The All England Lawn Tennis Club was presented with the ITF’s highest accolade, the Philippe Chatrier Award, at the 2013 ITF World Champions Dinner in Paris. A recent feature in ITF World explored why the AELTC was chosen to receive the prestigious award...
“After the Olympics and the World Cup, Wimbledon is the third most iconic sporting event in the world.” Thus spoke Sir Martin Sorrell, head of the world’s largest advertising and marketing services group, WPP. Sorrell is not the type to offer such praise lightly. 127 Championships since the very first men’s tournament in 1887, the All England Club has remained at the heart of the game of tennis, a sport that has grown from garden party pastime into multi-million dollar business.
It is for this reason, the Club’s pedigree as a guardian of the game and yet force for the future, that the ITF has chosen the world’s most famous patch of grass as the recipient of the Philippe Chatrier Award in the organisation’s centenary year.
“I think it’s so appropriate, it’s absolutely perfect.” believes Billie Jean King, one of Wimbledon’s most successful champions, herself a winner of the prestigious award in 2003. “As a child growing up in the 50s, if you won Wimbledon, you were considered the world’s champion. So going to the All England Club for me was a lifetime dream since the first time I picked up a racket. I played my first match on Centre Court in 1961, and I haven’t missed a year since."
With its all-white clothing rule, strawberries and cream and green, green grass, Wimbledon commands global attention on the strength of its brand alone.
“For many people around the world, The Championships are still their first exposure to the sport, and the value of this, for the ITF and every other organisation in tennis, cannot be underestimated,” commented ITF President Francesco Ricci Bitti.
That was the case for Goran Ivanisevic, the 2001 champion and four-time finalist. “As a kid in Split Wimbledon had such an aura,” Ivanisevic told ITF World. “When I first came and played juniors I was so excited and even now when I go there, it is such a good feeling.”
But there are many ways in which the All England Club and The Championships have contributed to the game of tennis, beyond simply being iconic.
“As a Championship, Wimbledon is the first among equals, for several reasons,” explains John Barrett, former player turned commentator and a Vice President of the All England Club. “Held in 1887, it was the first - The US held their first Championship four years later in 1891; the Aussies were next in 1905 and the French last in 1925.
“Wimbledon is the only one of the four that has had continuity of site and surface, and, Wimbledon has total independence from the LTA to run The Championships as it sees fit. This division of responsibility is crucially important. The focus is total, and the players feel they can always depend on Wimbledon to do what is right for them and for the game,” Barrett continues.
King agrees. “They’re very precise, very specific. One thing they did used to do when I was playing was ask me questions. Take the time to show us what they were thinking. To see the before and after, the combination of tradition and innovation, was a tremendous experience for me.”
That respect for tradition, for the Club’s role in the origins of the sport, continues to define the running of The Championships.
“Everything about playing at Wimbledon is special....the history, the beautiful grounds, the traditions, the fans, Centre Court, the way the AELTC have been able to modernize the club but keep the history and the aura,” former champion Lindsay Davenport told ITF World.
But while Wimbledon carefully protects its roots in the past, it has never shied away from embracing progress.
“The most important thing Wimbledon has done for tennis was to force through open tennis by holding a professional event in 1967 on the Centre Court and to declare that with the LTA’s blessing would hold an open Wimbledon in 1968,” Barrett explains.
Helping to propel tennis from being a hobby to a way of life, the AELTC was the first to open its courts to the professionals.
“Wimbledon sets the example, ” Philippe Chatrier himself wrote in Tennis de France in 1968. “The Championships in June, with guaranteed participation of the top professional players, already stirs a passion which tennis will profit from throughout the world.
“May they be assured of the gratitude felt by all those who love tennis. ”
The hard-fought decision was a resounding success.
“That changed tennis for all time, it changed it for better, it gave any child in the whole world an opportunity to make a living in our sport if we’re good enough,” explains King, who won the first professional Championships at Wimbledon. “I really have always been very thankful to the AELTC for taking us from amateur to professional tennis. It gave us an opportunity to make a living, not have to leave our sport.”
Wimbledon has also pioneered technology in tennis. The almost 90-year partnership between the AELTC and the BBC, which began with the first ever live broadcast of a sporting event in 1937, is the longest running sports rights agreement in world sport, and one that yields 140 hours of live coverage during the fortnight each year.
