London Evening Standard
Andy Murray may or may not win Wimbledon but Philip Brook can guarantee one thing at SW19 — the price of strawberries there is the same as last year, £2.50.
The chairman of the All England Club smiles as he says this but then spells out what a Murray triumph two weeks on Sunday would mean. “There is an Andy Murray factor,” he says. “We saw it last year with our issue of debentures.”
Brook is referring to the impact Murray’s 2013 victory had on income. The previous debenture issue in 2009 brought in just under £60million. Last year, with the country still basking in the after-glow of Britain’s first men’s singles champion since Fred Perry in 1936, raised £100m. This was despite the debenture — which guarantees a Centre Court seat for every day of the Grand Slam for five years — almost doubling in cost to £50,000.
“One of the reasons it was so successful was that people looking to buy debentures will have had in their minds that Murray is 28 now,” explains Brook. “He’s probably going to be playing tennis for at least another five years.” And, despite 2014 hardly being a vintage year for Murray, the public’s confidence in him has not dimmed. The debentures can be traded in the open market and this year they have fetched twice their value: £100,000.
This price could go up further should Murray win on July 12, something which Brook is quietly confident about.
“He has won so he knows he can win again and he’s probably playing some of the best tennis of his life,” says Brook. “He seems to have recovered fully from his injury. His performance on clay this year was far and away his best ever. He had never won a tournament on clay before. He has now won two. He likes playing on grass. He’s in front of the home crowd. He’s fit. So he’ll come into Wimbledon with a lot of confidence.”
That belief increased on Sunday, when the world No3 won the Aegon Championships. Murray’s 2013 Wimbledon triumph was also preceded by a win at Queen’s. Brook says: “It helps the confidence. This year, Queen’s had the strongest player field they have ever had. And, with the Championships moved back a week, he has had an extra week on grass and he has been at Wimbledon practically every day practising with Lleyton Hewitt.”
The All England Club have far-reaching plans to use the bounty that the “Murray factor” has brought in.
“The flagship is the Number One Court project,” says Brook. “A new fixed and retractable roof will be put on Number One Court by the 2019 Championships. The stadium will be a little bit bigger, from 11,500 to 12,500 seats, with two additional rows of seats around the back. The seats on Centre Court will all be replaced by wider, new, padded seats, an upgrade of the facility all round the stadium. There will be some new hospitality facilities as well. Court 19 will cease to be a tennis court and become a new plaza for public catering to help serve Henman Hill. That will be a big improvement for the thousands of fans on the Hill needing refreshment.”
Brook is confident that, as with the previous changes, such as the Centre Court roof, the Championships will not be affected. Brook touches wood as he says this. But more than luck seems to have been involved given the problems the other great club across London has had. Last month, the MCC’s AGM saw vociferous complaints about proposed changes to Lord’s resulting in a resolution being passed specifying the leg room for the new Tavern and Allen stands.
So does that mean tennis members are more biddable than MCC members? Brook smiles and says: “The one thing we did do with Centre Court when we put the roof on back in 2009 was we redid the bowl and put in wider seats. We didn’t increase the leg space but we did increase the width, just to reflect the fact that people are a little bit bigger these days. We will do the same on Number One Court, putting in wider and more comfortable seats.”
And, unlike cricket, with its live coverage now wholly on pay TV, Wimbledon has no plans to desert the BBC.
Amplifying recent remarks on this subject by Wimbledon chief executive Richard Lewis, Brook says: “We have a 90-year relationship with the BBC and it works really well. I can’t see any reason why we would want to change.
“When Andy Murray won in 2013, the peak audience was 17million. Nobody else in Britain could do that and it’s really important to Wimbledon that we are available to the British public. People can turn on their television sets and watch Wimbledon. Many people who aren’t tennis fans do. Our Championships transcend the sport. It’s a very strong relationship.”
The relationships between organisations within sport can be tested. This week, for instance, it was claimed in a report that the ECB had put pressure on Sky not to use Kevin Pietersen as an Ashes commentator.
Wimbledon, however, has never told the BBC who to employ. John Inverdale, who made unflattering comments about the looks of 2013 ladies’ champion Marion Bartoli, will no longer be doing the nightly highlights show. So did Wimbledon have words with the BBC? “Their decision,” says Brook, as if to suggest any interference with BBC plans would be unthinkable.
For Wimbledon, this relationship with the BBC is part of a tradition which means Brook can say the club does not have sponsors but “official suppliers”.
“There is no danger of an Emirates Wimbledon,” he says. “We don’t need an airline. The official suppliers provide something for the Championships, whether it’s technology, clocks or clothing, in the case of Ralph Lauren. They understand the tradition, history and heritage of this place. When a TV camera homes in on the scoreboard there is a very discreet Rolex sign. This works for them and for us and is one of the real differentiators of Wimbledon.
“The grass tennis courts, the white tennis clothing, the clean site, all of those things create some of the mystique and allure about the Championships. What we certainly don’t do is measure success in terms of finance.”
But, as Murray showed, British success does bring in the money.