What was Wimbledon’s chief executive doing in his office with Maria Sharapova’s dress, holding up the garment for a closer look? (Just for clarity, it should be noted that Sharapova was not wearing the dress at the time). On other occasions, he has found himself clutching Victoria Azarenka’s skirt.
Until I had a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits with Ian Ritchie at the All England Club this week, I had been unaware that the job of chief executive involves personally vetting all the clothes to be worn at The Championships. Before they have been worn on the grass, all outfits have been checked by Ritchie to ensure that they comply with Wimbledon’s strict predominantly-white clothing rule. Anyone considering applying for the job of chief executive – Ritchie leaves later this month – should be aware that, if successful, they will be spending time examining Azarenka’s skirt and Roger Federer’s gold-embroidered walk-on jackets.
It is during the winter months that the clothing manufacturers send out their parcels of clothes, to be vetted for the following summer. In Ritchie’s words, he has been “hardline” with the application of the white clothing rule, and “have said no quite frequently”. The clothing companies are “always trying to push it, always trying to come up with a cunning plan”. The result is that, in almost every batch of clothes from each manufacturer, there is one item “that’s not okay”. “One of the bizarre things about being chief executive of Wimbledon is to be there in your office with a parcel of clothing marked ‘Maria Sharapova’,” Ritchie said.
“You’re in your office, with Sharapova’s dress, checking to see whether it’s white or not. My predecessor used to do it and it’s one of those things I’ve kept doing. It’s a process that starts in the winter, in November. We send out a reminder to the manufacturers about the guidelines and it all comes in in packages. So I’m holding up Sharapova’s dress or Azarenka’s skirt. And all designers try to come up with a cunning plan to push it a bit – and that’s not a criticism, why wouldn’t you? It’s quite difficult sometimes to keep the same approach. You look up in the yearbook and see what they were wearing in the 1980s and 1990s, players like Edberg, Borg and McEnroe, and there’s actually quite a lot of colour. Relatively speaking, I think we’ve been hardline in the last few years. I’ve always found the manufacturers delightful to deal with, though.”
At all other tournaments, players can wear any colour of any design. Only at Wimbledon do manufacturers seek prior approval from the chief executive.
“I’m conscious that sending in their designs is not a difficult thing, but it’s an additional thing that they don’t have to do at any other tournament. They can design anything, any colour, and just put it out. Then, for Wimbledon, they have to send the parcel off to me. I then send a letter back saying, ‘this one’s okay, but that one’s not’. We say no quite frequently. I would say that each year, we say no to at least one design from each manufacturer,” Ritchie said. “The predominantly white rule is unique branding for Wimbledon. You look at tennis on the TV, and the only tournament where the players are still in white is Wimbledon. It works fantastically well from a commercial point of view. I tried to maintain a decent relationship with all the companies. When the bag arrives, I say, ‘what have you got this year?’ There are sometimes some exceptional items, such as Roger Federer’s jacket. Nike showed me the jacket and said, ‘how are you with this?'”
As soon as The Championships start, it is the referee, not the chief executive, who must make any rulings about clothing. Ritchie is not believed to have been personally involved the year that a French player, Tatiana Golovin, wore red knickers under her white dress. Presumably, the underwear had not been sent to the All England Club for advance approval. During the tournament, the referee’s office can refer back to what we might call the chief executive’s style file. “During the tournament, the clothing is more a matter for the referee’s office, so during the winter we photograph everything and keep all the pictures in a book. We also keep images of some of the rejects, just in case there are any problems. I always thought the clothing thing was fun. Why wouldn’t you want to do that?”
Pop into the Wimbledon Museum and you will find a letter written to the All England Club by the Duchess of Cambridge (at the time, she was still Kate Middleton, still a ‘commoner’). Forgive her spelling mistakes (one of them was confusing ‘quite’ and ‘quiet’). The letter, to thank the All England Club for giving her Centre Court tickets, demonstrated that she has a genuine interest in tennis. Last summer, the Duke and Duchess sat in the Royal Box for one of Murray’s matches. I asked Ritchie whether we could expect to see the Duchess presenting the prizes at Wimbledon this summer or in future years.
“We’re very fortunate that members of the royal family come every year. And when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge came, they clearly enjoyed it. We hope that they come again. She’s a particular fan, and he plays as well. I think that’s fantastic. You want people who are interested in the sport. What happens in the future, who knows? Even if there had or hadn’t been discussions about the Duchess presenting the prizes, I’m not going to tell you,” Ritchie said.
“What I do think is that it’s a great pleasure when they come and it’s a privilege. I hope they have a good time when they’re here and it’s a great honour for the club for them to be here. I see nothing wrong with personalities and stars coming. I don’t have a problem with that. When you go to the tennis, you look at the royal box to see who’s there. It’s a favourite game. Coming to Wimbledon is meant to be fun, it’s meant to be entertaining.”