Do you like your towel folded or scrunched? Behind the scenes at Wimbledon

  • Posted: Jun 30, 2018
Wimbledon 2018 on the BBC
Venue: All England Club, Wimbledon Dates: 2-15 July
Coverage: Watch live on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer, BBC Red Button, Connected TVs and the BBC Sport website and app; Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live and 5 live sports extra.

With all the skill and athleticism of the players and the drama of the on-court action, it’s easy to think no further than the tennis itself at Wimbledon – but there are whole teams of people working busily to make it all happen.

Who are the men and women who feed the players, carry their towels and make sure they have tennis balls?

We went behind the scenes at the All England Club to meet some of those who help ensure the grass-court Grand Slam tournament runs smoothly.

Discover where to find secret strawberries, the strangest meal a player has ordered, and how to stay calm when a ball travelling at 120mph smacks into your thigh.

The gardener and the secret strawberries

Ever parked your bottom next to some lovely-looking plants while you enjoy a little glass of something? Well, at the All England Club you might just get asked – very politely, of course – to move.

“People sitting on the plants in the planters is our biggest [issue],” head gardener Martyn Falconer says. “They perch themselves on the edge and squash a few bits, so we’ve always got plenty of spares just to replace them. I have kindly asked them not to sit on that plant.”

There are plenty of spares among the 19,000 plants that are brought in for the Championships and tended to by a workforce of seven full-time gardeners, with another 10 drafted in from April to September.

Spare a thought for those gardeners when you stop to take a selfie outside the ivy-clad Centre Court – they have to climb 64 feet to keep the ultimate in high-maintenance greenery under control as it grows six to eight inches a week.

Asked whether he ever cursed the person who planted it in the first place, Falconer is diplomatic: “That’s been on that building since the day it was built in 1922.

“We live with it, it’s one of the thing people like to see. We deal with it.”

His brief is to keep the grounds looking like an English country garden – which sounds straightforward but there are always little hiccups like when the local nursery you always use stops growing the “right” shade of Wimbledon purple petunias for your hanging baskets.

It was OK, there was another shade – Falconer reckons only he can tell the difference.

He says he’s never noticed admiring members of the public sneaking a cutting, or digging up a plant to take home – he was even amazed that no-one pinched a strawberry from the living wall last year.

“I was coming in in the morning bringing a cup and picking a couple because they were ripe, so I was getting a good breakfast,” he joked.

The chef and the honey

There’s no set menu at Wimbledon. If a player wants pasta with honey, then that is exactly what they get.

That is the strangest request executive chef Gary Parsons says he has had – and he is not allowed to reveal who ordered it.

But most players are more conventional, with most of them opting for the pick-and-mix-style pasta option where they tell one of the chefs what they would like and it is cooked in front of them.

“The most popular is definitely pasta, tomato sauce, lots of protein – salmon, chicken and chorizo – and parmesan,” says Parsons, who reckons he typically works 15- or 16-hour days during the first week of the Championships.

“It’s pasta pre-match and then normally rice, sushi, stir fry [after a match]. We have sushi chefs on site, it’s freshly made on site for the players… and for me!”

All the produce comes from the UK and there are two player restaurants at Wimbledon, serving up 900 player meals a day in the first week.

And do the players ever have pudding?

“Strawberries,” says Parsons.

The linesman and the CV

What have dentists, doctors, plumbers and lawyers got to do with Wimbledon matches?

They are the day jobs of those smartly dressed men and women staring intently down the white lines, watching the ball and making crucial calls.

“Near enough everybody has a second job that pays the bills,” explains line judge David Bayliss, who will be working at his 20th Wimbledon this year and also works in computer security.

“The only salary we get for the whole year is for Wimbledon, from the All England Club. The rest of the year we work for the LTA as volunteers and at local club tournaments.”

Bayliss has made the line calls at three Wimbledon finals – including in 2003 when Roger Federer beat Mark Philippoussis to win the first of his eight titles – and says he has had too many great moments to pick a favourite.

