As the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) awaits a planning decision on its proposed new 39-court development on a golf course adjacent to the world-famous SW19 home of the Wimbledon Championships, Access spoke to its head of estate development Justin Smith about the vision behind the project.

The All England Lawn Tennis Club’s Justin Smith (pictured) says its ambitious plan to build a new 8,000-seat show court, along with 38 other grass courts, is far more than an opportunity to simply expand the Wimbledon Championships’ daily capacity from 42,000 to 50,000, its aim is to improve the event’s broadcast delivery, host the qualifying tournament in SW19 and bring the event’s facilities in line with the ever-improving standards of the other grand slams tennis tournaments.

If successful, the AELTV will build 39 new grass courts on land used by the Wimbledon Park Golf Club. AELTC purchased the freehold for the site from Merton Borough Council in 1993 for £5.2 million, it leased it to the golf club on a deal due to expire in 2041 but in 2018 agreed a £65m deal to buy out the lease.

Stronger service

Central to the plan is the construction of the new 8,000-capacity “parkland show court”, which would be roughly half the capacity of Wimbledon’s Centre Court and would be set within a ring of ancient oaks.

The ability to grow the event’s capacity by 8,000 per day will bring Wimbledon closer to the attendance numbers achieved by other grand slams such as the Australian Open and US Open. The Australian Open had 812,174 fans at the 2020 event, while at the US Open in 2019 there was a record 737,000 fans. With Wimbledon limited to 42,000 spectators per day, in 2019 its attendance was 500,397 over the 13 days. From 2022 onwards Wimbledon will be a 14-day event, and so the new court would enable it to accommodate up to 112,000 more people per event.

Smith says the motivation for building the court goes well beyond simply increasing the number of attendees and tickets sold: “It is also about providing a really good experience for guests. Court Two currently doesn’t provide the best experience as we have some restrictions in how we can let people in and out of the court.”

If built, the new court will be the third largest behind Centre Court and Court One. Like the other two it will have a retractable roof, enabling play to continue whatever the weather.

“It will mean we can offer a more consistent overall experience for those who are watching the action on TV as well as those who are experiencing it live at the venue,” says Smith. “Obviously it means we can have more people arriving at the venue and yes that will result in more ticket revenue but the project is more to do with the overall Wimbledon experience and that includes the experience for those who are looking at it on the TV as well as those who actually experienced it in real life.”

The plan for the other 38 courts, which will have temporary seating, is to enable the Wimbledon qualifying tournament to be staged in SW19. It is currently held at the Bank of England Sports Centre; a vast multi-sports facility four miles up the road in Roehampton. Last summer the AELTC struck a 15-year deal to lease the facility from the Bank of England.

Smith says the hope is that the construction of the qualifying courts in Wimbledon Park will be complete by 2026 and they will be in use, once the grass has suitably matured, two years later.

“These courts will be an extension of a super high-performance machine, they will not be general everyday tennis courts,” he says. “We need to be able to use them for enhancing grass court tennis, which is what their purpose will be. That might be by linking in with other grass court tennis tournaments from around the world, and bringing people in locally to benefit the grass court season in the UK.”

Playing the opposition

Naturally, there has been a lot of public interest in the project. The fact the new courts will be constructed in parkland landscaped by Capability Brown for the first Earl Spencer in 1768 is among the reasons the AELTC’s planning submission has met with more than 1,200 objections from local people.

The organisation has tried to re-assure objectors that the new facility will match “the beauty of its surroundings and pay tribute to the site’s rich history” but the Wimbledon Park Residents Association has accused the AELTC of trying to breach a covenant it signed promising not to build on the land when it purchased it in 1993.

The proposal is currently being assessed by Merton Borough Council and will likely be decided by a planning committee meeting that is expected to take place in March.

Smith says the priority is a sensitive development of the park, which will include a new 23 acre area of open access parkland, heritage and landscape benefits such as the de-silting of and environmental works to the Wimbledon Park lake, and significant ecology and biodiversity improvements.

Should the project be given the green flag Smith says some initial work will begin prior to this year’s Championships: “We will improve drainage and make the golf course features disappear so that there is more of a rolling landscape. We have to do archaeological surveys and we’ve got some interesting work on ground investigation for energy, and we’ve got a lot of work to do with the local authorities on protecting the ecology that’s in place and working towards enhancing that.

“We have specialist in the particular trees, we’ve got specialists in the soils, we have different specialists depending on where the soils are, specialists on invertebrates and specialists on the mammals all feeding into the advice and guidance that comes with the design.

“We’ve carried out a radar survey of the roots of the veteran trees, which is one of the reasons why we’ve located the tennis courts where they are because they fit with the topography of the ground and that topography relates to the base of the trees. There has been a lot of investigation and understanding of exactly what the site is like now and what it was like historically, including looking back at some of the earliest drawings that were prepared by Capability Brown and assessing what Brown adjusted to make his park. There was an exquisite Tudor landscape there before he adjusted it.”

“As well as de-silting the lake we are looking at extending and re-establishing some of the boundaries of it, allowing more biodiversity to thrive.”

Sustainable action

With the AELTC intent on reducing emissions from its operations to ‘net zero’ by 2030, Smith says sustainability will be a key consideration throughout the construction project: “It is a super important topic. There needs to be some significant changes across the building industry. Our focus is on producing less waste, using less materials, being more efficient and reducing transportation.

“With the design for the new main court we have gone for a low energy natural ventilation approach rather than the full-scale air conditioning running for a couple of weeks and then being left.

“We have been using renewable energy for several years and have action plans across all estate areas – it’s a cohesive whole All England Club approach to sustainability.”

Community benefits

Smith says AELTC already works closely with the local councils and community to provide sporting facilities, but the new parkland will be a major step forward: “It will be a major public amenity, that space is not accessible at all at the moment, and there will be various sporting activities in the park including fishing and swimming. Outside of that we support tennis in the public park and then as you go further afield we’ve got our Wimbledon Foundation supporting activities in Wandsworth and Merton specifically.”

The Wimbledon Foundation provides grants totalling £125,000 a year to charities and community organisations tackling social problems in Merton and Wandsworth, the two local boroughs closest to Wimbledon. Organisations can apply for grants of up to £5,000.

There is also the Wimbledon Junior Tennis Initiative, which sees the AELTC coaching team visit around 65 state primary schools in Merton and Wandsworth every year to provide free coaching. “It a major outreach programme for the club,” says Smith.

It all aligns with the AELTC’s key stated objective for the Wimbledon Park Project – “To deliver a positive impact for our local, national, and international communities.”

If successful, the project will ultimately greatly enhance the facilities of the UK’s premier tennis tournament and create a valuable new public space while respecting the existing environmental treasures, such as the park’s many ancient oaks. It’s a hugely challenging landscaping and civil engineering project that looks set to keep Smith and his team busy for years to come.

“These sorts of applications are heavily scrutinised, there is a lot of legislation that goes with making an application like this and some people have been surprised by the amount of documentation we’ve prepared. If everything goes smoothly, we hope to have the early stages of construction underway within a couple of years.”

This article was published in the February edition of Access All Areas. Read it here, and/or subscribe for free here.