Suburban croquet club that created Wimbledon

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Wimbledon 2018 will see 500,000 fans pour through the gates during 13 days of play

“No one could have foreseen the growth from tiny beginnings to staging the world’s premier tennis tournament,” says Philip Brook, chairman of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

“The club was founded in 1868 to play croquet but later added tennis and held the first championships for the game in 1877.”

It was launched as The All England Croquet Club on July 23, 1868, when six Victorian “gentlemen” met in the London office of The Field magazine.

Four acres were rented in Wimbledon but in 1875 the growing popularity of lawn tennis was recognised by the addition of a tennis court.

Two years later, it became The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, switching to the current title in 1899.

The first Lawn Tennis Championships, in 1877, was a Gentlemen’s Singles event played with the modest aim of raising £10 to repair a pony-drawn roller.

An entry fee of one guinea (£1.05p) was charged and 22 players competed.

Tickets for the final, which welcomed just 200 spectators, cost a shilling (5p) and the winner, Spencer Gore, received a 12 guinea prize (£12.60) plus a Silver Challenge Cup valued at 25 guineas (£26.25).

In contrast, a total of 674 matches will be played this year with 790 competitors, including the four-day qualifying event.

And the surplusafter-costs (for obscure accounting reasons they don’t say “profits”) made last year was £33,637,748, with 90 per cent going to the Lawn Tennis Association to develop the game.

Winners of Wimbledon 2018 singles titles will each receive £2.25million, with £34million total prize money for the tournament.

A ticket for this year’s men’s finals costs £210 but most income comes from TV rights, as well as selling everything from Wimbledon-branded towels to baseball caps and panama hats and “official suppliers” wanting to link products such as bottled water with the tournament.

spencerMark Kehoe

Spencer Gore, first winner of Wimbledon, aged 27

“The scale of The Championships would astonish club members of a century-and-a-half ago,” Brook says.

“But they would understand our aim of encouraging the best players to compete on superbly prepared courts and providing entertainment for fans and generating income to re-invest in tennis.”

There’s also an echo of Victorian respect for morality: the club has spoken out strongly about the need for “integrity” in tennis, calling for improved safeguards against the possibility of doping and match fixing.

While the club has increased in size it is fixed at 375 full members, with little turnover and a “waiting list of about 1,000 going back many years”.

It is determined to stay small – giving rise to the half-joking observation that the easiest way to join is to win a singles title, when honorary membership is offered.

“We are able to stay focused and preserve roots as a local tennis club where everyone knows each other and tradition is valued,” says Brook.

“We also don’t need a large, permanent staff. Those with us are intensely loyal with many staying for 20 or more years, with The Championships benefiting from the ‘muscle-memory’ of people with experience of having carried out preparation tasks many times before.”

ABOUT 6,000 staff are taken on for each tournament, for jobs ranging from providing food and drink (it’s the largest single catering operation for a sports event in Europe) to security.

But Brook is clear that tradition alone will never be enough to prosper in the highly competitive world of tennis.

“We cannot afford to stand still when competing with rival grand-slam tournaments [in Australia, France and the US] and know that combining tradition with innovation gives Wimbledon its unique character, which is key to continuing success,” he says.

He lists core traditions as including being the only Grand Slam still played on grass, picked-on-the-day strawberries with cream, an “almost entirely white” clothing rule for players and the famous queue for on-the-day tickets – all combined with an absence of advertising hoardings, loud music on court between changes of end and other “distractions” found at rival tournaments.

“Moving with the times has been vital for everything from pioneering technology for retractable roofs for Centre Court – and, from 2019, for No 1 Court – to reaching big new audiences by means including via our website [launched in 1995], apps on mobile phones and tablets and use of social media,” he explains.

“We’ve taken big decisions, always building on the club’s long-standing experience and respecting our mission to stage the world’s premier tennis tournament on grass.

We remain devoted to ensuring we act in the best interests of our championships, our club and our sport, fostering the best interests of tennis both nationally and internationally.”

Finance for infrastructure is raised by issuing debentures offering guaranteed seats on Centre and No 1 Courts that can be sold at well above face value if not wanted.

But where does a small, private club find the confidence and expertise to run a worldbeating tournament so successfully, given the massive financial and logistical challenges?

The achievement is even more extraordinary as decisions are taken by a Championships management committee of 12 members, helped by seven nominees from the Lawn Tennis Association.

“We are supported by expert professional staff while also drawing on a wide range of talent and experience among committee members which includes knowledge of business and fi nance and also playing at Wimbledon,” says Brook.

“We need to know what competitors require to give their very best.”

THE COMMITTEE includes former British number one Tim Henman who, while never winning Wimbledon, was the darling of spectators.

Lord O’Donnell, a former head of the Civil Service who also served three prime ministers as cabinet secretary, is also a committee member.

It is led by Brook, an actuary with a degree in mathematics from Cambridge University, whose tennis success includes being Yorkshire Champion in 1978.

kateJavier Garcia/BPI/REX/Shutterstock

Club chairman Philip Brook with the Duchess of Cambridge last year

He also competed internationally. “Having a head for figures helps but the committee works as a team with everyone contributing,” he says.

Investing in the grounds and respecting tradition is important but another key to Wimbledon’s success is identifying and solving problems at a micro-level.

“We call it The List,” says Brook.

“As part of detailed planning for every Championship we invite suggestions from staff, players, the public and suppliers on anything that can be improved – from a railing that needs repainting to anything on a bigger scale.

Detailed preparations have been made to create a safe Championships, which we believe will meet expectations for enjoyment and terrific tennis,” he says with conviction.

And terrific tennis, is, after all, the key to a gripping tournament and the reason the spectators keep coming back year after year.

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