Friday, May 15, 2009 | 12:40 p.m.
WIMBLEDON, LONDON - The debate has been rumbling on for decades as anxious All England Club officials looked up at overcast skies surrounded by a sea of umbrellas and gloomy faces: Should the hallowed Centre Court turf be dug up and replaced with a hard court? What about a roof ?
On Sunday, after three years of construction, the All England Club showcases its new retractable, translucent roof in a unique event which officials have dubbed "A Centre Court Celebration" and an invitation to test the new conditions was extended to just four players: Andre Agassi, Stephanie Graf, Tim Henman and Kim Clijsters.
Three celebration matches will be played: mixed doubles (pairing husband and wife team and crowd favorites - the two former World No. 1's Agassi and Graf), men's singles and ladies' singles. A pro-set format - first to 8 games with a tiebreaker - will be used. The matches will be an important part of the testing procedures and will enable the organizers to see how both the roof (which takes around 10 minutes to close) and associated air management system will perform under live conditions with a capacity crowd.
Chief Executive Ian Ritchie sums up the mood well: "Brilliant players, great tennis, an iconic venue and the chance to be part of Wimbledon history - what more could one want?"
Certainly, the public thinks so too. The 15,000 tickets sold out five minutes after going on sale. A chance to enter the historic grounds more than a month before the usual June/July fortnight and to see four "retired" players back in action. Steffi Graf (who retired in 1999) reflects: "There is no tennis venue more special to me than Centre Court at Wimbledon. It just doesn't get any better. It will mean so much to return to Wimbledon and see so many familiar places and to relive so many wonderful memories."
Husband Andre Agassi - who said goodbye more recently in 2006 - is understandably no less enthusiastic: "I am honored to be invited by the AELTC to take part in this landmark occasion. I have great memories of playing at Wimbledon and to be amongst the first to play under the new Centre Court roof is really exciting."
The event won't just be all work and no play (aside from play on the court, of course!) - three singing stars have been lined up to entertain the crowd and players: Faryl Smith, Blake and opera favorite Katherine Jenkins.
James Borg, a freelance journalist and award-winning author, has covered the All-England Lawn Tennis Championships for 32 years. He lived briefly in Las Vegas and worked at Caesars Palace. He lives in London.