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John Inverdale: Anchor man to serve a break-free feast at Wimbledon

You can almost smell the strawberries and cream in the air.

Loaded with tradition and heritage, Wimbledon is one the world's most prestigious sporting events, the title coveted by tennis's big names above all others.

As a television spectacle, it has become the jewel in the BBC's sporting crown and you can watch coverage of The Championships in a multitude of ways these days.

Once again down in SW19 for every rally is John Inverdale who, whether anchoring broadcasts on the radio or TV, has been involved with events at the All England Club, where the tournament is held, for more than two decades.

"Yes, this is my 24th tournament working for the BBC," he says wearily. "I don't know whether that should be a source of pride or a source of horror. It's some passage of time!"

During that time there have been a number of subtle changes at Wimbledon in the best interests of the game, yet Inverdale is a big fan of the tournament's timeless tradition.

"The All England Club has embraced change and technology, yet the same values and qualities still hold firm," he says. "Every year it's slightly different, but somehow the same."

The biggest change this year is the retractable roof covering Centre Court. Ask anyone, especially the players, what's the worst thing about Wimbledon and they'll almost undoubtedly say the weather.

In Britain, we know all too well how unreliable our climate can be, but foreign viewers watching from sunnier climes must look on and scratch their heads when they see endless analysis in the studio, or re-runs of past matches instead of live tennis.

"There are only so many times you can show McEnroe v Borg from the 70s," says Inverdale, referring to the numerous hard-fought classics between two greats of the game.

"I think we've reached a point where broadcasters and fans are saying 'No more' to the rain breaks. Wimbledon almost had a duty to provide virtually non-stop tennis every day of the Championships.

"If there's no rain this year it won't make a blind bit of difference, of course, but the roof will change the nature of Championships where we've had loads of matches backed up because of stoppages, and players have had to play two or three consecutive matches.

"The hard luck stories of players being knocked out because they're exhausted are much less likely to happen. Ultimately, it shows fantastic progress."

There is a downside to the end of rain breaks, however. Inverdale explains: "The roof will mean those frantic afternoons when we have hours of TV to fill are gone, but then some of those days, especially when I was doing radio coverage, could be very enjoyable - like the day Tom Hanks came and sat with us for hours because he had nothing else to do.

"He'd had his strawberries and cream, he'd had a cup of tea, so he came to sit with us in the commentary box for 10 minutes, but ended up staying the whole day.

"It's a purely selfish thing, but that was one of the great joys from my time doing the job."

The new and improved Centre Court was officially opened on May 17 this year, with a celebratory game of mixed doubles featuring former Great British hope Tim Henman and 2003 ladies' champion Kim Clijsters. They faced off against husband-and-wife duo Andre Agassi, who triumphed in 1992, and Steffi Graf, who scooped seven ladies' titles between 1988 and 1996.

"I was lucky enough to be at the opening," says Inverdale. "Watching Steffi Graf play, I couldn't help wonder, even at the age of 40, where she would be ranked in the women's game if she was playing now. She was incredible."

Naturally, the conversation comes around to his top tips for this year's tournament. World number one and reigning men's champion Rafael Nadal is nursing an injury which has placed doubts over his participation, but Inverdale says: "If he decides to play I think he'll struggle to get past the first week."

That leaves the way open for Roger Federer, rejuvenated after winning the French Open, to claim his sixth title at Wimbledon and his 15th Grand Slam title overall to make him the most successful men's player of all time.

Inverdale also believes there's a threat from big server Andy Roddick, if he can hold his game together, or the 22-year-old Serbian Novak Djokovic.

The biggest challenge, however, comes from Andy Murray, who many believe will become Britain's first men's singles champion since 1936.

"A Murray v Federer final, in many ways, is the dream final. Federer's going for the record 15th title, but Murray winning would be the sporting event of the year," says Inverdale.

"Wimbledon aside, Murray has beaten Federer on so many occasions, so he knows he can do it. There's an awful lot of tennis to be played between now and then, but that's the dream."

Over on the women's side of the draw, Inverdale believes Serena Williams will rediscover her form on grass to claim her third singles title, but isn't overly impressed with the current state of affairs in the women's game.

"The ladies' game is crying out for a few players the public will latch onto and care whether they win or lose," he says. "There are a lot of great players there, but they're all much of a muchness.

"I was in Paris watching the quarter-finals of the French Open, and as an impartial observer I didn't really care who won or lost, which is odd. I'm sure things will sort themselves out.

"Conversely, I think the men's grass-court game is as entertaining as tennis has ever been.

"We just need a British champion - and then we can stop talking about 1936 and Fred Perry."

WIMBLEDON - EXTRA TIME

Strawberries and cream is the traditional snack for spectators during the fortnight-long tournament. Around 28,100kg of strawberries and 7,000 litres of cream are consumed.

:: 2007's tournament was the first time men's and ladies' champions won equal prize money - Roger Federer and Venus Williams took home £750,000 each.

:: Martina Hingis is the youngest-ever winner of a senior singles title. She was just 16 when she scooped the top prize in 1997.

:: Goran Ivanisevic became both the lowest-ranked and first wildcard winner when he won the men's singles in 2001.

:: Ball girls were introduced in 1977, and appeared on Centre Court in 1985. Ball boys and girls are provided by three nearby schools, Hall School in Wimbledon, Sutton High School and Harris Academy in Merton.

:: John Inverdale is part of the BBC commentary team during Wimbledon 2009, which begins on June 22. Coverage goes across BBC One, BBC Two, BBC HD, red button interactive services, BBC Radio Five Live and BBC Online.)

 

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