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Ian Ritchie bids farewell

Outgoing chief executive of the All England Club, Ian Ritchie.
by Alexandra Willis
Wednesday 14 December 2011

Ian Ritchie was not a name well known to tennis society. Despite a long-standing love of playing the game, as captain of the Oxford penguins, member of the Bar tennis team and competitor in various Yorkshire leagues, his career had taken him through the Bar exam, winding in and out of media circles with posts at Granada television, Channel 5, and the Associated Press, and a constant relationship with football. Until one Sunday morning, he spotted an advert in the Sunday Times.

"I remember it vividly," Ritchie recalls, a man who gives new meaning to the word 'ebullient'. "I always used to read the appointment pages and opened it up and there was chief executive of the All England Club and I thought ooh, that looks fascinating. I was dithering a bit about it because I wasn’t sure whether I was qualified or not, and my wife said, 'well what have you got to lose'? I just thought, what a great job, and frankly so it’s proved."

Perhaps there was even a touch of fate about the whole thing. "When I first came here for an interview, I walked past the tea room and noticed that the winner of the men's singles at the 1908 Olympics was a Major Ritchie. What an odd coincidence, I thought, one of those very strange things that you just think, `hmmm’," Ritchie remembers. "I thought he was in the army for years, it was only a few months ago that I discovered that was actually his Christian name. I thought he could have made himself a General really!"

Thus Ritchie was appointed chief executive elect in 2005, and despite spending the eve of his first Championships writing to apologise to the 47 players who were forced to endure cold showers on the Monday evening, some of them even in Spanish, his easy demeanour and natural affinity with people immediately made a mark.

"You don’t think on day one that you’ll be worrying about has the boiler worked for the showers," he laughs. "But a big part of this job is ambassadorial, whether it's players, members, spectators, the Grand Slam committee, you have to be able to work with a lot of different 'stakeholders' is the current word. So you hope you try and be reasonably personable and then it makes life a bit easier."

It was a longstanding friendship, for example, with the former ATP Executive President Etienne de Villiers that saw Wimbledon endorse the bringing of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals to London, the only event the Club has ever given its name to outside of The Championships.

"There was great support from the committee to do that," Ritchie recalls. "I think it’s been a fantastic event, in every way it's been a positive, and yet it was quite a radical step to take, and part of the reason that came about was because Etienne and I had known each other for such a long time and therefore he and I helped out trying to put the package together."

While building relationships with the rest of the tennis fraternity, the developments of the Club and the Grounds over the past six years have been so numerous that to list them all would be exhaustive. But there are a few things of which Ritchie is most proud.

"The Championships has been very successful for a long period of time, so I started from a position of saying, 'well first of all it ain't broke so you don't need to do anything too radical," he explains. "The interesting thing was moving it forward, making it slightly more modern, being innovative, but not losing the core values that Wimbledon is about, and then being careful about the speed you make the changes. The thing you have to be most sensitive to is if you're in a very good place, why change things, so when you do make changes, make sure they're right."

Inheriting the Long Term Plan, first conceived of in 1993, might have proved problematic, but Ritchie is quick to pay tribute to the vision of both his predecessors and those who make The Championships tick.

"Perhaps one of the things that's not always evident about here is how competitive it is, in a nice way, because how can you be a world-class event or a world-class facility without being competitive," Ritchie says. "That competitiveness is understated, and I think it should be understated, but it is definitely there."

The Centre Court roof, its opening in May 2009, and the introduction of Hawk-Eye are classic examples.

"In the time I've been here, I've never had a negative letter about the roof," Ritchie reveals. "The same with Hawk-Eye, and yet these are innovations that have significantly changed what tennis is like at Wimbledon."

"The other one thing that I really enjoyed because it was quite different to the norm, was the Centre Court Celebration," Ritchie remembers. "The whole day just seemed to fit really nicely, the four players were absolutely fantastic, and then of course Kim went off and won the US Open and she sat in New York and said the only reason I’m here is because Wimbledon invited me to play in the Centre Court Celebration. So I really look back on that as something that was really special."

Then there's the players themselves, with whom Ritchie would always make an effort to speak, even if just for a brief hello, or sometimes over a more lengthy cup of tea.

"It’s quite difficult, especially when you get to my vast age, you have to remember what the players are like and what you're like," Ritchie explains. "I remember the first time I went to talk to Andy Murray, I’m more than old enough to be his dad ... could be his grandfather almost.

"So to try and build that relationship is difficult, because how often do you really spend quality time with them. But what’s been undoubtedly a privilege for me is that all the players, I’ve found them delightful to deal with, to spend time with Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, they’re great ambassadors for the game.

"I think it’s the peculiarity of Wimbledon," Ritchie continues. "I haven’t seen a place where you get such long-term commitment and loyalty. I think it’s the way everybody is treated and dealt with that they really enjoy being here.

"When Novak arrived in Belgrade, I’m sure you’ve seen that YouTube video, he was wearing his Members' badge. I fell over, I really did. For Novak to put his badge on in Belgrade, nobody would know what that was, but it meant something to him, and I think that’s very important to keep that. Those are the sorts of things that are unique about Wimbledon."

But Ritchie knows that even if it is not his charter any longer, there will be no laurel-resting at Wimbledon.

"Most people would say when they come into a job that you hope you’ve left it in a slightly better position than when you started, and I hope, I think it’s reasonable to say that commercially it’s good, reputationally it’s good, we’ve been blessed with fantastic matches," Ritchie says. "But I don't think there's any question of complacency, which is why we're looking at the next redevelopment of the Grounds. And I think it's very important that Wimbledon's reputation is as an international, a global sporting event, and I think we're in a good position to invest in that, to make sure that tennis and the Wimbledon brand is growing."

His new role as chief executive at the RFU will have many challenges, but for the first time in six years, Ritchie won't find himself spending the two-week Wimbledon window in a state of self he describes as 'constant fretting'.

"I don’t think any of us are aware of the scale of preparation, the scale of the operation," Ritchie says. "Nothing can prepare you because you’re always talking about the unexpected, you never know quite what’s going to happen. It’s that combination of the ultimate adrenalin rush and you get to the end of it and are so relieved you want to fall over.

"It will be very strange this summer, to sit and watch. You know it will go like clockwork, you know there is a fantastic team of people. Whoever is now walking the champion round the court, I’ll undoubtedly be sitting there thinking I really miss that."

But, as a member, he'll be back. He'll even have a seat. 

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