LONDON (Reuters) – It may rain, umbrellas being as much a feature of the English summer as striped jackets and strawberries and cream, but the return of Wimbledon will put a spring in the step of tennis fans whatever the weather.
The immaculate grass courts of southwest London went untrodden last year as one of the highlights of the sporting calendar was cancelled for the first time in three quarters of a century, another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It may not be ‘normal service’ just yet, the emphasis still more on social distancing than socialising, but play is at least being resumed with eager spectators set to attend in their thousands next week.
“When Wimbledon was cancelled last year, that was a shot in the gut for our sport. A terrible time,” commented three-times Wimbledon winner and ESPN analyst John McEnroe. “So to have it back is incredible.”
The tournament is a government-approved ‘pilot event’ with a minimum 50% capacity rising to a full 15,000 attendance for the men’s and women’s singles finals on Centre Court.
Ticket holders must still show proof of vaccination, a negative COVID-19 test or evidence of full recovery from the virus, and wear facemasks when moving around the grounds but not while seated.
Organisers warned that some distancing would be required, particularly in managing any queues.
The most famous queue of all — for returns and tickets on the day — has left the park and gone virtual, like so much else over the past year, with sales via a mobile app and initially to UK residents only.
‘Henman Hill’, the grassy mound outside Court One where large numbers of fans typically congregate to watch games on the big screen, will be open but details about the numbers permitted are still sketchy.
Players are limited to a maximum entourage of three and even the biggest names must stay in approved hotels rather than the usual option of renting private homes in the upmarket neighbourhood. Those who usually live in London are also having to check into these so-called Wimbledon bubble hotels.
The reaction from top players is one of excitement to be walking out again at the only Grand Slam tournament that was not held last year.
“It’s going to be an incredible event… It’s our Augusta National with how green it is, how much that tournament has,” commented big-hitting American John Isner. “Everyone will be looking forward to get back there.
Ukrainian Elina Svitolina, a 2019 women’s semi-finalist, agreed it had been much missed.
“I think the whole experience of Wimbledon is something magical because we know that the rules are quite strict, and this year it’s going to be even more strict with all the protocols that we have to follow,” she said.
“But you’re just in white, you are at such a nice venue, an historical venue, so all the atmosphere that the fans make and just stepping on the court, it’s all the whole experience I would say.”
(Additional reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)