A whopping 13.3 million people tuned in to watch Andy Murray’s straight-sets win over Milos Raonic in the Wimbledon final on TV last year. Whether it was with strawberries and cream on Henman Hill, a pint in the pub or a brew in the lounge – the nation was gripped.
This year marks the 90th anniversary of Wimbledon coverage on the BBC, a huge broadcasting feat that has become a staple of the summer months. Over the decades we’ve seen it all: from the tears rolling down Murray’s cheeks to the first streaker dashing across Centre Court in 1996.
To get all of this action on our screens is practically a military operation – so how does the live broadcast come together? We spoke to lead match director Pete Andrews and Centre Court camera supervisor Bruce Miller to find out how it all works…
How many cameras are on court?
Centre Court has 20 cameras all operating at once for the men’s and women’s finals, while the rest of the courts have between three and 14 each.
There are many different kinds of camera to capture different aspects of the match. The steadi-camera follows the players from the locker room, through the club and down the famous stairs all the way out onto the court. It also trails the winner back up to the balcony where they hold up the trophy.
Rail cameras track up and down the back of the court and are operated remotely. There is also a robotic camera on the umpire’s chair to give intimate shots of the players at the net or sat down between games.
The rest of them are manned by camera men and women, and are in fixed positions as they cannot move around on the grass or in the stands.
Most of the cameras are versatile and flit between filming the tennis and the crowd – they are never trained on the audience at all times even though it may feel that way when you watch the live broadcast.
One camera that never moves is the master camera. “That always, every time, regardless of what’s going on, has the ball in shot,” explains Miller.
Pete Andrews & Bruce Miller
You might assume that the broadcast is led by the visuals, and that commentators take their cues solely from what they see on screen – but it’s actually the other way round. In the moments when no tennis is being played, the commentators will often spot people in the crowd, or action on the sidelines. The camera operators will listen to director Pete Andrews through their headphones, who will guide them into the shot.
Andrews says there are many unsung heroes at Wimbledon.
“Owen Thomas who is the floor manager of Centre Court is absolutely vital during the tournament. He makes sure that things are going to plan, from co-ordinating the interviews to running up the stairs to check if the players have left the locker room.
“The team of loggers who input every point into a computer system definitely deserve a mention. It can be a long two weeks in the logging room. Their logs are used by all the TV companies here on site and are a vital resource.”
Filming the crowd
How can I get on TV?
“If someone’s wearing a funny hat, they’ll get on television,” says Miller. “You try and find the most animated, colourful people.”
That said, it’s not always the most lively who get their moment in the limelight, as Andrews explains…
“I was directing on Centre Court last year and the place was electric, except for one man who was asleep in the middle of all the pandemonium. I kept the camera on him and he was even clapping in his sleep every now and then.
“We took a shot of him and it was online in all the newspapers’ websites within about half an hour. That sort of shot can help enhance the experience and give people a chuckle here and there.”
Do the camera crew get a list of celebrity guests beforehand?
A list of the famous faces who are set to appear in the royal box is supplied, and they usually know which friends, family and coaches to look out for in the player’s box – but celebs will often pop up in the public seats, too. “It just depends on whether any of the crew spot them or not,” says Andrews.
Being a camera operator at Wimbledon has incredible perks – but it’s also a risky business…
Last year, Miller recalls, Serena Williams took out her frustration on her racket – and, by accident, a poor cameraman – during a match against fellow American Christina McHale.
The umpire issued a code violation to Serena for her outburst, and she later gifted the racket to a fan. That year, she went on to win Wimbledon for the seventh time.
Whether it’s rackets or balls hurtling towards camera operators, getting the shot is the only thing that matters. Miller says balls only tend to hit cameras and their operators four or five times a season. “You’re doing a job,” he says, frankly. “You’re concentrating on following the ball. If the ball hits you – it may hurt, it may not hurt.”
Miller also reveals that just because the camera crew have a front row seat – better than that, even – that doesn’t mean they always get to actually see all the action. “Most of the time when you’re operating a camera, you can’t watch the match. You’re watching whatever role you’re on at that time,” he explains. “On a close-up camera all you’re seeing is one player at any one time.
“You have to go by the crowd reaction to see if you’ve won.”
Can the camera crew wear whatever they want?
Not necessarily! As Andrews explains…
“We did have a funny incident last year when a cameraman working on Court 17 and sat behind the player at one end was wearing luminous yellow trainers.
“When players served from this end the receiver of the serve kept getting the ball in the air confused with the cameraman’s luminous shoes so complained to the umpire.
“The cameraman had to take his trainers off and film the rest of the day in his socks.”
What makes a great camera shot?
Some players just look ravishing in slow motion. In the replays, Andrews says, “Roger Federer is so graceful that slow motion shows off his balance and technique excellently.”
Andrews also picks out Dustin Brown as someone who is beautiful to watch on-screen.
“He once travelled the tour in a camper van. He’s a Jamaican German and has flowing dreadlocks. Two years ago he beat Rafael Nadal playing amazing tennis. We have an incredibly high frame rate camera that catches everything in fantastic ultra slow motion.
“As Brown was leaping around the court this camera captured his dreadlocks bouncing everywhere… the shots looked spectacular as there was so much movement in them.”
Emotions are such an important part of the Wimbledon story, and catching this on camera is essential to soaking up the atmosphere through the TV. Andrews remembers particularly moving moments from both Murray and German player Sabine Lasicki.
“Any shot that shows raw emotion can be very powerful. Andy Murray’s reaction to winning last year was so emotional that the shots carried a real power to them.”
“Lisicki made the ladies final in 2013 but found the pressure so much that at times during the match she was crying on court. Those shots were amazing because you couldn’t help but feel for her.”
Players aside, Andrews says that some of the ground level shots that show just how fast the ball is travelling can be fantastic. Australian Sam Groth set the record for the world’s fastest serve of all time at the Australian Open in 2009, courtesy of a huge 163.7mph.
What does the future hold?
In 2011, the Wimbledon finals were broadcast in 3D for the first time. But that era came and went and now it’s all about super high definition, according to Miller.
Camera-fitted drones are being used increasingly for television – from Planet Earth II to Holby City – and Miller says that once people address the safety issues of drones in a public area, he can see them being used for tennis in the future.