LONDON, UK — Roger Federer recalls feeling “just shocked, more than anything.”
Chris Evert found the news “devastating.”
The tennis world was shaken when the All England Club announced on April 1, 2020, that Wimbledon would be canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic — the first time since World War II it was called off for any reason.
The oldest Grand Slam tennis tournament ends a two-year absence on Monday, with 50% capacity attendance at the outset and a full Centre Court of 15,000 allowed for the singles finals on July 10-11, the latest signals things are moving closer to normal.
“It’s going to be an incredible event,” said American pro John Isner, a 2018 semifinalist at Wimbledon and winner of the longest match in the sport’s history there in 2010. “You know, a lot of people say it’s the Mecca of our sport, it’s our Augusta National. ... It’s going to be great to have it back. I think the fans all over the world are going to be eager to watch it.”
If so, they will have plenty of storylines to follow on the grass courts.
Defending champion Novak Djokovic tries to pull even with Rafael Nadal ( who won’t be there ) and Federer ( who will, in his last Slam before turning 40 on Aug. 8 ) at 20 major championships, the most for a man. Djokovic also hopes to add to his 2021 titles at the Australian Open and French Open to extend his bid for the first calendar-year Grand Slam by a man since 1969.
Serena Williams, at age 39, seeks her 24th major singles trophy to equal the all-time mark after losing in the 2018 and 2019 Wimbledon finals. Coco Gauff, now 17, returns to the site of her big breakthrough at 15. Could there be yet another new Slam champion?
What matters most to many is simply that The Championships — as it’s known to locals — will be played after being the only Grand Slam site that remained silent during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“In my mind — and I think in a lot of players’ minds — it’s the biggest tournament in the world, and the most prestigious. It was a bitter disappointment to everybody. And it was historical,” said Evert, who won three of her 18 major singles trophies at Wimbledon. “It made you realize how bad the world was and how bad the pandemic really was.”
The French Open shifted from May-June to September-October in 2020, then was played again this year, delayed just one week. That shift left just two weeks, instead of three, between the clay of Paris and the grass of London, which could be an advantage to those most at ease on the lawns of Wimbledon, such as eight-time champion Federer or seven-time champ Williams.
“Probably, yes, for those who know how to play on grass and don’t need much time for the preparation on it, it could probably be better,” said Petra Kvitova, the Czech left-hander who won Wimbledon in 2011 and 2014.
The U.S. Open was played in August-September 2020, albeit without fans, and the Australian Open was delayed by three weeks in 2021.
But the All England Club, unlike groups running other majors, had cancellation insurance that paid 180 million pounds ($250 million), according to chairman Ian Hewitt.
“Everything happened very quickly. ... We were all not sure, anymore, what was going on,” said Federer, who missed most of 2020 after two operations on his right knee. “I remember being on (ATP) Council calls and trying to understand the magnitude and (asking), ‘When is the clay going to start?’ And then it literally went, within a couple of weeks, Wimbledon was canceled.”
There are changes this time — and on the horizon.
The singles champions' checks are reduced more than 25% to about $2.4 million, although the overall cut in prize money is closer to 5%.
There will be fewer fans than usual for most of the two weeks — they’ll need to prove they’ve been vaccinated, tested negative for COVID-19 or had the illness within the preceding six months — and while the customary Middle Sunday without competition remains in effect, that will change in 2022, when the full fortnight will see matches.
Instead of renting private homes in Wimbledon Village, as some players usually do, the athletes and their entourages must stay at a designated hotel in London as part of what the tournament is calling a “minimized risk environment,” with coronavirus testing and a “track-and-trace program.”
“Obviously it’s not going to be normal. We’re not going to be staying at home. It’s going to be quite different,” said Johanna Konta, a British player who is a three-time Slam semifinalist, including at Wimbledon in 2017. “But it’s still grass. It’s still home. It’s still a home crowd. It’s still home comforts, in that sense, so I think it will just be exciting.”