Retiring Wimbledon CEO Gorringe looks to future

WIMBLEDON, England -- Chris Gorringe is retiring at the end of this month after 23 years as Chief Executive Officer of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club and the Wimbledon Championships. To call this a plum position is "almost an understatement," Gorringe suggested during a pleasant valedictory visit. "I have been very fortunate to have had the privilege of holding what is probably the best job in tennis administration there is in the world."

Talk to just about anyone in that frequently fractious world -- players, sponsors, tour and television executives, agents, sponsors -- and they are uncommonly unified in their praise. "A cracking good chap and a marvelous CEO of what has become a massive business as well as a premier sporting festival," said one All England Club member. "I don't know of a single soul who doesn't like and respect Chris Gorringe."

Gorringe has earned a reputation for being principled, progressive and pragmatic. Tradition-minded without being tradition-bound. Open-minded to all sides of thorny issues. He has presided over a period of unprecedented expansion and modernization of the most prestigious venue and event in tennis, with strict adherence to standards of excellence, uncompromising attention to detail, and an engaging conviviality that sets him apart from his sometimes starchy predecessors.

Now, if he could just do something about the weather.

Gorringe is most familiar to Wimbledon fans and TV audiences as The Voice that delivers public address announcements at the All England Club. Too often, that entails passing along the dolorous news that play has been suspended by rain, and the forecast from the London Weather Bureau is not encouraging.

Some longtime Wimbledon-goers always assumed that was the Voice of God, sharing tidbits of omniscience with the mortals huddled below trying to enjoy a bit of tennis in a heavenly setting. In fact, the dulcet tones are human. At 11 each morning -- and whenever else circumstances warrant throughout the day -- Gorringe shuts the windows to his ground-floor office and goes on the intercom at the corner of his desk.

When the weather is fair and he welcomes everyone to Wimbledon, there is a lilt of sunshine in his tone. When the elements turn inclement, this vibrant vox humana takes on overtones of melancholy, balanced with empathy for all those inconvenienced and irrepressible optimism that things will brighten soon. Gorringe's announcements resonate with civility, sincerity, and good old-fashioned English resignation to the whims of Mother Nature. Mostly, they ring with authority. You cannot ignore The Voice. You would stop and listen if Gorringe were reading a grocery list.

"I believe I was the first to make public address announcements here," said Gorringe who became Club Secretary -- then the top administrative job -- in 1979, and CEO in 1983. "I think we owe it to the fans to let them have the same information that is available to us on the inside. And if we make a mistake, I want them to hear it from me. I think that's only right. The people who come to Wimbledon are so patient and understanding, I just think it's important to keep them as fully and accurately informed as we can."

It is perhaps inevitable that practically every conversation with Gorringe at Wimbledon seems to begin and end with the weather.

The Championships this year began with a series of warm, dry days, the sort of stretch that before global warming was known in England as "Wimbledon weather." For more than a century, Wimbledon's dates have been fixed around the summer solstice, the tournament beginning six weeks before the first Monday in August so as to take advantage of the fortnight with longest-lasting daylight in London SW 19.

"And in spite of the climate change, we tend to forget, there's been only 15 days since the last war that we've had totally washed out, which is not too many," Gorringe said "We've only gone to the third Monday eight times during that period, which again is not too bad. But no matter what capacity you are involved in The Championships, you tend to remember the wet days, and you feel so sorry for the fans in particular. The players are very patient, I find -- maybe because they get accustomed to it, and we've given them better facilities. But rain is a strain on the whole organization. I am usually pretty envious when I go to the Australian Open or the U.S. Open, and they get generally much better weather during their championships than we do."

There has been much discussion of changing Wimbledon's traditional dates, moving a week or two later in the calendar. That would allow players more time between the only Grand Slam tournament on clay, the French Open at Stade Roland Garros in Paris, and the only one still played on grass courts, which Gorringe insists will always be the surface -- and a large part of the soul -- of Wimbledon. England may be an island, but Wimbledon no longer acts like one.

"I think it will happen," Gorringe said of the adjustment in dates. "Not only will it probably be good for The Championships, I think it would be good for the players. Two weeks, if you're playing through to the end of Roland Garros, doesn't give you sufficient time to adjust after a long clay-court season. … In any event, we are committed to our traditional dates for 2006 and 2007, and if there were a change thereafter, we need to give our host broadcasters at least two years notice … In an ideal world -- and we don't live in an ideal world, of course -- I think the four Grand Slams should be evenly spread through the year. Whether that will ever come about in our lifetime, I doubt it."

