High on the outer south wall of Center 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 by Wimbledon’s own crack meteorology department, for the preband crews to stand by or rush into action. “1” means possible rains. “2” means that the chair referee has the discretion to stop the match. On Saturday, when the first raindrops fell on an already rain-soaked Wimbledon, the signal clicked to “4” from “3”.

Immediately, Richard “Winston” Sedgwick, standing on the last row of Court No. 3, where he could see across to the digital beacon on Center Court, used a simple hand signal to relay the information to the crews, who rushed into action. A six-member team ran onto the court, grabbed purple ropes to unroll an 8,000-square-foot tarp and hauled it over the court in about a minute, with the captains shouting instructions heard all over the grounds, similar to rowing teams: “Three, two, one , pull,” and “Stay together. Again!”

“There’s pressure to do it right,” 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 quick, precise action protecting the delicate grass, allowing tennis to continue on each of the 18 courts at what is usually the wettest Grand Slam of the year.

It’s a physical job, requiring a certain degree of athleticism, and if it’s a day with intermittent rain and the tarp moves several times, by the end of that day, the physical toll makes the crews “smashed,” Sedgwick. said

George Spring, a cattle farmer in New South Wales, Australia, was Wimbledon’s court 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 total, 200 people work on the court services during the two-week tournament.

They train for four days before the tournament, including a couple of half days on court, where they learn and practice how to pull the tarps, take them down, and set up the nets and the rest of the court to play after the rain. stops

Movements must be in concert, and the crews practice their ballet well before the first ball is struck.

“It’s like sports teams,” Spring said. “If you have a good captain and good leadership, you will be in good shape.”

The crews were particularly important at this Wimbledon, where rain interrupted five of the first six days. It wreaked 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 hadn’t even played their first matches before Saturday.

And this isn’t even the wettest Wimbledon — not even close.

“I was here in 2007, where it was famous for rain,” he said. “There wasn’t even a day when we didn’t pull a blanket over the courts.”

The two main show courts, Center Court and Court No. 1, have retractable roofs, but the crews continue to deploy even larger tolros, requiring 20 people versus the six on the outer courts, while the roofs close. Center Court is the only one with full-time Wimbledon employees on the job.

The court services crews arrive at 7:30 am and work until approximately 10:30 pm each day. Tarps can be slippery and heavy and people move quickly, so sometimes a crew member sprains an ankle or strains a muscle.

On court No. 1, Elinor Beazley, who grew up in Wales and played tennis for Northern Arizona University (she’s transferring to Youngstown State this fall), has been pulling the strings for two years.

Last year was a mostly sunny affair, and she found herself hoping for rain just to get in on the action. When it arrived, the adrenaline started pumping.

“I was so nervous,” she said. “The crowd was screaming and I was really bubbly on my toes. It is such an exciting and such a fun experience. It’s a bit of a performance to do it in front of all those people.”

When she returned to Arizona, she said, she told her teammates, “You all have to come to Wimbledon. You’re watching 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, such as holding umbrellas over the players’ heads during changeovers and providing them with towels and drinks, but they can also fulfill other unique requests. Spring said a player once asked for a soft drink that is not part of the usual sports hydration liquids available on each court. Spring went to the dealership, bought one and brought it back.

One year, when the bananas were too green, Spring said, he sent a crewman to a grocery store in the town of Wimbledon by bicycle to get ripe ones. Rafael Nadal, who has not played this year, likes a particular kind of dry date that Spring receives from the on-court commissioner. On Saturday night, there was a request for room temperature water.

But the most important job is to quickly and completely get those tarps on and off the courts. When the digital signs (there are a few, posted on both sides of Center Court and on the outer walls of Court No. 1) flash “5”, it’s the call to inflate the tap. 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 tarpaulin is not inflated at all.

“6” means to deflate; “7” is the call to uncover and roll up the canvas, which can weigh two tons when wet, Spring said. When it is secured, an “8” will flash, which means it’s time to dress the courts – replace the nets, set up the chairs and hand out the towels and drinks for the players.

Colorful strings wrapped inside the rolled tarp make everything 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 sky clears. The entire discovery process, including setting up the networks, takes about 10 to 15 minutes.

At night, the crews put on the tollers again. On Saturday, play was suspended on all outside courts due to the rain. When it stopped, the crews pulled back the tarps, but only for less than an hour. The cloth pullers were so effective 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 breakdowns have caused delays of an hour or more, but never for an entire day.

“That’s probably why I’m still here,” he said.

And at Wimbledon, the rain too.

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