The job of court attendant is one of the most sought-after student roles at Wimbledon. I say ‘student’, but the addictiveness of the experience in green shirt and shorts means that current members of the 180-strong squad include a barrister and an industrial chemist who, each year, take time off work to return as team supervisors. Their ‘holiday’ in SW19 requires them to put in 14-hour days of physical activity: covering and uncovering the courts, dressing the courts for play, distributing Championship towels to players and collecting them (which can require a terrier-like brand of diplomacy as many players try to conceal them in their bags), holding umbrellas as sunshades, keeping stocks of ice on court for medical use and keeping their court area tidy.
Perks of the role include being outside all day, great camaraderie among the team, and close proximity to pin-up players. For a tennis fan, what could be more riveting than to hold an umbrella above the likes of Rafa Nadal and Maria Sharapova as they sit on their changeover chair? You hear how they berate/push/psyche/refuel themselves and witness their idiosyncratic rituals. You’re in an intimate zone.
Josh Blagden, who finished a three-year stint as court attendant last year, recalls the immediacy of realising the sheer athleticism and ferocity at which the players hit the ball. “I swapped shirts with Djokovic after he’d been practising for his semi-final. I offered him my green polo for his white Sergio Tacchini training top and he signed it for me. It was dripping with sweat but I haven’t washed it since and it’s something I will cherish forever. Djokovic returned to practise for the final and it was great to share a joke with him about how much our respective shirts smelt. I also met and had a picture taken with Nadal, Federer, Hewitt, Ivanovic and Henman.”
Divided into teams to work on all the Championship courts and practice courts, the court attendants enjoy a healthy level of competitiveness. “Each team want to show the others they’re the quickest. They want to show off their wares. So this unsettled weather is perfect because court attendants are like firemen. They’re trained to do a job and they appreciate the chance to go out and do it well,” says George Spring, who is Chief Court Coverer. “It’s a lot harder to manage them when it’s sunny because of the boredom factor and the naughty-student factor!”
Never mind the fun, the number one priority, of course, is to keep the courts dry. The teams are radio-linked to the Ivory Tower, aka The Referee’s Office, and to the ground staff, and operate according to a code of numbers visible on all the courts indicating the level of rain-risk and appropriate action. If no number is displayed, there is no need for the entire team to remain courtside. Cue a visit to Henman Hill or a walk around the grounds. One means ‘on standby’ and the likelihood of rain so attendants must remain at their posts. Two means the court will be covered at the chair umpire’s discretion – if, for example, another minute in slight rain would be sufficient to conclude the match. Three sees the supervisor alert the chair umpire to the fact that the court attendants have to cover the court. Four gives the order to inflate – fans on and covers ballooning up. Five means deflate. Six means covers off. And seven is the prompt to dress the court again ready to resume or start play.
What kind of personality makes a good court attendant? “Bright, athletic students who are team workers and realise that working here is a privilege,” says George, who has himself returned for a 12th year. “I like to think of them as ‘the future of England’.”