Retractable roof keeps Wimbledon on track

Published 2:27 am Tuesday, June 30, 2009

WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — Rhythmic clapping rang out on Centre Court, accompanied by not-so-staid chants of ‘‘Roof! Roof! Roof!’’

Yes, indoor tennis has arrived at Wimbledon, more than a century after the tournament’s debut.

The new retractable roof over Centre Court was closed for the first time Monday after a light sprinkle halted play during the second set of a match between No. 1-ranked Dinara Safina and 2006 Wimbledon champion Amelie Mauresmo.

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As luck would have it, by the time the match resumed, the wet weather had disappeared, and action proceeded on other courts around the All England Club without the help of modern technology. Despite the clear sky, the roof remained shut throughout the evening, which allowed No. 3 Andy Murray to finish a five-set victory over No. 19 Stanislas Wawrinka that ended at 10:39 p.m., more than an hour later than anyone ever had hit a tournament shot on that patch of grass.

‘‘It took a while to get used to,’’ Murray said after participating in the first Wimbledon match to be played indoors in its entirety.

The novelty of it all certainly created quite a buzz. The roof is making its debut this year atop a stadium that opened in the 1920s — and at a tournament that began in the 1870s — and this was the first rain delay of the fortnight after a sunny first week.

‘‘It’s a plus, definitely, for the tournament to be able to play. Of course, we haven’t seen really bad days so far in the tournament,’’ Mauresmo said after losing 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. ‘‘But I remember a few editions of Wimbledon when we would really have needed a roof. So it’s a good thing.’’

The translucent roof allows natural light, in addition to floodlights that were switched on, and, really, the most discernible difference from the stands was the sound: There was an echo, not just when a ball came off a racket with a ‘‘thwack!’’ but also from hand-clapping and line judges’ yells of ‘‘out!’’

Mauresmo thought the roof changed the playing conditions.

‘‘The ball is flying a little bit more. That’s how I felt. And we both kind of took a little time to adjust,’’ Mauresmo said. ‘‘When the ball is in the air, and when you have the overhead or stuff, it’s very bright.’’

Safina lost the first set and was ahead 4-1 in the second when it began drizzling. The court was initially covered with a green tarp, Wimbledon’s timeworn method of waiting for rain to subside so play can resume, before All England Club officials quickly decided to shut the roof.

Last week, on the hottest of days, organizers moved part of the roof ever-so-slightly to provide shade for those sitting in the Royal Box. This time, they closed it fully, and for the originally intended purpose: protection from Mother Nature’s intrusions, which are generally so common that the event’s official record book, ‘‘Wimbledon Compendium,’’ contains sections called ‘‘Days which have been completely rained off’’ and ‘‘First weeks badly interrupted by rain.’’

Wimbledon is the second Grand Slam tournament with the possibility of indoor play: The Australian Open has retractable roofs over its two main courts and plans to cover a third. The French Open intends to have a roof over its center court by 2011; the U.S. Open is looking into the possibility of covering a court.

‘‘We’ve been waiting for it for so long — it’s the first time ever at Wimbledon somebody’s waiting for rain — but we’d still prefer the sunshine,’’ the club’s chief executive, Ian Ritchie, said while the roof was being closed. ‘‘It’s a historic moment in many ways, and I’m sure they all feel delighted to be here. We’ll be grateful if the sun comes back.’’

Well, the sun did reappear, yet the roof remained shut during the next match on Centre Court, between Murray and Wawrinka, because the forecast called for later showers, (which never came). That decision, it turned out, allowed them to finish their 3-hour, 57-minute thriller match. Without the roof closed — or on any other court at the All England Club — they would have been sent home sometime before the fifth set began and told to resume Tuesday.

A little more than five minutes after Safina and Mauresmo were sent to the locker room when the rain started, fans began their ‘‘Roof!’’ chorus. Moments later, the lights were switched on, drawing cheers.

Soon, the white steel bars supporting the canvas roof were gliding, earning another round of applause and flickering camera flashes. Every so often, the operation paused before the pieces resumed their journey. It took six minutes for the roof’s two sections to slide into place, meeting in the middle at 4:46 p.m. When it was completely closed — making the most hallowed arena in tennis look something like an airplane hangar, with all of those ‘‘V’’-shaped support beams overhead — the fans roared, many rising for a standing ovation. They also put away their umbrellas.

Cool air filled the arena as a ventilation system kicked in to remove moisture from the air. While the scoreboards showed a documentary about the making of the roof, a voice over the loudspeakers announced at 5:10 p.m.: ‘‘The good news is, play is to resume on Centre Court round about two minutes from now.’’

And exactly two minutes later, Mauresmo and Safina stepped back onto the court. Mauresmo looked up and checked out the new setup.

Following the usual warmup players are given when returning from a rain delay, the match resumed at 5:19 p.m., 45 minutes after Safina and Mauresmo had left.

On the first point played indoors at a tournament first held in 1877, Safina hit a backhand passing winner down the line. Mauresmo hit a 110 mph ace on the next point and eventually added two more aces to win the game.

Safina, though, went on to win a match that is sure to be noted forever in the ‘‘Wimbledon Compendium.’’

‘‘Even the crowd also wanted the roof, so it was, like, unbelievable atmosphere on the court,’’ Safina said. ‘‘I won, so everything was perfect.’’