Brooklyn Heights

You can watch Wimbledon on TV outdoors in Brooklyn. It’s part of a bid to blend the past and present

July 5, 2023 Howard Fendrich, Associated Press
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BROOKLYN BRIDGE PARK — Tennis fans in New York can gather to see live TV coverage of the last three days of Wimbledon at an outdoor watch party at Brooklyn Bridge Park from July 14-16, featuring the women’s final and the men’s semifinals and final. Online registration for 1,500 free tickets for each day ends Thursday; walk-ins will be allowed, too.

So much of that paragraph would have been incomprehensible to anyone around for the initial edition of the oldest Grand Slam tennis tournament in 1877, from the television broadcast to the trans-Atlantic appeal to the online element to, even, the participation of women in the competition: They were not allowed to play singles until 1884 or doubles until 1913.

The creation of “The Hill in New York” — touted as “a quintessential Wimbledon experience from afar,” replete with gin and tonics, strawberries and cream, fish and chips, tea and scones and, naturally, a merchandise shop with the same towels, hats and other official tournament paraphernalia sold at the actual competition site — is one of many ways in which the All England Club (full name: All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club) is setting one foot in the modern age, such as the retractable roofs on Centre Court and No. 1 Court that permitted play as rain fell Tuesday and Wednesday, while keeping another solidly rooted in its famous past.

“At Wimbledon, we’re always conscious of finding the balance between respecting our heritage and tradition,” Club chief executive Sally Bolton said, “alongside the pursuit of innovation and bringing in new audiences to share in the magic of The Championships.”

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See? Even the way they refer to the two-week event by those two words is a nod to earlier times. As is the continued use of grass courts, the only major tournament to still do so (the U.S. Open and Australian Open have shifted from grass to hard courts; the French Open is played on red clay.) As is the use of “fortnight” to describe the two weeks.

And yet the fact that it is now a fully 14-day event is a nod to today. Until last year, Wimbledon’s schedule was spread out over 13 days; the middle Sunday was set aside as a day of rest, used for play only in cases of extreme rain disruptions during Week 1 to make up a backlog of contests. Now those Sundays always will have matches.

That, like the New York event that began in 2022, is just one of the ways in which the All England Club is adapting to the present — and has its eyes on the future.

“We recognize that we’re a global event and we have audiences all over the world,” Bolton said in an interview. “But as we think about growth, there are certain countries where we think that there’s quite a bit more potential to grow that audience, and the U.S. is a great example of that.”

There is also the intent to expand the local footprint by using land from the golf club across the road to build a new arena and courts for qualifying rounds. Bolton said the hope is there will be a decision by local authorities on a planning application by the end of 2023, so work can begin to allow new courts to be ready in the late 2020s or early 2030s.

Gender equity has been a particular area of change.

One tweak this year was to the all-white clothing rule, which often is cited as part of Wimbledon’s historic charm but also was criticized by some female players for making them uncomfortable when they have their period. Now they are allowed to wear dark-colored undershorts.

“That was very much about recognizing that we want all athletes to have the best opportunity to focus on their performance,” Bolton said, “and to not have distractions. … It wasn’t a difficult decision.”

Victoria Azarenka, a 33-year-old from Belarus who was twice the champion at the Australian Open and twice a semifinalist at the All England Club, appreciated the move.

“England is based a lot on tradition, and I think they try to hold onto it as much as possible, compared to other places. That’s what differentiates Wimbledon,” Azarenka said. “But the adjustment to the attire is more practical than sticking with the tradition, and it is the right step to help women feel a little more comfortable here. The rest of the white attire is something that makes Wimbledon special and a beautiful part of that. Tennis, in general, can use a bit of a change in rules.”

There are other ways in which Wimbledon has been doing that — albeit after taking longer than some wished.

In 2007, Wimbledon became the last of the four tennis majors to pay its women’s singles champion the same amount as its men’s singles champion. In 2019, Wimbledon chair umpires stopped referring to female players with “Miss” — or “Mrs.” for married women — when announcing the winner of a game, a set or a match, and switched to saying only their last names, the way long done for men.

Last year, female champions were listed on the honor boards in a Centre Court hallway simply by their first initial and last name — the way the men’s title winners always have been — instead of preceded by “Miss” or “Mrs.” Until then, the entry for Chris Evert’s 1981 championship, for example, showed her name as “Mrs. J.M. Lloyd,” because she was married at the time to John Lloyd. For her titles in 1974 and 1976, before that marriage, she was listed as “Miss C.M. Evert.”

“Wimbledon, and all of the Grand Slams, are taking gender equity very seriously. There are different stages, and they still have different opinions and approaches to the subject. … It maybe isn’t happening as fast as everyone would like to see in every place. But I think there are genuine efforts and I think they should be recognized for the efforts that are being made. And I think they’re being made for the right reasons,” said Steve Simon, the head of the WTA, the women’s pro tennis tour. “They’re being made because they think it’s right and they need to make these changes versus being forced into it. Because that’s the way you ultimately want it to happen.”

Bolton herself represents that sort of “very visible shift,” as she termed it.

She is the first female chief executive at the Club since the position was established 40 years ago. Denise Parnell has been appointed tournament referee as of next year, the first woman to hold that job in Wimbledon history. Another woman, Deborah Jevans, will take over as vice chairman of the Club after the current tournament ends.

“In many ways, it’s by accident that we’ve ended up with three women in those roles at the same time,” Bolton said, “but I think it is a reflection of the way in which the club is evolving and changing.”

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