In 2013, Wimbledon maintains its tradition amid calls for change in the sport

The gold piping on Roger Federer’s tennis shirt and jacket passed muster in 2009. But when the Swiss master strode onto Wimbledon’s Centre Court this year wearing orange-soled sneakers, that was a step too far — even for a seven-time champion.

So at the conclusion of his first-round match, Federer was asked to change his footwear.

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Tennis has its rules. And nowhere are those rules held in higher regard than at the All England club, host of Wimbledon, where players are required to dress “almost entirely in white,” and the standards of decorum for competitor and spectator alike are a notch above.

At Wimbledon, “gentlemen’s” and “ladies’ ” matches are contested, rather than men’s and women’s.

Ballboys and ballgirls present themselves for inspection at 10 a.m. daily, standing shoulder to shoulder, posture erect and uniforms spotless, like an extended Von Trapp family.

And shortly before ticket holders stream in at 10:30 a.m. sharp, the public-address announcer does not bellow “Are you ready to RUMBLE!?” but extends a warm, avuncular, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. We are about to open the gates. In the interest of your safety and those around you, please do not run.”

It’s all part of what makes the oldest, most revered tournament in tennis a singular experience.

But as the sport’s popularity wanes in the United States, overtaken by the NBA, hockey and auto racing, according to a recent Harris Poll, it begs the question: Is tennis too staid for its own good?

Murphy Jensen felt so two decades ago and, with elder brother and doubles partner, Luke, launched a two-man campaign to ramp up the sport’s cool quotient. With their 1993 French Open doubles title conferring credibility, they preached so-called “rock-n-roll tennis” everywhere they went. They competed in soccer jerseys with their names on the backs at the U.S. Open, once rode motorcycles onto court before a match and granted interviews to anyone who’d listen.

Now 44 and coach of the Washington Kastles, Murphy Jensen still feels tennis could do far more to connect with fans. For starters, he thinks its stars should be more accessible. “Racecar drivers about to go 200 miles an hour give dynamite interviews just before getting in their cars,” Jensen notes.

He wonders why tennis doesn’t create a midseason all-star match. Or why not bring back greats such as Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras to judge a skills competition among top players, akin to the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest?

“You can never stop trying to make the sport fun and colorful,” Jensen says.

But even he believes that Wimbledon should remain exactly as is, suspended in a time capsule of a bygone era’s tradition and grace.

Former No. 1 Andy Roddick, a three-time Wimbledon finalist, agrees on both counts. Yes, tennis could and should do more to spur fan interest. But Wimbledon, he says, isn’t the place to experiment.

“Leave Wimbledon alone because its tradition is the coolest thing in our sport,” Roddick says. “That’s the tournament you don’t touch.”

Adds Jensen: “If Wimbledon abandoned its rules and restrictions, the fans who go there would feel like they went to Sistine Chapel and saw graffiti on the wall. It’s the mecca!”

Serenity on the grass

To be sure, if it weren’t for the ubiquitous cellphones in spectators’ hands (dutifully silenced during play), it would be difficult to pinpoint the decade while strolling the grounds during Wimbledon.

Nothing at the All England club is gaudy or showy in the slightest. The exterior of each court is forest green, to blend with the natural surroundings. There is no corporate signage. Nor are there massive, blinking scoreboards hawking beer and urging fans to “Make Some Noise!”

Instead, at the conclusion of each match, groundskeepers clamber up dark-green ladders to hang victors’ names on large wooden boards displaying the draw.

All this quaint serenity poses a challenge — albeit a privileged sort of one — for ESPN, which broadcasts 140 hours of tennis during Wimbledon’s fortnight.

“That’s a lot of coverage of competition on green grass on a rectangle between two players in white,” concedes Jamie Reynolds, ESPN’s veteran tennis producer.

With each telecast, Reynolds explains, the network strives to provide “discovery and access” — giving information, as well as a peek behind the scenes, that viewers couldn’t get otherwise. Needless to say, it must work within the private club’s rules.

At the U.S. Open, ESPN has experimented with putting microphones in players’ guest boxes to convey their loved ones’ angst, anguish and joy. At Wimbledon, that’s not permitted.

Earlier this week, ESPN mulled over putting wireless microphones on brothers John and Patrick McEnroe during their senior invitational doubles match — an idea that surely would have added color to the broadcast. But the request was submitted too late for the All England club to properly vet.

Slow march to the future

That’s not to say Wimbledon isn’t keeping up with the times. Rather, its embrace of the 21st century has been qualified and carefully calibrated.

Wimbledon was the last of the four Grand Slams to award equal prize money for women and men. When debated behind closed doors, among the arguments reportedly against was that spending extra money on the women’s purse would mean less money to spend on the cascading pots of petunias adorning the grounds.

Under pressure from top players such as Venus Williams and England’s own prime minister, Wimbledon officials capitulated in 2007. The tournament appears to have absorbed the extra expense without a hitch, managing to remain the only major sports venue that smells of flowers rather than spilled beer.

That same year, Wimbledon adopted the Hawk-Eye system of instant replay to settle controversial line calls. Initially resisted by traditionalists, Hawk-Eye is now an unqualified crowd-pleaser.

In 2009, Centre Court debuted a $160 million retractable roof that is a triumph of elegant, unobtrusive design. A roof over the tournament’s next biggest venue, Court 1, is in the planning stages.

Former pro Justin Gimelstob, now a Tennis Channel commentator, believes it’s time that tennis explore every possible entertainment-driven, fan-friendly innovation, regardless of how radical it may seem to players or officials.

“I was shocked seeing an hour before a huge game in the NBA playoffs a herd of reporters in front of LeBron James’s locker,” Gimelstob says. “The amount of access to players that other sports allow is a huge part of the way they tell their story and draw a connection between their fans and players.”

But like Roddick, he doesn’t want so much as a blade of grass to change at Wimbledon.

“Wimbledon is an outlier in this,” Gimelstob says. “You don’t tell the Masters what to do; you don’t tell Wimbledon what to do.”

The sport’s original rock-n-roller agrees.

“I want my son to experience the same Wimbledon that Rod Laver did,” says Murphy Jensen. “Wimbledon puts the professional athlete in his place. The game and the atmosphere and the tradition are bigger than the individual. In today’s modern world of professional sports, I think Wimbledon humbles the biggest of stars.”

 
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