Centre Court's retractable roof unveiled

WIMBLEDON, England -- Wimbledon picked the perfect day for showcasing its new retractable roof on Centre Court.

The sliding, canvassed roof barely had time to shut Sunday for the All England Club's grand opening -- or closing -- of the new structure before the rain starting pouring down over south London. In the same kind of weather that has forced so many rain delays in the past, the Centre Court then hosted a televised tennis spectacle in perfect conditions.

"It's a real treat to be able to play in these conditions inside, when it's been so miserable, cold, windy and wet outside," said Tim Henman, who teamed with Kim Clijsters to play married couple Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf in doubles and singles matches.

It seems no fan with a Centre Court ticket will ever return home again without seeing a single shot of tennis played.

"Fundamentally, it worked like it was supposed to work," said Ian Ritchie, the All England Club's chief executive.

To kick off the event, the sliding roof slowly started unfolding with a soft whirring in an afternoon ceremony as British singers Faryl Smith and Katherine Jenkins sang "Amazing Grace" in the center of the court.

The 15,000 spectators -- along with invited guests such as former tennis great Boris Becker -- collectively raised their heads and cameras as the 10 trusses supporting a translucent canvas slowly covered the court to shield it from the heavy gray clouds above.

As the two-parted roof closed without a hitch, it was greeted by a thunderous applause.

Then shortly after the tennis began, as if on cue, it started to rain.

Not that anyone inside the stadium noticed.

"The conditions were really good," Clijsters said. "And I love the sound. Wimbledon already had that, where you feel like when [the crowd is] really into the match, the sound really comes down to the players. And now even more so with the roof. For the players, it just feels like they're right there next to you."

Agassi also said the closed surrounding will take the atmosphere to a new level.

"The sound was magnificent," he said. "I think when you get two people out there who can really play, and move and hit the ball, I think you're going to feel a level of titanic battle that you haven't seen yet. ... That's an environment that lends itself to some spectacular tennis."

The roof is perhaps the biggest change to come to the 87-year-old tennis cathedral, and marks a remarkable break with tradition by the famously conventional All England Club.

But if the Centre Court looked more modern than ever, the action on the grass looked decidedly old-school.

Graf, a seven-time Wimbledon champion, returned to the Centre Court for the first time in 10 years, while Agassi won his first Grand Slam title here in 1992.

They still know how to entertain a crowd, though. The couple drew a large cheer by exchanging a good-luck kiss on the court before the doubles match. Then they showed they can still make some shots as well.

On his first serve, Agassi taunted Clijsters for standing close to the baseline for her return, telling her to "move back a bit." When she didn't, he punished her with an ace.

On the next serve, Henman moved nearly all the way back to the wall for his return.

The ladies had their moments as well. In the third game, Clijsters and Graf exchanged so many crosscourt forehands that Henman and Agassi just put their hands on their hips and watched. When Clijsters finally hit the ball Agassi's way, he netted a volley -- to Graf's feigned dismay.

In the end, Henman and Clijsters won the one-set match 7-6 (6) after Agassi hit a lob long. Agassi then beat Henman 6-4 in singles and Clijsters defeated Graf by the same score.

But as much as the crowd enjoyed seeing the old Wimbledon stalwarts back on the Centre Court, it was the new structure that received the most praise.

"It's beautiful," said third-ranked Andy Murray, who hopes to become the first Briton since Fred Perry in 1936 to win Wimbledon. "It looks very nice, compared to most roofs."

Five-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer, who beat rival Rafael Nadal in the final of the Madrid Open on Sunday, sent a recorded greeting to the crowd, saying he couldn't wait to play at the new-look Centre Court.

"So often do we just wait around [during rain delay]," Federer said. "I know that can be fun too, but maybe after a few days you want to see a match. ... For me it's nice to see that Wimbledon is taking such a big step in the right direction."

The roof takes about 10 minutes to close, and the Centre Court's ventilation system then needs about 30 minutes to get moisture out of the air and create the right conditions. During short rain showers, organizers still plan on using the traditional covers on the court to create shorter breaks. Once the roof is up, it will not open up until a match is over.

After finally getting the roof completed, Ian Ritchie, the chief executive of the All England Club, said he wouldn't be surprised to see perfect weather at this year's tournament. But that's just fine with him.

"We see this as an outdoor summer tournament," he said. "The roof is an insurance."