Tony Kane, Monday 16 July 2012
I arranged to meet the new Chief Executive of the Wimbledon All England Tennis and Bowls Club, Richard Lewis, a few days before the start of the Championships.
I was impressed by the warm welcome and calm atmosphere in his office bearing in mind the world events that were about to happen. I refer of course, not only to the All England Championship but the Olympic Tennis event that follows hard on its heels in August.
I commented on this as Richard produced a cup of coffee. ‘I have an expert team that has been in place for some time and it is all down to good team work,’ he responded. He told me that he was delighted to have the job as he has had a long history of association with the club. ‘I queued up at the gates in my youth, just like every one else,’ he explained. ‘I played here as a member for 25 years and worked on the results board more recently. It is very different now. I could just turn up in those days. Nowadays security is key in all national sporting events but especially with the Olympics. But even with 50,000 visitors we work hard to retain the informal English garden atmosphere that makes us different from all other International Tennis Championships.’ Richard is certainly a tennis enthusiast. He was a member of the Davies Cup team and at one time was ranked 63 in the international ratings.
I suggested that the Olympic Tennis Games will not be much different from the All England Championships. He admitted that there were similarities with the two events but he considered that it would attract a different audience – more international. Also the players would not be in the regular Wimbledon Tennis White but would be free to choose their own tennis attire. Each match would be the best of three sets except the final which would be five sets. ‘Will the grass courts stand up to so much usage?’ ‘The grounds men are confident that they will. They are using special pre-germinated seed to make sure the courts are in tip top condition.’
I said that there was a strange coincidence that Ian Ritchie, the past Wimbledon Chief Executive, had moved to Rugby Union (RFU) and Richard had moved from Rugby League (RFL) to Tennis. He suggested that it was quite nice to come back to London. He had previously lived in Yorkshire, the home of Rugby League, and was now actively looking for a permanent home in Wimbledon. ‘You can’t do a job like this and live anywhere else than SW19,’ he said. ‘Anyway, I have my roots in London.’ I asked him where he would like the club to be in five years time. ‘This is a unique club,’ he answered. ‘Any change will have to evolve. We concentrate on improving the facilities for players and spectators all the time. We are the best in the world right now but we can’t rest on our laurels. Other venues will improve and we have to keep ahead of them.’
I suggested that whilst we have the best Championship in the world, our British players do not match up to world standard – except for Andy Murray. Bearing in mind that the All England Club funded the LTA, did he have any ideas as to how he could influence training programmes and structures to improve our world standing? He explained that while Wimbledon funded the LTA they kept out of influencing LTA policies. ‘But of course we do have a very well established local training programme that is very strong in the community. Twelve hundred youngsters play on the practice courts each year and take part in The Road to Wimbledon tournament, which plays an important part in developing local talent.’
I asked him if he shared the optimism that it could be Andy Murray’s turn this year to win Wimbledon, as was then being suggested. He looked wistful and said: ‘It would be nice to have a British winner this year.’ I left sharing this hope, passing the huge army of security people and the workmen preparing the grounds for the annual invasion of tennis enthusiasts. Sadly it was not to be Andy’s Wimbledon. Never stop hoping.
London 2012 tennis events – 28 July-4/5 August