An invention with local ties keeps the tennis superstars dry at Wimbledon
Main Line Today
They are the traditions of Wimbledon: manicured lawns, all-white tennis outfits, strawberries, cream and dodging raindrops. The water arrives in trickles and in torrents, starting and stopping. And it generally wreaked havoc at Wimbledon’s Centre Court, site of the tournament’s most high-profile matches since 1922.
For two weeks in late June, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club becomes the focal point of the sporting world. On this leafy corner north of London, spectators would squirm under umbrellas as time-challenged broadcasters and the world’s top players coped with rain delays. The epic 2008 showdown between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal started late and slogged through three such delays. Seven hours. Huge momentum swings. The tennis titans traded powerful forehands well past 9 p.m.
Enter W. L. Gore & Associates. Best known for its breathable waterproof outer-wear material, Gore has created the Tenara architectural fabric in the retractable roof that now spans legendary Centre Court. When the skies open up, a flick of a switch sends the roof sliding into place in fewer than 10 minutes. It keeps out the rain but allows natural light to pass through the structure, creating a feeling of watching play in an open-air setting.
Described as a translucent folding concertina, the roof is composed of 56,000 square feet of the Tenara fabric, woven from yarn made of PTFEmore commonly known as Teflon. It’s a base for many other Gore products. When the fully covered stadium closes, floodlights turn on. The new roof debuted last May in a doubles exhibition match featuring Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf.
"Wimbledon’s requirements were a bull’s-eye for our product", says West Chester’s Tom Kelmartin, the godfather of Tenara. "We were pretty optimistic about landing the contract, but we may have been blissfully naive. During that exhibition, it rained like crazy. For me, it was very nerve-wracking. The match was televised all over the world. I was searching for leaks, wondering whether folks found it aesthetically pleasing. Afterward, I was incredibly happy and proud.”
The 2009 championships had gone six days played under sunny skies. Then history was made: The roof was pressed into action when the rains came during the match between the world No. 1 player Dinara Safina and rival Amélie Mauresmo. As the roof slid into place, it got a massive cheer from the crowd.
"Rain delays play on your mind, testing your mental resilience", says former Australian tennis star Pat Cash. The delays would seem to benefit underdogs and older players, killing momentum or allowing time to devise new tactics. Still, sitting indefinitely inside player lounges waiting for the showers or downpours to pass can’t be useful.
Wimbledon is played during the soggiest time of the year. Rain rolls off the Atlantic Ocean, or bubbles up into clouds from warm air on English land, soaking the event since it all began back in the 1870s.
As for the new roof, it takes roughly 10 minutes to fully cover the court, and another 20 minutes for airflow systems to reduce condensation. Lights are designed to replicate a bright summer’s day. When it’s open, the roof’s new aperture is bigger than the old one, enabling more light to flood the court. When closed, even the highest lobs remain in play.
The 252-foot-wide retractable roof was designed by the British architectural firm Populous and built by the British construction company Galliford Try. It has two sections, one with four bays and the other with five. The fabric was joined using high-frequency welding and is supported by 10 steel trusses. Wheels move along tracks to open and close the roof, aided by hydraulic jacks and arms.
The hallowed grounds of Wimbledon are hardly the first place to employ Tenara. It debuted in 2000 on a small play set in Kelmartin’s back yard. "It was one of those swing sets, and I built a canopy over it," he recalls. "I gave it to my next-door neighbor. It stood up very well to all the snow we got this winter."
Back in 2001, when Kelmartin saw the potential for Tenara in outdoor sports venues, the fabric went into production at Gore’s Elkton, Md. site. Three years later, Kelmartin and a European Gore representative pitched it to the officials at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. The contract was signed in 2005.
Initially, Kelmartin’s team developed a small mock-up of the roof to ensure its proper technical execution.
"This project was a collaboration of a half-dozen W.L. Gore employees who’ve been with this concept from the earliest days", says Kelmartin. "It was a great achievement for all of us. You know, we may be the only folks still hoping for rain this year at Wimbledon."
Bill and Vieve Gore started W. L. Gore & Associates in the basement of their home in 1958. Today, the Newark, Del.-based company employs 9,000 workers in 30 countries worldwide, with manufacturing facilities in the United States, Germany, Scotland, Japan and China. Annual revenues totaled $2.5 billion in 2009. Gore repeatedly has been named among the "100 Best Companies to Work For” by Fortune magazine.
Great ideas come from all corners at Gore. Best known for breathable, waterproof and windproof GORE-TEX fabric clothing and shoes, they’ve also created Glide dental floss, Elixir guitar strings, space suits and sutures. In addition to its apparel, Gore makes insulated wire and cables, filtration products and sealants.
In January, Gore entered into an alliance with Sefar AG to produce and market the Tenara roof. The Swiss company boasts a strong worldwide presence in the architectural fabric market.
Aesthetically pleasing, Gore’s latest wonder has been showcased in a number of eye-catching applications around the world. Festungs Arena in the Austrian Alps installed a retractable, circular cover over a 21,000-square-foot courtyard that gracefully unfolds like a flower. Tenara was also selected to create a dramatic centerpiece for a waterfront sculpture reminiscent of the fishing nets that are so important to the local culture of Porto and Matosinhos, Portugal.
Another high-profile project is BC Place in Vancouver, the site of the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Gore is currently in discussions with the HiTex Company to utilize the fabric on a double-layer roof cover. It will be more than twice the size of Wimbledon’s.
It has given architects a new tool, replacing fiberglass,says Kent Smith, head of business development for PTFE materials, who lives near Kennett Square. The high light transmission, availability of custom colors and an exceptional textile look are unlike that of any other architectural fabric on the market.”
Another winner is Gore’s Tenara Sewing Thread. Manufactured from 100 percent expanded PTFE fiber division, it’s utilized for sewing marine canvas, awnings and outdoor fabric products. It’s immune to ultraviolet degradation, the primary cause of seam failure. And it won’t rot, gather mildew or deteriorate due to cleaning solutions and motor oil.
Other outdoor sports applications for PTFE fibers include a partnership with BCY of Connecticut to produce an archery bowstring with less vibration, reduced noise and increased durability. And this month, a new fishing line that incorporates PTFE will be introduced by a prominent sportfishing manufacturer.
As for the roof at Wimbledon, it’s given Gore tremendous worldwide exposure spotlighting its business culture of pursuing growth by unleashing creativity and fostering teamwork.
"Inside that circle of architects, it’s given us quite a nice buzz", Smith says. "The PTFE fiber is a wonderful example of people at Gore who are fueled by a personal passion and they keep working at it, developing a variety of business applications. Start small, and build up."