Everywhere you go in my part of south-west London it is impossible not to know a major, possibly the major tennis tournament in the world, is about to commence.
Bars, restaurants and shops have giant yellow Slazenger tennis balls in their windows, alongside tennis rackets. Some are decked out in the green and purple colours of the Wimbledon championships.
On the roads, there are Wimbledon branded black Land Rover Defenders ferrying players back and forth to the practice grounds. At the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club itself, home of the competition, last-minute preparations are under way to welcome the crowds that will soon arrive.
For two weeks this leafy, quiet corner of the capital will be busy and heaving, firmly atop the global sporting calendar. This being the first “proper Wimbledon with spectators” since Covid, the atmosphere is especially buzzy and upbeat. There is, though, a cloud threatening the mood.
The famous tennis club sits in a bowl. At the top, in one direction, is the spire that provides the TV cameras with their iconic panoramic shots. Between church and courts is almost 30 hectares of landscaped parkland, which makes for a fabulous vista, as the architect, Lancelot "Capability" Brown, intended.
The greenery houses a golf club, Wimbledon Park. All of it, including golf course, has been bought by the All England Club, with the objective of building its Parkland Show Court in a 28-metre-high, 8,000 seat-stadium, extra facilities and 37 further courts for practice and the qualifying tournament, presently held at nearby Roehampton.
Residents and historical protection groups object, saying the Wimbledon expansion will create an eyesore and destroy the area’s carefully cultivated ambience. The parkland is Grade II* registered, designated as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation, and an official Open Space.
The All England Club bought the land from Merton Council in 1993 and agreed to a restrictive covenant, “not to use it except for leisure or recreational purposes or as an open space and not to build on it”. It then leased the site back to the golf club, but has now bought out the lease, in a deal that saw the golfers, including television presenters Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly — better known as Ant and Dec — and broadcaster and journalist Piers Morgan, each collect £80,000.
Wimbledon argues that since it leased the land to the golf club, tennis has exploded in popularity, and in financial potential. This year, 500,000 spectators will attend over the fortnight, and millions around the world will watch on TV. Last year, the All England made a profit of £43.3 million on increased revenue of £288m.
Despite that success, the club maintains the additional courts and buildings are vital because Wimbledon is in danger of losing prestige and falling down the pecking order of rival Grand Slam tournaments in terms of what it offers and what it can therefore earn.
The opposition is unimpressed, and since last year, more than 1,200 people have made formal objections to council planning officers. The two sides are at loggerheads and passions are running high.
In several respects, the tennis club does not have a leg to stand on — it’s protected open parkland and the covenant is there, in black and white. But if the All England is correct — and it has consistently shown itself to be a smart judge, constantly making changes that have kept Wimbledon at the peak of the sport — it should be allowed to redevelop.
Wimbledon out to crush opposition – considerately
The championships may only last a fortnight but they’re a godsend to the economy of the surrounding district, to London and to Britain. They’re a fixture of the summer season, a magnet for foreign visitors, a global advert for British tradition and success.
It’s true that the vista will be spoiled — however hard Wimbledon tries, a new stadium is not easily hidden. But that view was available only to those in the smart apartments and large houses overlooking the parkland. It was not land either that could be walked upon, except by golfers.
Wimbledon, though, is determined — it’s agreed to all sorts of expensive environmental and aesthetic measures to blend in the new project. It’s also willing to let locals have access to the grounds outside the championships, and in a first for the tournament, it’s prepared to throw in free tickets for the new show court.
Even this may not be enough to win the necessary approval. There are local left-wingers who regard the championships and the All England as elitist. The recent change in control of neighbouring Wandsworth council, from Tory to Labour, does not augur well for Wimbledon’s prospects.
It’s certainly true that membership of the club is afforded only to the privileged few. Tennis, as well, is hardly a people’s sport. It’s mostly played in private clubs and is not noted, in the UK anyway, for its diversity and inclusivity.
Nevertheless, strides are being made to improve, and in this regard, Wimbledon, despite the exclusivity of the All England, is in the vanguard. Much of the cash generated by the championships is going towards initiatives to make tennis more popular.
Which is the point. Because Wimbledon is a fine example (some might say, increasingly rare example) of something that Britain does extraordinarily well. To risk that hegemony seems crazy.
There are rules, of course there are, and they should be followed. But too often in the past, where architecture and heritage are concerned, we’ve allowed the regulations to stand in the path of progress, when compromise and reasonableness would achieve an acceptable result for both sides.
The All England should be prevailed upon to pay due heed to the legacy of Capability Brown and the concerns of the various groups and residents. That means going as far as possible to make the plans conform and non-objectionable. But equally, it should be acknowledged, where Wimbledon is concerned an exception can and must be made. It’s a matter of national interest and importance, culturally and economically, and Wimbledon has to prevail.