“Throughout its coverage of Wimbledon, The BBC has always innovated,” explains Paul Davies, the BBC’s Executive Producer at Wimbledon. “The Championships saw the first ever colour transmission in 1967 and more recently SW19 has lead the way in HD and 3D transmissions. Wimbledon was the first to introduce the analytical side of HawkEye, too, which has revolutionised the ability to analyse and demystify the sport.”
Another example is the Centre Court roof, an astonishing feat of engineering that, even though it is only four years old, looks as if it were always meant to be there.
“The retractable roof to me is a piece of modern art,” says King. “I love the way it looks even when it’s open. I love the way they think of detail, I really appreciate that they want to do it right, I think that makes a big difference to the fans, the players, the media.”
And then there are Wimbledon’s partnerships, longstanding relationships with brands who have become seamlessly integrated into The Championships.
“It’s special because you don’t have that commercialism that the other majors have, it makes them different.” King believes. “The symmetry of Centre Court, it’s so beautifully green, it gives you goosebumps.”
But while the All England Club, unlike the three other Grand Slam organising bodies whom are also charged with governing the sport in their respective countries, passes that responsibility to the Lawn Tennis Association, it has not lost sight of its duty to contribute to the global game beyond simply hosting an event.
In 1985, Wimbledon became the first Grand Slam to contribute to the ITF’s Grand Slam Development Fund with a donation of £100,000, to be repeated on an annual basis. “It paved the way for the US Open and Roland Garros to follow in 1986, and the Australian Open to do so in 1989,” explained ITF President Francesco Ricci Bitti. “It’s possible that without the All England Club’s leadership, the GSDF, which began in 1986, would never have been established.”
It is not just the development of tennis worldwide that Wimbledon has contributed to. The Club has opened its doors and courts to schoolchildren from the two local boroughs, Merton and Wandsworth, in a coaching scheme named the Wimbledon Junior Tennis Initiative. In addition, every year hundreds of 14 year-olds and younger compete across the country for the chance to play at Wimbledon in the Road to Wimbledon tournament. These grass roots programmes, both fronted by Committee member Tim Henman, form part of Wimbledon’s overarching Foundation, which contributes to a variety of charities.
There is also the Club’s support of Davis and Fed Cup, two cornerstones of the ITF’s mission to grow the sport of tennis in as many nations as possible.
“The All England Club has hosted more than 20 of Great Britain’s Davis Cup ties starting in 1904, most recently in 2008,” said Ricci Bitti. “The Championships and the Davis Cup have shared a lot of history in the last 100 years so the ITF is always pleased to see Wimbledon involved. A Davis Cup tie at Wimbledon always feels like a kind of homecoming, as the Olympics did last summer.”
Wimbledon’s openness and desire to play a part in the London 2012 Olympics is also worthy of note.
“The All England Club has a long history of cooperation with the Olympic movement having staged the Games in 1908 so, when we started to put together the bid for the London 2012 Games, it was, of course, our hope to hold the Olympic Tennis events at the Club,” commented Seb Coe, who guided London through the most successful Olympics in recent history.
“From the outset, we received fantastic cooperation and, from the moment London was awarded the 2012 Games, the Club worked closely and unselfishly with LOCOG and the ITF to stage a hugely successful Olympic tennis tournament. The club and the facilities are in a class of their own.”
The Club’s inaugural Long Term Plan, conceived of in 1993, was the first of its kind, and created three new show courts, new player facilities, a roof on Centre Court, and so much more. But, as with everything in the AELTC’s gift, those facilities are set to improve even further. 2013 will see the launch of the Club’s new Master Plan, which will aim to enhance Wimbledon’s status as the world’s premier tennis tournament, and, crucially, maintain it on grass.
“Wimbledon is unique in protecting the wonderful traditions of grass court tennis set amongst the tea lawns and beautiful settings of the Club with a modernism and quality that rivals any event or venue in world sport,” says the BBC's Davies.
That principle is embodied in the ambitious new developments, which include a roof on No.1 Court and expanded facilities for players, spectators, press, members, all of those parties whom are integral to The Championships, while staying true to the ethos that Wimbledon is “tennis in an English garden.”
“They’ve made an effort to stay ahead, but to keep their own identity,” King says. “To be who they are, but also be open to change and innovation. That is what makes Wimbledon absolutely deserving of this prestigious award.”
This feature was originally published in the Spring issue of ITF World
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