'It was always going to rain': Wimbledon unveils new No. 1 Court roof

The new roof on Wimbledon's No. 1 Court was closed Sunday during an exhibition event at the All England Club. Kim Clijsters of Belgium is pictured during her match with Venus Williams. Dan Istitene/Getty Images

LONDON -- It was always going to rain.

As Wimbledon unveiled its new No. 1 Court roof to the nearly packed stands and national television audience, the heavens opened an hour or so before celebrations began and all was well as the £70 million structure clicked into place.

Quite what the Wimbledon crowd made of Paloma Faith's extravagant pumpkin-coloured dress that took four people to carry onto the court, only they know, but it was an event which mixed the traditional, the slightly bizarre and the ever-present need to evolve. Wimbledon, despite tweaks here and there, still remains true to its brilliant feel of being set apart from the outside world and immersed in tennis.

Wimbledon now stands alongside the US Open as having two covered courts, one behind the Australian Open venues, while Court Philippe Chatrier's roof has another year to go until completion at Roland Garros. It serves the practical purpose of allowing schedules to flow across the two weeks in July here at SW19 and will cut in half the number of mentions of "typical British weather" whenever rain starts to fall -- although quite what that is these days is uncertain given just last weekend we had hail, rain and scorching sun all in the space of an hour.

Sunday's event allowed the organisers to test out the air conditioning and the practicalities of the new roof.

Outside of No. 1 Court, Wimbledon felt eerily bare; the temporary stands were yet to be built on the outside courts and a faint smell of drying paint carried in the sticky spring air. Spectators peered closely at the immaculately cut grass in between Centre Court and No.1 Court, feeling a mixture of cheekiness at being so close to hallowed tennis turf and equally surprise at how the grass looks like, well, grass.

Centre Court had its grand overhaul in 2009 but, five years in the making, it was No.1 Court's turn to get its new covering and with it a series of eye-watering, shoulder-aching statistics at the weight and cost of the new roof. Each of the 11 trusses holding the 38 tennis court's worth of fabric weigh in at 100 tonnes. It took 2.2 million hours to get the court ready from concept to reality while the capacity has been increased to 12,345 fresh, new, slightly wider seats.

We were prevented a chance to look up in awe and experience our own Independence Day spacecraft eclipse-type moment with the sky closed thanks to the earlier rain. The novelty will wear off, just like it has on Centre Court, as the roof goes from being this exciting new addition to part of the functional furniture. But it also symbolises sport's general challenge in this age of short attention spans and esports.

The All England Lawn Tennis Club knows it faces the almost paradoxical battle to combine 150-year old tradition with the changing landscape outside of this tennis oasis. They have remained true to their tennis values -- last summer the football World Cup was not shown on the screens here, it's a place for tennis and that's it -- and are still offering people a chance to get away from the ordinary, and embrace the extraordinary the minute you step through the gates.

There are subtle changes inside, too. Not just content with a roof, the outside of No.1 Court has also been spruced up with 14,344 plants forming two new "living walls".

There is also the movement outside as the venue continues going through its transformation. In December the AELTC's battle to buy the Wimbledon Park golf club's lease finally came to fruition when the £65m deal went through to allow it to expand the tournament with a potential third grand arena to increase footfall -- the Australian Open saw 780,000 spectators attend this year's Slam compared to 473,169 at Wimbledon in 2018.

And that osmosis between nostalgia and modernisation was played out on Sunday as you watched the sport's greats from decades past, interspersed with talk over Paloma Faith's heels and their impact on the lush, manicured grass. You had the wondrous Joseph Calleja's voice blending into on-court chat lamenting yesteryear's rain delays. All the while local homeless charities benefited from the entry fees via the Wimbledon Foundation.

Boxes were ticked to please first-time Wimbledon visitors and equally those who have sat in the same seat for years. John McEnroe's first words on court resulted in him shouting "You cannot be serious" as he gave a nod back to 1981 and his infamous outburst at the umpire in a match against Bjorn Borg. He later challenged the umpire on the second point of his mixed-doubles match as he partnered Kim Clijsters against Jamie Murray and Martina Navratilova.

Tim Henman was given approximately three seconds to turn smile into answer when his 2001 semifinal with Goran Ivanisevic was mentioned, a game which took three days and five sets to complete due to poor weather and saw Henman miss out on his maiden Wimbledon final having led 2-1 on Day 1. Oh, how history could've been re-written but for the roof we have now.

On court in the three exhibition matches, 2001 champion Ivanisevic played the role of jester as he draped himself over the net, jumped over the net, passed his racquet to a petrified ball boy and sent one serve directly into the eighth row before then challenging the call of out. Pat Cash and Lleyton Hewitt followed suit. Amid the hilarity there was this warm feeling of seeing Ivanisevic charge up his serve in that pendulum-type manner, while his playing partner Jamie Murray brought focus back into 2019 as those around the court speculated whether we would see him and his brother, Andy, back here in July challenging for a doubles title. No one would have felt short-changed as Wimbledon took another step into modernisation.

Between the eight players who rattled through their one-set, first to six-game matches there were 20 Wimbledon titles, amid a haul of 40 Grand Slam singles triumphs. Navratilova calls this place "home", walking around those familiar surroundings, taking in the audience's adulation. Venus Williams admitted to her typical Wimbledon nerves as she quickly swapped the clay of the Italian Open for this event.

"It's just a lot louder," Hewitt said after his men's doubles match. "Obviously there's nowhere for that noise to go so it really builds up and I was fortunate to play a couple of times on Centre Court with the roof, so it's such a similar feel to that now but I'm sure all the players are going to have a great time when they get the opportunity to play with the roof closed."

Regardless of the outside changes, and additions of roofs, those memories of champions from previous decades are still as bright as ever in this tournament's rich tapestry. And the sport and its humanity remain the same: regardless of how things change, the apologies for unintentional winners and involuntary tears and fist-pumping at match-winning points are the same. Those who fear changes to Wimbledon's values need not worry.

Back in 1922, the championships finished three days late due to rain. Rain has become as intertwined with Wimbledon's DNA as those other signifiers of this championship: Henman Hill, strawberries and cream, shots of spectators turning heads side to side, Pimm's and British hopes.

And it rained on Sunday at Wimbledon, but now in 2019, people smiled, laughed and shook their heads in happy disbelief as they enjoyed the celebrations. "The important thing is the roof works," McEnroe said.

This fine old place's traditions remain the same, but Wimbledon continues to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing world outside of the green and purple walls.