Rufus the Hawk reports for duty weighing 1 pound, 6 ounces.
An ounce or two more and he’s too sedentary. Any lighter and he ceases being the non-lethal deterrent Wimbledon contracts him to be and roams farther afield for mouse, snake or hare.
But if Rufus arrives at his optimum weight, he need only soar over Centre Court a few times to earn his hand-fed reward of raw chicken bits. The mere sight of his 40-inch wingspan is enough to shoo away the pigeons that might otherwise land on the court during a critical point, deposit droppings in the Royal Box or roost in the eaves to feast on grass seed all winter, as if the sod were a buffet table.
A 6-year-old Harris hawk with prodigious self-esteem, Rufus is just one of several hundred actors in the meticulously choreographed dance that unfolds between dawn and 10:30 a.m. daily throughout the Wimbledon fortnight.
From strawberry-hullers to bomb-sniffing English springer spaniels, every man and beast has a task before the All England club’s wrought-iron gates open to the tennis-mad public. And every task — whether mowing, measuring, marking, pruning, watering, soaring, sniffing, sweeping, scrubbing or polishing — has its appointed time for completion.
No detail is overlooked. Everything must be just so at the most esteemed of the four Grand Slams. A ticket to Wimbledon, after all, constitutes an invitation to a private club that opens to royals and commoners alike for two weeks each year to watch the world’s best players in the most pristine setting in sports.
“It’s all about the details,” says Lucy Tomlinson, 21, a member of Wimbledon’s daytime housekeeping staff, which from 7:30 a.m. onward restocks the loos with soap and hand towels, polishes the banisters, scrubs scuff marks from the entryways and wipes away beads of water left by the power-washing of ticket-holders’ seats.
“We make sure everything is absolute perfection!”
Neil Stubley, the head groundsman, starts his day with a 5:30 a.m. check of the forecast. Based on that, he directs his staff when to deflate the translucent covers on the 41 grass courts so they can be rolled up and stowed and the sod watered if the daily measurements of its hardness indicate there’s a need.
All of Wimbledon’s courts are oriented in a north-south direction. A specific groundskeeper is assigned to each court for the tournament’s duration. And each mows the rye grass to precisely eight millimeters each morning, in exactly the same pattern of alternating stripes.
Every cutting is captured by the mower; even a stray snippet of grass could cause a player to slip.
“If Roger [Federer] or Andy [Murray] or [Rafael Nadal] goes out onto any of the practice courts in the morning and then comes out to any of the match courts, they should play exactly the same because we have controlled the moisture, the grass species and the cutting,” explains Stubley, who supervises a staff of 32 groundskeepers and gardeners.
Then come pairs of groundskeepers who mark the lines with titanium dioxide and set up the nets.
By that point, roughly 9 a.m., David Spearing has started work at the golf course across Church Road that doubles as a camping ground for the thousands of fans in the queue for tickets. Wimbledon’s honorary chief steward, Spearing has the privilege of informing the campers over loudspeakers at 7:30 a.m. the number of tickets available for public sale that day and handing out the wristbands that guarantee entry to Centre Court, Court 1 or the grounds in general.
It is but one of his duties. The other is sitting in the players’ guest box on Centre Court. Wimbledon is the lone major that seats the relatives, coaches and friends of both players in the same box. And Spearing, expert in protocol and discretion, is on hand to greet, seat and, on the rarest occasion, mediate.
“It’s basically an honor to have the job rather than any particular ability,” says Spearing, who sits in the corner of the 39-seat box, with the higher seed’s 19 guests to his right and the lower seed’s 19 guests to his left. “Being pleasant is easy.”
Based on wags, few enjoy their early morning rounds more than the dogs tasked with sniffing potential explosives. A mix of spaniels and retrievers, they scamper up and down the walkways, peer under benches and poke into trash bins positively quivering with excitement over the prospect of finding something that warrants a prize. At Wimbledon, naturally, that prize is a fuzzy yellow tennis ball.
Dogs, however, are one of the few sights that unsettle Rufus. So handler Imogen Davis, whose parents and five siblings breed and train raptors for a living, does her best to steer the hawk clear of Wimbledon’s canines. It’s not always easy, given that Rufus’s vision is 10 times better than her own.
“If Rufus was at one end of a football pitch and a newspaper was at the other end, Rufus could read the headline!” Davis says by way of illustration. “If he could read.”
One could get the impression Rufus can indeed read from his Twitter account, @RufusTheHawk, which reveals a raptor of cracking wit and considerable ego. Among his recent tweets:
“Chasing pigeons is an art form, like poetry or twerking. And I, Rufus, am an artist.”
And, “The reason Sharapova is so loud when she serves is because she wants to scare away pigeons to be more like me.”
Apart from the sight of dogs, nothing rattles Rufus. Not the sound of Wimbledon’s lawn mowers. Not the sound of leaf blowers. Not even the fire alarm that gets a full-song test each morning at 9:35.
It’s followed at 9:45 a.m. by a call over the public-address system for all staff and contractors to remove all vehicles and carts from the grounds in preparation for the opening of the gates, 45 minutes away.
Gardeners deadhead petunias and pluck yellowed leaves from ferns and hydrangeas at Centre Court’s South Entrance, where guests of the Royal Box enter.
The 250 ball boys and girls start arriving at Gate 13. They form a single-file line and march up the steps of St. Mary’s Walk without uttering a word, the only sound the pad of 500 sneakers on the pavement.
Aged 14 to 18, the schoolchildren have trained for this duty since late January, taught by gym teacher Sarah Goldson how to properly roll tennis balls between points, how to raise their right hand before feeding the ball to the server and, above all, how to stay still during play.
“They can move their eyes, and they can wriggle their toes,” Goldson says. “But that’s about it.”
They also must wear their uniform correctly. Shoelaces must be tied in double knots. Shirts must be tucked in and trousers worn at the waist, not sagging in any manner. Water bottles must tucked on the right side of their backpacks. And for girls, long hair must be tied back.
“Makeup, chewing gum is a big no-no.” Goldson adds. “Jewelry, definitely not!”
As the ticket holders mass at the gates, the strawberry-sorters’ hands are flying in a chilled catering room tucked behind the grounds’ largest food court. Wearing green fleeces for warmth, a staff of six sits around a table and inspects and hulls the berries. They’re picked at 5 a.m. daily at a farm an hour’s drive away and delivered to the grounds by refrigerated trucks. No scales are needed for the portioning out; it’s 10 strawberries per little plastic bowl. And roughly 8,600 bowls, or “punnets,” are consumed daily.
Outside, the sun inches higher in sky. The clock shows 10:25 a.m., the next cue for Wimbledon’s public-address announcer.
“Attention ladies and gentlemen, we will shortly be opening the gates,” he advises. “In the interest of your own and others’ safety, please do not run.”
In five minutes’ time, everything is in its place. The dogs have exited with their minders. The ball boys and girls have assumed their posts. Two towels have been placed on each player’s chair on every court. The air smells of petunias in full bloom.
And Rufus, having secured his realm for another day, has slipped on the custom leather hood that signals naptime and a job well done to Wimbledon’s brave hawk.