport England’s survey of the nation’s sporting habits shows that tennis has shrunk by 28 percent, 2016-21.


Professionally, there are just three Brits in the ATP Top 100 men (one of whom we imported), and two women in the WTA Top 100.


Is something wrong with this picture?


MONEY MONEY MONEY

Wimbledon is the LTA’s sugar daddy, in an arrangement that runs until 2053. Of the 19 members on the AELTC committee delivering the Grand Slam, seven are from the LTA. In return, the LTA receives 90 per cent of profits from the tournament to spend on the wider development of the game. Last year, that was £39.5m.


Open to the world, exclusive to membership. Supporters of the many (through the LTA), entered by the few. Those with money or those with connections.


But despite its best efforts, the AELTC can't operate in isolation. It's a closed shop that is part of a wider world.


Even with its niche proposition of grass courts, there is no God-given right to be considered a 'Grand Slam' event - a term from contract bridge when winning all possible tricks. (It was first used when Bobby Jones won the four 'main' golf tournaments in 1930 - US and UK, Open and Amateur.)

Wimbledon Centre Court

Wimbledon and the other three must look at each other's capacity (Australia: Melbourne stadia 43,830; France: Roland Garros stadia 30,068; USA: Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadia 37,700; UK: Wimbledon stadia 27,324) and over their collective shoulders:


China (Beijing capacity 31,000; nationally, 15 tennis stadia so far) and the Middle East (Saudi Arabia funding LIV, the breakaway golf tour. Qatar about to host the 2022 Football World Cup - from a standing start.)


Here's some further context: on the tennis tour roster there are currently 53 ATP Men's tournaments, 53 WTA Women's tournaments. Plus exhibition tournaments. And look at the partial, but still long, list of tournaments that came with a bang and quietly disappeared. For example ATP Buzios (Brazil) 1991-92; ATP Osaka (Japan) 1993-94; The South African Open 2009-11).


Wimbledon has history on its side, and beneath its strawberry and Slazenger surface the embracing of change. But that doesn't guarantee the future.


To keep its place, Wimbledon aims to expand.

A WALK TO THE PARK

Across the road - literally - from the All-England’s facilities is the 73-acre, 120-year old Wimbledon Park Golf Club. Ten years ago, the tennis executives made a bid to buy the land. The 758 members rejected an exploratory takeover offer.


In 2015, a £25m bid was rejected by 58% of the members.


(The All England had already bought the freehold from Merton Borough Council for £5.2m in 1993. When the golf club’s lease was due to expire, in 2041, the land would become the All England’s forever. Apparently, that wasn't soon enough.)


In 2018, the All England upped the stakes to £50m, before making its "best and final" £65m bid. And in that December, the golf club members voted 82% in favour of selling, and collected their individual £85,000 payouts.


The All England intends to build its Parkland Show Court in a 28-metre-high, 8,000 seat-stadium, extra facilities and 37 further courts for practice and the qualifying tournament, to 'complete the Wimbledon experience'.

Wimbledon Park Golf Club (top left)

However, the parkland is Grade II* registered, designated as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation, and an official Open Space. Many of the trees, which date back to the original work done by landscape architect Capability Brown, are protected.


A good walk was spoiled 120 years ago. A golf course is hardly the most natural use of land and space. Why does 'repurposing' cause such offence? It's hardly going to be a multi-story carpark with a nuclear reactor.


The local opposition is unimpressed by the AELTC plans. Since the beginning of this year, more than 1,200 people have made formal objections to council planning officers. In several respects, the tennis club does not have a leg to stand on — it’s protected open parkland and there is a legal covenant which the All-England signed in 1993.


Ian Hewitt, the All-England chair, writes: “I am sure you can appreciate that the requirements of the club and the community have developed in the resulting 28 years and that the AELTC has needed to work to ensure that the Championships remain a pre-eminent tennis tournament...


[The proposed new courts are] “vital to the future of Wimbledon – to the Championships, to the people of Wimbledon, and to tennis in the UK and globally. We need to deliver on these aspirations in order to maintain Wimbledon’s position at the pinnacle of the sport.”

But why does Wimbledon matter anyway?


It certainly matters to the 565 members. It matters annually to the 650+ participants. It matters to a lot of people for two weeks each year. It matters to Federer fans and Brit hopers. It probably matters to other clubs around the country, perhaps around the rest of the tennis-playing world.


And it might matter to the political classes, who see The Championships as a weapon in our "soft power" arsenal.


But does it matter to the people of Aber Avon (Dewar Cup 1968-1973), Bristol (Open 1881-1989), Chichester (WTA Tournament 1970-80)?

Would you be on Wimbledon's side or the residents' and environmentalists'?


ZEN TENNIS

Which brings me back to Alan Watts. He makes the point that "change is just too bad. Everything flows away, and there's a kind of sadness in that, a kind of nostalgia there, and maybe a rage."

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas 1914-53


Watts continues: "You must resist the change to some extent. There must be some resistance; that is a manifestation of form. We are terribly aware of time. We will be replaced by others."


On either side of whatever net, we must resist while we can.


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