x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Rain could force Nadal under cover in Wimbledon opener

The holder will be the first to start his title defence under cover as rain threatens to dampen the start of the grass-court grand slam.

Rafael Nadal was out in the sunshine yesterday, but it may be a different story today. Toby Melville / Reuters
Rafael Nadal was out in the sunshine yesterday, but it may be a different story today. Toby Melville / Reuters

LONDON // Rafael Nadal could become the first player to begin the defence of his Wimbledon title under cover today as rain threatens to dampen the start of the grass-court grand slam.

If the forecasts prove accurate, the opening day could be a busy one for the ground staff at the All England Club but the world No 1 Nadal, at least, can safely assume he will start on time thanks to the Centre Court's sliding roof.

The Spaniard opens proceedings against the American Michael Russell and is followed by Italy's Francesca Schiavone against Australia's former world No 1 Jelena Dokic with Britain's Andy Murray's first-round match against Spain's Daniel Gimeno-Traver last on Centre Court.

Since the translucent roof, costing an estimated £80 million (Dh480m), was completed in time for the 2009 championships the weather has been kind to Wimbledon organisers.

Glorious warm and sunny weather presided throughout the fortnight last year when the roof's only brief task was to allow the completion of a late Novak Djokovic match with the help of the structure's lighting system.

In 2009, the match between Amelie Mauresmo and Dinara Safina went down in Wimbledon history as the first to be played partly under cover after drizzle interrupted play.

Murray's epic against Swiss player Stanislas Wawrinka on the same day was the first match to start and finish under the roof, which weighs 1,000 tonnes and comes with its own air-conditioning system.

Mainly, however, it has been redundant and, for the vast majority of players involved in this year's draws, the court conditions under the roof will be an unknown quantity, including Roger Federer, the six-time champion.

"In Halle I got the opportunity to play in some of the grass-court matches under the roof," Federer, who begins his tournament tomorrow, told reporters as heavy rain showers sent players scurrying from the practice courts at the weekend.

"But then again, Wimbledon is a different centre court, so definitely will take some getting used to in the beginning.

"It will be interesting to see. I honestly thought it was going to be a bit of a rainy Wimbledon this year.

"The spring was just too nice all over Europe it seems."

The few occasions that the roof has been used have brought mixed reviews, with some players claiming the humidity was stifling while others said the grass became slippery.

Wawrinka became so hot against Murray two years ago that he came off looking like he had fallen asleep in a sauna.

"It's more humid. It slows the conditions down and the balls become heavier," Murray said.

Novak Djokovic agreed that it did alter the playing conditions. "I think when the roof closes it's a bit slower and a bit more slippery," the second seed from Serbia told reporters.

"But at least I know approximately what it feels like to be under the roof."

While the roof, which takes 10 minutes to close and enables play to restart within 30 minutes, could finally start to earn its keep this year, organisers are quick to stress Wimbledon remains an outdoor, daytime event.

However, should it be raining 45 minutes before play is scheduled to start on Centre Court today, the tournament referee is likely to hit the button and shut out the elements so the 125th championships can start on time.

FIVE TO WATCH FOR:

Thomas Berdych
The Czech, 25, appeared to announce his arrival on the big stage when he reached the final of last year’s Wimbledon by unleashing a series of booming ground strokes to beat Roger Federer and Novak Djovokic. He has done little since and will be hoping a return to his favourite surface heralds a return to form.

Sam Querrey
He has the tools to trouble the best on grass, evidenced by his victory at Queen’s last year. The American lost to Andy Murray last year and there is no disgrace in that. The 23 year old possesses one of the biggest serves in the game.

Juan Martin Del Potro
Once ranked No 4 in the world, the Argentine is seeded 24 this week and is a potentially dangerous fourth-round opponent for Rafael Nadal. Injury and a loss of form means he is not the same force he was in 2009 but he can still trouble the very best with his first serve and topspin ground strokes.

Stanislas Wawrinka
Federer is not the only top Swiss player. Wawrinka is yet to go past the fourth round at Wimbledon yet showed what he is capable of in 2009 when he took Murray to five sets in the first match played under the new roof. His back hand is a match for anyone on the circuit.

John Isner / Nicolas Mahut
You cannot be serious? The two men who slugged it out in the longest tennis match in history at the All England Club last year have been paired together again this year. Surely they can’t conjure up a repeat of the 70-68 final-set decider?