THIS is the benefit of having plenty of pairs of shoes in the office,” says Justin Smith as he bounds off up a muddy pathway through Wimbledon Park Golf Club. I, staring at my recently polished City loafers, am less enthusiastic in my stroll, but one gets the sense matching the tiggerish Justin’s enthusiasm on anything might be a challenge.
Smith is the Head of Estate Development at the All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, and tasked with ensuring the grounds are in tip-top condition for the fortnightly Championships. The golf club we are walking on is at the heart of that future.
The All-England plans to turn this (extremely) manicured and (extremely) exclusive patch of greenery in SW19 into a vital part of the Wimbledon fortnight. So much so that it has already spent £65m acquiring the land from the golf club – which, as it was owned collectively by its members including Piers Morgan and Ant & Dec, saw each fully-paid up member collecting an £85,000 windfall. The next stage is a £100m development – if, and only if, the plans get approval.
There are myriad reasons for the planned development, but Smith – and others around the Club on a gorgeous autumn day – are adamant it’s first and foremost about ensuring Wimbledon remains at the “pinnacle” of the game of tennis.
In particular, the All England want to have the qualifiers, currently played the week before the tournament in a relatively non-descript Roehampton venue, brought into the grounds. After Emma Raducanu blitzed her way from the US Open qualifiers to a surprise title earlier this year, it’s a compelling argument.
“The competition with the other Grand Slam events, where they hold their qualifying events on the same sites, means we need to be able to do the same thing,” he tells me – now back on firmer footing in the AELTC’s offices. The land will house an additional 38 courts.
An additional ‘third court’ – the Parkland court – will seat 8,000 spectators. One side of the golf club, which heads out towards the lake at the centre of Wimbledon Park, will be turned into a public park accessible for all but the Championships.
Smith explains the process of manicuring this new land – in particular, protecting the tree canopy.
“We’ve got a host of historic oak trees here which need some TLC,” he says.
The golf fairways have been marked off with a host of newer trees, which while perfectly lovely, are now gradually killing those oaks by swallowing much-needed ground water. Smith is keen to point out that while some of those will be moved or removed, both the number of trees in the new Wimbledon development, and their quality, will be enhanced.
“It takes about two years to move a big oak tree. So it’s not an overnight process,” he says. He has a friend at Augusta, home of the Master’s golf tournament. They share tips on tree-bothering, but the upshot is hopefully a park that more adequately mirrors its pre-golf past.
There is, of course, a commercial element to the move. Wimbledon was in the fortunate position of having something like a normal 2021 tournament, with capacity crowds for finals weekend. The All England were also one of the few major sporting tournaments to have pandemic insurance, sparing it the worst of 2020.
In time the new area will allow a higher number of daily punters in, which has an obvious implication for ticket revenue.
Sponsors will no doubt welcome a new, polished show court and a bigger tournament.
In 2019, revenues for the All England hit £292m, with a profit of around £50m – with some £45m given to the Lawn Tennis Association to fund grassroots tennis.
Which brings us to the difficult question of planning. Despite the Club’s commitment to – in Justin’s words – being a “careful custodian” of the landscape, some remain sceptical, and see the expansion as a purely commercial exercise. The All England expect a decision from the two councils involved, Merton and Wandsworth, at the start of the new year.
For now, Justin remains optimistic about a project that would run until the next decade. “It’s exciting for us, and I think for restoring some of the natural landscape.”
With that, he bounds off to another project on the grounds – all of which need to be squeezed into the gap between Championships, ensuring the tournament still goes ahead as planned. And they thought it was just the tennis players who sweated in this corner of SW19…