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Anyone for Tennis?

The highlight of every English summer, Wimbledon has become a draw for tens of thousands of spectators over a bustling two weeks in June and July. The venue - the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club - in London's leafy southwestern suburbs, was founded in 1868 and remains the Holy Land of international tennis. A professional contest has been held here since 1877 and is the only Grand Slam tournament still played on grass.

As tennis has evolved and the methods of broadcasting have changed, the vast 42-acre site increasingly becomes a veritable city within a city during the annual tournament. Since tennis players are known for their whims and frequently short tempers, Wimbledon also becomes a giant dressing room, catering station and all-round hospitality machine for the assembled players and their PR people.

The nerve centre and most exclusive section of the Club is the members-only Clubhouse, tucked away at the south side of centre court. This is where immaculate planning takes place to make the recurring event run as smoothly and presentably as possible.

Arguably one of the most important aspects of the venue's infrastructure is the lawn. The quality and contours of the surface which has to withstand a punishing schedule of over 600 matches is considered by some as crucial to a good game as the gauge of the strings on the racket.

Eddie Seaward, head groundsman since 1991, has his work cut out during the fortnight of play. Players are only the most obvious causes of damage to the lawn. Foxes urine and pigeon droppings have a devastating effect on grass, causing yellowing and drying out. England's notoriously unreliable summer weather poses another, daily headache.

The tens of thousands of visitors need to not only be entertained by thrilling, world-class tennis. They also need to be fed and watered. Facilities Management Catering (FMC) runs the largest catering operation at a sports event in Europe during Wimbledon.

The numbers are mind-boggling: 32,000 portions of fish & chips, 22,000 slices of pizza and 12,000 kg of poached and smoked salmon are polished off, washed down with 100,000 pint of beer, 200,000 glasses of Pimm's and 20,000 bottles of champagne. Last but by no means least, 28,000 kg of strawberries and 7,000 litres of fresh cream ensure that a British culinary tradition is kept alive.

The organisers have to accommodate a lot of idiosyncratic behaviour: Andy Murray insists on the same white towels and likes to practise at the same time on the same court; Rafael Nadal is obsessive about aligning his drinks bottles in a specific order on the side of the court he's playing on; Lleyton Hewitt, on the other hand, will not start playing until he listens to 'Eye of the Tiger' one more time.

The hopes of the home crowd always rest with the British talent. A few years ago, this was embodied by Tim Henman. The new incarnation is Andy Murray, though the launch of the Wimbledon Junior Tennis Initiative, started in 2001, aims to offer free training to local children to encourage another generation of young tennis aces.

Despite the international profile of venue, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club remains a private members club with a mere 375 full members. The procedure of becoming a member is somewhat shrouded in mystery, though winning the singles is a promising start. John McEnroe, however, was made to wait for a year after winning the title as punishment for bad behaviour.
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