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Column: Wimbledon cancellation wipes out opportunities for champions and contenders

Novak Djokovic kisses the trophy on the balcony of Centre Court in July 2015.
Novak Djokovic kisses his trophy on the balcony of Centre Court after winning the men’s singles final against Roger Federer at Wimbledon on July 12, 2015.
(Kirsty Wigglesworth / Associated Press)

By now, the daily bludgeoning of bad news has left us numb.

With the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball on indefinite hold, March Madness canceled and everyday life around the world disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s difficult to feel sad about the disappearance of another competition from the sports calendar. The cancellation of Wimbledon — formally known as The Championships — pierces the numbness.

“I’m Shooked,” Serena Williams, who is one Slam event singles title from matching Margaret Court’s record of 24, said on Twitter. And she’s not alone.

“Devastated,” Roger Federer, the men’s career leader with 20 Grand Slam event singles titles, said on Twitter. “There is no GIF for these things that I am feeling.”

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It stings for reasons big and small. For opportunities lost and potential not realized among players. For the interruption of traditions that are old but never outmoded. For the absence of Wimbledon’s unmatched sense of occasion as the longest-played Grand Slam event. For the archaic but distinctive insistence that players wear white, keeping the attention on them and not their clothing.

It hurts because there won’t be any strawberries and cream served at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, a tradition that began in 1877, and because Wimbledon was a sure sign of summer and the peak of tennis season. The whole season is in limbo, the BNP Paribas Open and Miami Open having been wiped out along with clay-court events. The French Open was postponed from June until Sept. 20. The men’s and women’s tours on Wednesday announced the suspension of competition until July 13, eliminating early European grass-court play.

The U.S. Tennis Assn. said Wednesday it is “preparing for all contingencies” related to the U.S. Open’s scheduled dates of Aug. 24 through Sept. 13, and that’s not far off. In the meantime, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, site of the U.S. Open, is scheduled next week to be turned into a temporary hospital to treat the flood of COVID-19 patients stretching medical facilities in New York beyond their breaking point.

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Wimbledon had previously been canceled only because of World Wars I and II. This is a different battle, best fought by staying home if you’re not performing an essential service. The newest heroes among us wear scrubs and grocery store name tags.

Wimbledon organizers had to cancel after they ruled out playing in front of empty seats or postponing the event from its original dates of June 29-July 12 to a potentially crowded late-year schedule. Restrictions on travel and mass gatherings in the United Kingdom and elsewhere meant continuing their plans could have endangered the health of the ball kids, officials, and hundreds of others who stage the Wimbledon fortnight.

Cancellation, club chairman Ian Hewitt said, “is a decision that we have not taken lightly, and we have done so with the highest regard for public health and the well-being of all those who come together to make Wimbledon happen.”

It hurts, though, because there’s one fewer chance to enjoy the brilliance of Federer, who’s nearly 39 and is recovering from knee surgery. He had planned to skip the French Open and return to play on grass before Wimbledon, where he has prevailed a record eight times. But he hasn’t won a Slam event singles title since the 2018 Australian Open and his career total remains fixed at 20. He has been written off before, but time and the onrushing Novak Djokovic — who has won five of the last eight men’s major titles — work against Federer maintaining his lead.

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Djokovic was 18-0 before the season was put on pause and his total of Grand Slam event titles sits at 17. Would he have won his third straight Wimbledon crown this summer and caught up to Federer this year or next?

Wimbledon’s cancellation also wipes out a chance to enjoy the grit of Rafael Nadal, who won the three major titles in the last eight that Djokovic didn’t capture — the 2018 and 2019 French Opens and the 2019 U.S. Open — and has 19 major titles. Would Dominic Thiem, No. 3 in the world behind Djokovic and Nadal, have broken the Big Three’s stranglehold? Could No. 5 Daniil Medvedev have made a breakthrough after his valiant fight against Nadal at last year’s U.S. Open?

Time is also becoming precious for Williams, 38, a seven-time Wimbledon winner. She won her last Grand Slam event title at the 2017 Australian Open, while she was pregnant with her daughter Olympia, but she made the last two Wimbledon finals, losing to Angelique Kerber in 2018 and to Simona Halep in 2019.

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ESPN commentator and former tennis player Patrick McEnroe has tested positive for COVID-19, but he said he’s feeling better as he remains in quarantine.

The continuing cancellations also hurt 21-year-old Sofia Kenin, who won this year’s Australian Open and rose to a career-best No. 4 by winning a title in Lyon, France, before play was halted and rankings were frozen. What kind of year might she have had? Would Ashleigh Barty have stayed No. 1? Would 2019 U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu have fought past the injuries that have held her back? Surely Coco Gauff would have continued her remarkable progress. We’ll never know.

The No. 2-ranked Halep, last year’s Wimbledon women’s champion, tried to infuse a humorous note into a gloomy situation. “We are going through something bigger than tennis and Wimbledon will be back,” she said on Twitter. “And it means I have even longer to look forward to defending my title.”

It hurts but the traditions will endure and the strawberries and cream will taste sweeter next year.


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