By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009 6:46 PM
WIMBLEDON, England, June 29 -- It started as a rumble and quickly built into full-throated cheers. Flashbulbs popped. Applause broke out. And seatmates traded high fives.
It wasn't a brilliant tennis stroke that prompted the hosannas at Wimbledon on Monday afternoon but the competitive debut of Centre Court's $132 million roof.
And it came off without a hitch.
Play was halted for roughly 30 minutes (eight to bring the structure to a close and another 20 to ramp up the massive air-conditioning system that leeches humidity from the bubble) during the second set of the fourth-round meeting between Wimbledon's top seed, Dinara Safina, and its 2006 champion, Amelie Mauresmo, with Mauresmo leading 6-4, 1-4.
With only mild sprinkles falling, the translucent roof was arguably deployed prematurely. But after a sun-drenched first week to the tournament, Wimbledon officials needed little prompting Monday to press the structure into service.
And what was the harm, really, in behaving like an impatient child who couldn't wait a moment more to show off a new toy?
Centre Court spectators reveled in becoming part of Wimbledon history, as did commentators for Radio Wimbledon, who narrated each incremental development as the two halves of the roof crept on their trusses toward each other, centimeter by centimeter, in breathless fashion.
"The roof is moving!" the announcer declared. "It's a privilege to be here on Centre Court at this moment!"
"It's almost shut now!
"It's agonizingly close to being shut!"
The moment closure was achieved, the BBC interviewed Ian Ritchie, chief executive of the All England club, who declared it "an historic moment!"
Indeed, Wimbledon, the sport's most prestigious tournament, will never be held hostage by the elements again now that Centre Court's futuristic roof can deflect the summer downpours that have wreaked havoc with the schedule since the first tennis ball was struck.
When play resumed, Safina ripped a passing shot to win Wimbledon's first "domed" point. Mauresmo held firm to level that match at one set each. But Safina stormed back for a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory that propelled her into the quarterfinals, proclaiming the Centre Court roof to her liking.
"You can't compare [it] with anything, but it's a really nice atmosphere, playing under there, especially with the crowd getting louder," Safina said.
Also advancing to the quarterfinals Monday were sisters Venus and Serena Williams, whose prospects of meeting in Saturday's championship for the second consecutive year look increasingly likely.
Venus was in full command of her match against 2008 French Open champion Ana Ivanovic when the Serb broke down in tears, unable to serve or move without pain after injuring a thigh muscle in the opening game of the second set. Ivanovic called for a trainer, who wrapped her thigh in tape, but soon after tearfully told the chair umpire she couldn't continue.
Serena's task was only marginally more difficult. She needed just 56 minute to dismiss Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova, 6-3, 6-1.
Also advancing Monday: Five-time Wimbledon champion Roger Federer, who turned back a spirited challenge by Sweden's Robin Soderling, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (7-5) in a reprise of the French Open final.
Fourth seed Novak Djokovic breezed past unseeded Dudi Sela, 6-2, 6-4, 6-1. And Croatia's Ivo Karlovic blasted 35 aces en route to a 7-6 (7-5), 6-7 (7-4), 6-3, 7-6 (11-9) upset of seventh-seeded Fernando Verdasco of Spain.
With evening drawing near, top American Andy Roddick had yet to take the court against 20th-seeded Tomas Berdych. And British hopeful Andy Murray and Stanislas Wawrinka became the first men to stride onto Centre Court with a roof overhead, their fourth-round match following Safina-Mauresmo.