By Martyn Herman
LONDON, April 23 (Reuters) - An army of groundsmen carried out the time-honoured ritual of preparing the All England Club lawns in readiness for the Wimbledon championships on a sunny spring day on Tuesday as plans to take the home of tennis into the future were revealed.
Almost unrecognisable from the rambling grounds so familiar with visiting fans in the 1980s and 90s after more than a decade of modernisation, club chiefs unveiled a seven-year masterplan aimed at maintaining Wimbledon’s place as one of the greatest festivals in the world of sport.
While new gardens, practice courts and plazas are planned, the most significant development at the exclusive south-west London club will be the addition of a retractable roof on Court One to go with the canopy that already allows action on Centre Court when the inevitably fickle British summers do their worst.
The circular 11,500-capacity Court One arena was itself part of the last masterplan sketched out in 1993, which also led to Centre Court gaining the translucent sliding roof that has become a feature of the two-week tournament since 2009.
“We are expecting to have it in place by the 2019 championships,” club chairman Philip Brook told a news conference on Tuesday.
“We are also looking at whether we can increase the capacity of Court One in a modest way to get more fans in to watch the tennis although we recognise that Centre Court remains the jewel in the crown here at Wimbledon.”
With the U.S. Open and the French Open both looking at covering courts after battling adverse weather in recent years, Brook said it was important that Wimbledon stayed one step ahead of its rival tournaments.
“We are putting together a very long term, affordable, plan,” Brook said.
”Wimbledon in regarded as the finest stage in world tennis. However, we recognise that we have to work hard to improve further our facilities and that standing still is not option.
“We know Roland Garros are looking to put a roof on Phillipe Chatrier Court in Paris and the Australian Open are very busy and by next year will have a further roof on Margaret Court Arena and at the U.S. Open there are plans to maybe put a roof on one of their courts.”
While a new media building, a Centre Court roof, three new show courts and the building of the public viewing area named Henman Hill have all been completed as a result of the former masterplan, Wimbledon has managed to retain its intimate charm.
Tradition and history, not to mention afternoon tea and strawberries and the world’s best players, make Wimbledon a must-see event in the British summer and Brook was at pains to ensure that the “English garden” feel of the tournament will remain.
The developments will be in three stages, the Northern Area which currently houses Court One and the practice courts, the Central Area around the Centre Court and the Southern Area where fans currently crane their heads for views of players on outside courts squeezed in side by side.
“This is a constrained site but we recogonise that needs change over time,” he said.
“The last plan spoke about retaining the English Garden feel of Wimbledon and 20 years on I think we can say we did a good job. The grounds are still beautiful but we think that they can be even more beautiful than ever.”
Centre Court’s roof, which has allowed play to finish after dark in recent years, has been a major boost for the tournament’s television appeal - guaranteeing live tennis.
However, Brook said, a new roof on Court One, the cost of which was not disclosed, would not guarantee late night sessions.
“We are not trying to turn Wimbledon into an event for night time play,” he said. “Roofs over our stadia will continue to be used primarily in the event of wet weather.” (Editing by Ed Osmond)