As the tennis world switches this week from baguettes to strawberries and cream in anticipation of Wimbledon, the sport is abuzz with several tantalizing questions. Is Roger Federer the greatest player of all time? Better than rival Rafael Nadal? Better than Rod "Rocket" Laver? Will Nadal's knee trouble prevent him from defending his Wimbledon title? And this: Is Wimbledon without rain delays still Wimbledon?
Thanks to a new retractable roof designed by Populous (formerly HOK Sport), there will never be another final like last year's epic Nadal-Federer showdown. Three rain delays. Huge momentum shifts. Seven hours of drama. Play after 9pm. It all added up to arguably the greatest men's final in Wimbledon history. "Shower & the Glory," The Mail dubbed Nadal's upset.
There's no question that the new Centre Court roof is a technological marvel. It can unfold over the grass court in less than 10 minutes to keep out the weather but let in the light. Ten steel trusses support 56,000 square feet of Gore Tenara Architectural Fabric from W.L. Gore & Associates, the innovative Fast Company 50 company famous for its waterproof outerwear material. The ultra-cool covering made its debut last month when tennis' royal family, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, played an exhibition match against Tim Henman and Kim Clijsters. "There was a very heavy rain, a May English rain, during the match," says Gore sales rep Martin Bruski, "but the roof really worked."
Rain has long been a signature element and unpredictable factor at the All England Club, much like the Arctic temperatures at Lambeau Field. Two years ago, Nadal endured a match with eight delays over four days and wound up losing to Federer in the final. Would Nadal have triumphed if his earlier marathon had been shortened by a move to an enclosed Centre Court? It's impossible to say but awfully fun to consider.
I don't have stats to back this up, but I suspect that rain delays benefit underdogs and older players. They can head to the locker room to stop someone's momentum, devise a new strategy or get medical attention. This year, they'll simply pause for a few minutes as the roof slides into place. If we're fortunate enough to get a finals rematch, here's my take: advantage Federer. Nadal, who assesses the flow of a match and changes tactics so well and whose sore knees would benefit from a break, will miss the rain delays more.
And this fan will miss not just the unpredictability of the rain and the fun shots of rain-soaked Brits singing en masse to pass the time, but also the replays of previous roof-free finals.