By Paul McElhinney
Arriving in late-autumnal London and making my way up Church Road to the gates of Wimbledon, pleasant memories of past Wimbledons came flooding back. Instead of the milling crowds and the buzz of excitement surrounding The Championships’ fortnight of mid-summer, this was a more sedate and relaxed time, a time perhaps more suited to a reflective discussion on the great event that is Wimbledon and the All England Club itself.
What is often forgotten amidst all the enthusiasm of the annual Championships fortnight is the fact that the location, the All England Club, is very much a living and thriving club with all the challenges faced daily (albeit on a larger scale) of any other tennis club. To tennis fans worldwide, Wimbledon is the veritable Mecca. Whatever is said of the ‘parity of esteem’ among all four of the Grand Slam locations (Melbourne, Roland Garros and Flushing Meadow), most would acknowledge in their heart of heats that Wimbledon is ‘primus inter pares’.
Its history, tradition, authority and influence are unrivaled and the world tennis public looks to Wimbledon for leadership on the developing issues in the world game. Furthermore, its ability to combine respect for tradition and support for and encouragement of modernizing trends, means it remains at the hub of the world game: a comforting paternal presence and a dynamic influence combined.
It was in this context that I had the opportunity to meet Martin Guntrip, Club Secretary of the All England Club to discuss issues concerning the Championships and the Club itself. Arriving at the Club, I walked up the steps to the entrance area in front of Centre Court to see Kipling’s famous ‘If’ inscribed above the lintel – the set of ‘guiding principles’ of The Championships. Ushered into Martin’s office by his charming assistant, Kelly Revill (who put so much effort into scheduling the meeting), I was also introduced to Johnny Perkins, the Club’s PR executive and to Martin himself.
Wrapping my hands around a welcome cup of coffee, I ran my eyes around Martin’s crisp and efficient office, notable for its tennis memorabilia (old wooden tennis racquet on a pedestal, assorted photos and the Rolex clock on the wall, a testament to their role as Official Timekeeper of The Championships.
Martin, open, affable and media-savvy, opened with some reminiscences on his previous career in professional tennis which included winning the Men’s Doubles in 1984 at the Irish Open in Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club, Dublin (incidentally, the author’s home club). Having reached No.9 in Great Britain in his prime, some tour event wins under his belt, a long-time active member of the All England Club and an impressive background in the corporate world, he holds the ideal track-record for the role of Club Secretary.
Our discussion then followed a traditional interview format as follows:
PM Martin, Wimbledon manages to combine both respect for tradition and an accommodation to modernizing trends – how do you see the Championships evolving over the next decade or more?
MG The Club is currently engaged in working on a new framework ‘Wimbledon 2020’, which will form the vision for the next 15-20 years. Much has already been achieved under the old long term plan, which was completed in 2011 including major elements such as the Centre Court retractable roof; construction of new Nos 2 and 3 Courts; work on surrounding areas to the courts to improve spectator comfort and access; Club office development; and an all-new Museum. The next stage of improvements under the Wimbledon 2020 banner has involved the engagement of master planners with a brief to look at all aspects of the Club in a holistic way with no untouchable ‘sacred cows’ (with the exception of the iconic Centre Court and Courts 1-3). The plan will also be mindful of the interests of all our key stakeholders: spectators; members; debenture holders; broadcasters; sponsors, suppliers. Very much at the heart of future developments will be a ‘green’ sustainability element with the concept of ‘Tennis in an English Garden’ as a centrepiece.
PM With the wave of enthusiasm for sport generally generated by the 2012 London Olympics (to which tennis made a signal contribution), how do you see tennis now being positioned beside other sports in the market to attract a finite sport-playing and sport-viewing public?
MG The men’s game has never been better placed with such strong competition at the top of the game now (Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, Murray). In Britain, the recent success of Andy Murray has given a boost to the game nationally. Similarly, the success of Jonny Marray in this year’s Championship Men’s Doubles has helped lift the game here. The Ladies’ game is also in very good shape, particularly in Britain which hasn’t witnessed the kinds of successes of Laura Robson and Heather Watson in a long time.
The Olympics were clearly a major boost to tennis in Britain with a major post-Olympics ‘bounce’ evident here. The LTA would be more directly responsible for the development side of the British game, but the All England also plays its part. Prior to the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) visited the Wimbledon site and gave its seal of approval to the location and facilities which ultimately, proved a great success. We were pleased to have played a part in that success.
PM For many years, the BBC and Wimbledon have maintained a mutually productive relationship to the benefit of the tennis-viewing public. Is that ‘ring-fenced’ relationship set to continue for the foreseeable future and what might be the role of competing media in Wimbledon coverage into the future?