Some memories are not so great though, like the time he was on the line for a match between Britain’s Greg Rusedski and American Andy Roddick on Centre Court.

“I was on left base sitting down, the ball came down and I called ‘in’ and somebody opposite in the crowd shouted ‘out’ and Greg did a little soft return,” the 59-year-old said.

“And he pointed at me and said did I call that out and I said ‘no, it was somebody in the crowd’ and it affected Greg’s match. He wasn’t happy with that and he went and lost the match.

“So the crowd shouting when they shouldn’t does affect what goes on on court and it really is a shame for them. They are professionals out there doing their job, it shouldn’t happen but it does.”

While the players have Hawk-Eye challenges of the decisions these days, and millions of people watching at home can also watch video replays, the line judges have that one blink-and-you-miss-it moment to make their call.

Do they ever have any lapses in concentration?

“Of course it happens, we are human like everybody else,” Bayliss says.

“[But] just like the players go into the zone when they are focusing on playing the match, we are in the zone on court.”

While there is not much money in being a line judge, there are other benefits.

“To put it on your CV that you’ve been a line judge at Wimbledon… when I’ve been for job interviews, people sort of talk about computer security for a few minutes and then want to know about Wimbledon,” Bayliss says.

The ball boys and girls and the sweaty towels

Staying calm when hit by a ball coming at more than 120mph, handling sweaty towels and catering to players’ on-court quirks are all part of the job of the 250 ball boys and girls.

Ball girl 233 – or Amy as she is known to her family and friends – felt the full pelt of a male player’s serve last year on the top of her leg.

“It hurt, the crowd notices and so that’s also a little bit intimidating when everyone is watching you and is like ‘oooh’,” the 15 year-old said.

“You have to try and keep composure where you can. I did get a small bruise.”

A rigorous six-month programme with two and a half hours of training a week ends with practice sessions on the courts at the All England Club with club players playing matches complete with umpires and different on-court scenarios, like “new balls please” and the trainer being called on.

The ball boys and girls are selected from 32 local schools – only around one in three applicants is successful – and they work in teams with each person always working in a specific position on the court with the taller ones behind the baselines and the shorter ones near the net.

Before they go on court, they mug up on whether the players like towels handed to them folded or scrunched up, how they like their water bottles lined up or which corner they like their balls to come from.

Their friends are jealous of the uniform and their two weeks off school, while their parents try to spot them on the TV, but surely no-one envies them the towel duties?

“It’s just part of the job, you don’t have to hold it for too long,” said Harry, 14, who is a ball boy for the second year. “It’s probably not the nicest, you just try to get rid of it as quickly as possible and put it on the chair.”

Balls for players… and for dogs

With matches played on 18 courts and each match needing new balls every nine games, how do you ensure that there are always enough balls?

Ball distribution manager Brian Mardling, a former umpire, orders 57,600 and expects to use around 54,000 during qualifying, practice week and during the Championships.

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He keeps them in two store rooms at a temperature of 20C and uses CCTV to monitor the scores on court to work out how many extra balls may be needed. He says he lost count of the number of tins he carried up to the epic between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut in 2010, which went to 70-68 in the fifth set,

He can tell exactly how many games a ball has played just by looking at it – which is useful when a shot is hit out of the court and the ball is pocketed by a fan as a souvenir and the umpire needs a replacement of the same age.

“The umpire needs to make sure there are six balls on court at all times. So I make up a spare tin and in it we put balls 3, 5 and 7 – a ball that’s been used three games, five games, seven games,” he says.

His “worst nightmare” is multiple rain delays because when matches resume they require warm-up balls all at the same time.

Used balls are sold on to fans and in soggy years sometimes there is a different type of sale.

“If weather is not so good and the balls cannot be in fairly pristine condition, we get a lot of old balls back from practice so occasionally we do have a doggy ball sale – if they are not up to championship standard,” Mardling said.

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