After cancellation last year, Wimbledon is back, and so is the rain
The world’s most storied tennis tournament kicked off Monday with several star players hoping to add to their own tennis stories on the emerald-green grass of the All England Club.
There’s Roger Federer and Serena Williams, the sport’s senior statesmen, both just shy of 40 and still hungry to burnish their already-sterling records. There’s Novak Djokovic, chasing an elusive calendar-year Grand Slam. There’s hometown favorite Andy Murray, hoping to resurrect a career derailed by injury. There’s Coco Gauff, the 17-year-old American phenom, as well as the hustling young male hotshots, like Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev, who are desperate to end the stranglehold on major titles by the over-30 set.
This being England, there’s also the rain, which delayed the start of play Monday morning and threatened to set scheduling for the fortnight behind from Day 1. Matches did not begin until two hours later, and then only on Centre Court and Court No. 1, beneath retractable roofs. More than a dozen matches on the uncovered outer courts were canceled by midafternoon.
But even the 50 shades of gray of the London sky couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of players and fans who were bitterly disappointed last year when tennis’ most prestigious tournament announced its first cancellation since World War II. The other three Slams — the Australian, French and U.S. Opens — pressed on, rejiggering schedules and safety protocols to keep going, but Wimbledon’s Centre Court, known as the cathedral of tennis, remained silent because of the COVID-19 pandemic and not, as usual, because of the reverent hush of the sport’s pilgrims.
Although some of the hallmarks of the tournament remain — strawberries and cream, anyone? — it will be a palpably different experience from that of years past. The famous queue for day tickets is gone, fans must show proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 status before entry, spectator numbers will be limited before finals weekend, and people milling about the grounds are supposed to wear masks (but not while seated watching a match).
“One of the things we thought long and hard about and worked hard to deliver is a familiar feel about the championships,” Sally Bolton, the chief of the tournament, said a few minutes before play was due to — and didn’t — begin Monday morning. “The challenge above all has been the level of uncertainty we’ve had throughout this year.”
Williams, who has hoisted the women’s champion’s Venus Rosewater Dish seven times, remarked on the changed atmosphere.
“It’s a little different walking the grounds now,” said Williams, who is hoping to win a record-equaling 24th Grand Slam singles title. “But it still has a very special feeling. ... It’s hard to describe. Just being here, being on the grass — it’s the only Grand Slam that is so unique and so different.”
That Williams and Federer would still be on the circuit at age 39 — let alone be considered real contenders for the biggest prizes — was not foretold in many experts’ or fans’ crystal tennis balls. Nor even, it seems, in Federer’s.
“I don’t think my goal was to play till, whatever, 39 or 40 or more. It was maybe more like 35, maybe I was thinking, which was already a high number at the time,” said the Swiss maestro, who has more Wimbledon singles titles under his belt than any other male player in the Open era.
Reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep has withdrawn from this year’s tournament because of an injured left calf.
“I remember a conversation with Pistol [Pete Sampras] 10 years ago. He was wondering how much longer I had in the tank. This was when I was just hitting 30. He was thinking I was coming toward the end or something just because it was for him normal that at 31, 33, with the career that we’ve had, with all the sacrifice in a way you have to go through, that it’s hard to keep on pushing for more years on tour.”
Federer’s comeback from a knee injury has been patchy, and tough opponents loom in his half of the draw. And if he can make it to the final, the tenacious, top-seeded Djokovic would be his likely adversary, both on paper and in most commentators’ minds. Defending his 2019 title would see Djokovic, 34, draw even with both Federer and Spaniard Rafael Nadal in the Slam count — 20 trophies each — in an astounding testament to the trio’s domination of the sport.
Djokovic saw off a spirited first-round challenge in Monday’s opening match on Centre Court from British teenager Jack Draper, who managed to grab the first set before the top-ranked Serb asserted his authority.
Another rising star, Tsitsipas, nearly broke through earlier this month in the French Open final, going up two-sets-to-love against Djokovic but then losing the next three sets. The 22-year-old Greek wasn’t sure about his chances on the grass, a surface he has little experience of, but on the eve of the tournament he brimmed with a youthful confidence and sunny outlook, whatever the British weather, and recognized the privilege of being at Wimbledon.
“I rely a lot on playing matches, getting confident through the process of winning. I haven’t had that opportunity yet,” he said. “I just prioritize myself, my well-being out on the court, me feeling kind of happy, joyful when I get to play tennis, because it’s such a traditional, historic tournament. We don’t get this opportunity very often.”
Alas, he now has to wait a year for another of those opportunities. Another fixture of Wimbledon’s fortnight is the surprising upset, and Tsitsipas fell victim to it Monday, losing in straight sets to the heralded but unseeded Frances Tiafoe, an American one year Tsitsipas’ senior.
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