MG Yes, that relationship continues to be a mutually productive one. Our existing contract with the BBC is set to conclude in 2017 which is also the year in which the BBC’s license fee is up for renewal. An example of the popular and media appeal of The Championships is the telling statistic this year of 16.9 million viewers for the Men’s Singles final between Murray and Federer. Our long-standing relationship with the BBC has inevitably led to a natural ‘closeness’, not least due to the fact that many of the commentators are also Club members themselves. In relation to coverage of The Championships, we have ongoing discussions with the BBC as the issues arise.
PM In terms of media coverage of the Championship and links with the media, how significant has been the role of the new social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc? Have you noticed any ‘digital divide’ between older and younger people’s facility with these new media?
MG Yes, we are very much engaged in the use and promotion of the new social media as part of our work. Indicative of this has been the appointment of a full-time, dedicated Digital Editorial Content Manager. We are very conscious of the importance of attracting younger audiences. For example, indicators of the success of our social media efforts have been the recent statistic of 1.5 million I-Phone Wimbledon app downloads so far and almost 1 million Facebook friends on our account.
PM There is much use nowadays of the marketing term ‘the brand.’ Wimbledon itself is a distinctive ‘brand.’ What efforts does the club go to promote and protect that brand?
MG Yes, we are very conscious of Wimbledon’s strong brand and seek to protect and promote that brand. By way of illustration, top businessman, Sir Martin Sorell, Chairman of WPP has been quoted as saying that after the Olympics and the football World Cup, Wimbledon has the third strongest sports brand in the world (few would argue with that- PM). With such a strong brand, clearly comes the responsibility of promoting it wisely.
PM Could you talk a little about the AELTC’s ‘outreach’ activities in relation for example to: interaction with other clubs (UK and international), development of the game in the UK (chiefly the youth game), dealings with sponsors and other stakeholders in the Championships?
MG Among the outreach activities of the All England Club is the promotion of a Schools Initiative We work closely with schools in the nearby London Boroughs of Merton and Wimbledon to develop interest and skills among schoolchildren. The most promising schoolchildren are invited to play at the Club and to partake in squads, an initiative designed to give young people a focus and help build character. We have also worked closely with your own club, Paul, Fitzwilliam, by participating in an annual event involving young players travelling outside their home base to play against and interact with youngsters of different backgrounds. Indeed, our Head Coach, Dan Bloxham recently returned from such an event in Dublin which received very positive feedback from participants.
We also organize an HSBC ‘Road to Wimbledon’ National 14 and Under Challenge tournament, open to clubs and schools, which has proven very popular and has produced some excellent talent in the past. Not part of the Championships itself, it is funded by the Club members.
We also have strong links with the game in China with many young Chinese players coming over to the Club. We are also considering developing relations with the game at youth level in India. We also help in the development of literacy and numeracy skills through the Education Department by organizing school visits, all as part of our outreach activities.
PM – Regarding the demographic base of the AELTC’s membership, roughly what proportions of the membership are: London/Home Counties v Rest of UK and Rest of the World; male/female; senior/full/junior members?
MG We have three broad categories of membership: Full Members; Honorary Members and Temporary Members. Given our geographical location, many of our members live within a reasonable radius, but obviously, with a lot of ex-Champions as Honorary Members, many also live abroad. Ex-Champions who are selected for Honorary Membership do not pay a fee and may attend (but not vote) at Club meetings. Singles Champions do not receive Honorary Membership as a matter of course, but have to be invited. In practice, this is usually just a formality. Our Temporary Members tend to be young, most of whom eventually become full Members. Also, in order to avoid any confusion about our status as a club, we see ourselves as very much an ordinary tennis club based on talent and merit.
PM Wimbledon stands out as one of very few tournaments still played on grass as most clubs have transferred to more all-weather surfaces. Is the All England Club involved in any initiatives to maintain and promote the grass game nationally and internationally? How strong is the grass game in the UK at a club level currently?
MG Yes, we take the development of the grass game very seriously. In that connection, we were very pleased at the decision that in future, there will be a 3-week break between Roland Garros and Wimbledon to allow for pre-Wimbledon grass tournament play. We are pleased to see a recent renaissance of grass and note the continued support for grass internationally (in parts of the US, for example).
We also spend a lot of money on research and development into grass quality and seed technology. Over 2-3 years, under our Sports Turf Research programme we looked at the whole issue. This resulted in us being able to laying down a pre-germinated grass surface between Wimbledon and the Olympics this year, which proved very successful in restoring the presentation of the courts in only 20 days..
PM In terms of Club facilities, could you confirm the total number of courts (grass and hard); no. of squash courts; no. of ground staff and other facilities?