There have been more improvements and innovations implemented at Wimbledon over the past 25 years than many old hands thought they would see in their lifetime. In many ways, the oldest of tennis tournaments has moved into the 21st Century directly from the 19th, with only a brief stop in the 20th. It was not until 1968 that "Open Tennis" professionalized what had been primarily an amateur sport. The trappings of its origins as a Victorian garden party remain part of the charm of The Championships, but the quintessential ambiance has been preserved without the smug superiority Sir John Gielgud exuded in films when the subject was the colonial reaches of the British Empire.

Gorringe has presided over the transformation with sensitivity to the needs of the public, mass media, competitors, club members, and officials of the tennis community. He has a rare combination of business and people skills. He is facile with words, numbers, technological advances and human relations. He defers diplomatically to The Committee that oversees the club and the tournament, but he has really been the personification of the notion that Wimbledon truly cares about its multiple constituencies.

"The Championships have grown in every respect over the past 30 years, really as a result of Open Tennis -- not just here, obviously, but all over the world," Gorringe said. "The Grand Slams have been sort of four pillars of the game, and they have grown immeasurably during that period. But 1968 was, I think, the starting point. Television has played a huge part in developing the game, which is now played in virtually every country in the world. That certainly wasn't the case 40 years ago."

Wimbledon has grown and met the challenges of modern security and telecommunications, Gorringe says with justifiable pride, without sacrificing its bedrock traditions, standards, and principles. These include the tennis lawns, lovingly maintained and manicured to the highest possible quality; predominantly white attire for competitors; exquisite landscaping that accents the green and mauve club colors; no overt advertising on the grounds or direct sponsorship of The Championships; architectural integrity and tasteful marketing and merchandising, in keeping with Wimbledon's guiding philosophy of perpetuating the world-class garden spot of tennis.

The old Court No. 1, long a smaller showcase arena from the same architectural period as the 13,802-seat, Elizabethan-style Centre Court, was torn down after the 1996 tournament. It was replaced in 1997 by an 11,429-seat stadium with modern amenities, but a suitably antique look and feel from the day it opened. In 2000, on the former site of Court 1, the Millennium Building opened: an impressively sprawling structure of wood and glass, blended seamlessly with walls of traditional Wimbledon green. It houses the Officials' Buttery, Broadcast and Media Centres, offices, and expansive lounges and facilities for competitors -- topped off with awnings and elevated gardens and terraces.

"We did spend a lot of money on landscaping in order to preserve that atmosphere of 'tennis in an English garden,' and I think we are seeing the dividends of that now," Gorringe said. "The place does look fairly mature in spite of the additional facilities that we provided for the players and the fans and the media. I think the Millennium Building has been very creatively designed so practically everyone has a good view, it's light and airy, and it fits in very well on poor old No. 1 Court."

The ongoing, 20-year renovation and development plan will continue. The centerpiece is an expansion of the Centre Court to approximately 15,000 seats, which will begin soon, crowned with a translucent, retractable roof in place for The Championships in 2009.

"The permanent roof is going to ensure that we get as much, if not more, light to the grass for the Centre Court all year 'round, and that is hugely important, because without that, we don't have a perfect playing surface," Gorringe said. "The head groundsman is very confident we will be able to maintain the quality of the grass. The retractable roof will be stacked -- part at the south end and part at the north end. It will be a great asset for the fans and the television people in particular, to ensure we have play even when it rains."

Ah yes, the weather -- always the last word at Wimbledon. I asked Gorringe what he would be thinking when he strode onto the Centre Court after Sunday's finals for his last trophy presentation ceremonies, along with the Duke of Kent, chair umpire Wayne McKewen, and referee Alan Mills -- who is also retiring after 23 years. Surely his farewell thoughts, as he stood out there with royalty and the regal stars of tennis, would be about how much planning, preparation, and execution of multi-faceted expertise in many disciplines culminate in this crowning moment.

"No, actually, I'm keeping an eye on the weather," Gorringe said. "We still have doubles to play, and if it starts to rain, we would move the presentations to the Royal Box, as we do with the doubles. So there is still a great deal to think about at that stage, with the court conditions and administrative details, so I don't have time to be sentimental. I may flash back to my first time doing this, back in 1979. It's one thing to walk out on that Centre Court when it's empty, and quite another when it's filled with nearly 14,000 people and royalty present. It's rather daunting, really. One imagines what it would be like to sort of trip on the carpet. And even after the last doubles trophy presentation, I'm thinking about rushing off to the Savoy Hotel for the Champions' Dinner."

There are final arrangements to be tended to for that black-tie event, not to mention worrying about whether you'll need to bring a brolly -- as the British call an umbrella.

Barry Lorge, former Washington Post staff writer and sports editor/columnist of The San Diego Union, has covered tennis in more than 25 countries on five continents. He co-authored the section on tennis in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.