The strawberries have been picked, the grass finely trimmed and the draw determined. But when Wimbledon starts on Monday after a one-year hiatus, it won’t look quite the same.
The number of spectators has been cut in half, except for the final weekend, and everyone has to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. The prize money has been reduced as well and players must stay in designated hotel bubbles instead of renting houses near the All England Lawn Tennis Club. They also can’t sign any autographs or agree to selfies “owing to health and safety guidelines.”
“It does feel totally different than the last 20 years here since I’ve been coming here,” Roger Federer, 39, told reporters on Saturday. “It took me some getting used to the first day or two [this week], understanding where we’re allowed to go, what we’re allowed to do. Same thing with the on-site protocols. How does it work?”
Britain’s Joanna Konta tried to put a positive spin on the hotel bubble even though she’ll drive by her house on the way to the court every day. “It’s kind of like an all-inclusive cruise, that’s what it feels like,” she said Saturday. “I’ve never been on a cruise, but that’s how I imagine an all-inclusive cruise to be.”
Wimbledon organizers had been hoping things wouldn’t be this tight. For months the rate of COVID-19 infections had been falling steadily in Britain as the country’s vaccination efforts hit top speed. Things were going so well in April that Prime Minister Boris Johnson began lifting lockdown restrictions and announced plans to remove all measures on June 21. But the emergence of the Delta variant has thrown those plans into turmoil and earlier this month Johnson delayed the easing until July 19.
The government has given Wimbledon some latitude. While the number of spectators in the grounds has to be capped at 21,000 each day, the semi-finals and finals of the men’s and women’s singles will take place before a Centre Court capacity crowd of nearly 15,000. Fans can also buy a ticket for the grounds and watch the action on the giant screen at ‘Henman Hill’ as usual, but face masks and physical distancing will be mandatory.
The tournament has already run into trouble with the pandemic. Konta had to withdraw on Sunday when she came in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
Once the balls start flying there will be plenty of drama on the courts.
Defending champion Novak Djokovic, 34, is aiming for his 20th Grand Slam title and he’s halfway to his target of winning all four Slams this year, along with gold at the Tokyo Olympics. He’s also coming off of a dramatic win at the French Open where he came back from two sets down to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-7 (6-8), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
“Grand Slams are the biggest motivation I have right now at this stage of my career,” Djokovic told reporters on Saturday. The French Open “took a lot out of me, I think, mentally and physically and emotionally. It also granted me with an incredible amount of positive energy and confidence that created a wave that I’m trying to ride, so to say.”
Canadian entries on the men’s side consist of Denis Shapovalov, who is seeded 10th; Félix Auger-Aliassime, seeded 16th; and the unseeded Vasek Pospisil.
Shapovalov, 22, reached the semi-finals at Queen’s Club last week and Auger-Aliassime, 20, got to the last four at a tune-up event in Halle, Germany, where he scored a three-set victory over Federer. “Roger was my idol, like many of us growing up, so first of all it was a huge honour to play him before he retires and to beat him is something that I’m going to cherish,” Auger-Aliassime said after the match.
Federer, who is seeded sixth at Wimbledon and is seeking his 21st Grand Slam victory, was still smarting from his loss to the young Canadian. “I come here feeling mentally strong rather with the last set I played in Halle, which was clearly not the standard I like,” he said on Saturday. “The good thing now looking back is I know it will not happen here because I’m ready.”
On the women’s side, the singles field is more open since the withdrawal of defending champion Simona Halep and world No. 2 Naomi Osaka. Ashleigh Barty is the top seed but she’s never made it past the fourth round at Wimbledon and had to pull out of the French Open because of a hip injury.
Canadian Bianca Andreescu, 21, is seeded fifth but has a poor track record at Wimbledon, losing in the first round in 2017 and failing to qualify in 2018. She’s also been plagued by injuries and bad luck this season, which included testing positive for COVID-19. She did have an impressive run at the Miami Open where she made it to the final before withdrawing with an injury.
Leylah Fernandez, 18, is the only other Canadian in the singles draw. Ottawa’s Gabriela Dabrowski, 29, and Toronto’s Sharon Fichman, 30, are playing doubles.
Serena Williams, 39, is seeded sixth and still chasing her 24th Grand Slam title. She hasn’t played since losing in the last 16 at Roland-Garros.
On Sunday, Williams spoke about her longevity in the sport and the challenge of constantly facing players who gear up just to beat her. “I’ve had a big X on my back since ’99, since I won the U.S. Open,” she said. “Yeah, it’s been difficult mentally when someone might beat you and they lose directly in the next round almost every time. At the end of the day that’s why I’m Serena. So, thanks.”