MG The Club has 41 grass courts, 8 HarTru courts, 2 hard and 5 indoor courts, We have 20 ground staff, a total that is supplemented in and around the time of the Championships. Our Head Groundsman is Mr. Neil Stubley.
PM Is it simply a myth or does a women’s doubles play a match on the Centre Court immediately before the Championships to ‘break in’ the Court?
MG In fact, we carry on that tradition not just on Centre Court but also Nos 1, 2 and 3 Courts each year. We use it as an opportunity for a dress rehearsal for the Chair and Line Umpires, ballboys/girls and to do a test run for the Hawkeye and scoreboard technology.
PM Chair and Line Umpires – are these nominated by respective tennis federations?
MG These are nominated by the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
PM Ballboys/girls – are these still recruited from local schools and can you describe the training they undertake?
MG Yes, a number of schools from surrounding areas send pupils to participate as ballboys/ballgirls at The Championships. Selection is rigorous and the training intense, commencing as early as the previous February (fuller information set out in 2012 press release).
PM Regarding the retractable roof on Centre Court, is there a potential technical engineering solution to speed up the process to minimize further delays in matches resuming play?
MG In fact, the closing of the roof itself only takes 8 minutes. Setting the correct temperature/humidity levels for the court is what takes more time, anything between 10-25 minutes. The other factor that can add to the timings is trying to assemble players back to court who may have wandered ‘away from base’.
PM Are there any plans for a similar roof for No.1 Court?
MG` It is on the agenda, but because of the different dynamics of No.1 Court, we have to look at the feasibility.
PM Late night tennis has become a feature of the international game (Wimbledon included – notably, The Championships 2012 highlighting this). Recognizing the imperatives of local authority regulations and the concerns of local communities, what are the future prospects for applying reasonable, flexible guidelines so that late night play (where necessary) can proceed without disruptions?
MG Like any public event, we are subject to local authority regulations and by-laws. Probably the biggest concerns over night play from the Club’s perspective are the effect on our neighbours and the danger of over-use of the grass surface ,which would cause damage over time. The right balance would obviously be one of maximum use and minimum damage. We certainly do not envisage playing matches well after 11.00pm, which is the agreed cut-off time. Another concern is ensuring spectators get home at a decent hour. We have a form of roof protocol and, at the moment it is ultimately a decision for The Championships’ referee at what time to stop play.
PM It is a long way off, but are there any long term plans to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Championships in 2027?
MG We will probably have some special event in 2027.
PM The membership of the Centenary Tennis Clubs is conspicuous by the absence of the All England Club. Are there any plans for the All England Club to join?
MG No, we don’t have any plans to join the CTC, although we do have regular contacts and associations with many clubs around the world. .
PM Martin, during your professional tennis career, you were a winner, inter alia, of the Men’s Doubles at the Irish Open and you have been a strong supporter of the annual Sterry Cup encounters between Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Club and the All England Club. How popular is this fixture from the AELTC’s membership’s perspective and how do you see it developing in the future?
MG Yes, I have many pleasant memories of my times in Dublin, in particular the hospitality. Winning the Men’s Doubles at the Irish Open in 1984 was a special memory, in particular as one of my opponents was a then World Top-40 player, Matt Doyle. Over the years, I have also participated in the annual Sterry Cup matches between the All England Club and Fitzwilliam and through which I have managed to forge many fruitful, long-standing contacts. These annual encounters are always very popular and closely-contested. Long may they continue.
In relation to Grand Slam events, Martin mentioned further that each event organizes its own Championships, but also referred to the Grand Slam Committee which seeks to coordinate on issues of mutual interest. There is a Grand Slam Development Fund which seeks to support and develop players of talent across the world.
Having thoroughly exhausted Martin with my interminable questions, it was at this point I took my leave for a tour of the Centre Court and the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum. The Centre Court out of season takes on a different aspect and looks more compact than on TV, although with its 15,000 capacity is still awe-inspiring. Outside The Championships, the roof remains open all the time to allow nature take its course by exposing the court to the necessary sun and rain nutrients.
The Museum is very well worth a visit, very manageable and including a film: a great visit for all tennis aficionados out there. Of special note is an exhibit including former Wimbledon ‘enfant terrible’ John McEnroe, who appears as a virtual hologram in a white linen suit delivering comments in his usual trenchant way. His prominent inclusion in the Museum, I felt, was a strong testament to British tolerance and sense of fair play!
Visiting the Club, you realize the mammoth challenge involved in managing not only the annual Championships but also a club of this scale from day-to-day. With an excellent pedigree in the game himself, a clear love of the game and as part of an excellent team, Martin Guntrip is well-placed to continue to help the All England Club to face and overcome the many challenges in the coming years.