There will be no riveting drama or heroics at Wimbledon in 2020, as All England Club officials canceled the most legendary tennis tournament of the year, making the announcement on Wednesday.
The decision was made after weeks of deliberations amid the coronavirus pandemic that has put the entire sports world on hold.
“It is with great regret that the AELTC has today decided that The Championships 2020 will be cancelled due to public health concerns linked to the coronavirus epidemic.” officials wrote in a statement. “Uppermost in our mind has been the health & safety of all of those who make Wimbledon happen — the public, players, guests, members, staff, volunteers, partners, contractors, and local residents — as well as our responsibility to society’s efforts to tackle this global challenge.”
This was to have been the 134th edition of the event. It will now take place from June 28 to July 11 in 2021.
The decision was disappointing, if predictable. A postponement of the tournament was not in the cards because the nature of the grass courts rules out playing in summer’s swelter or nippy autumn. Also never seriously discussed: playing without an audience. A “competitor’s only” tournament would still require an unacceptable level of support staff.
Each year before Wimbledon begins, Paul Annacone — Tennis Channel commentator and the former coach of Roger Federer — visits the empty Centre Court and just sits in contemplation, drinking in the atmosphere for five or 10 minutes.
Wimbledon does that kind of thing to people. Anyone who has visited feels the magic.
With luck, the US Open will still give the summer a typically raucous, electric send-off — although, in this extraordinary year, the curtain on the Grand Slam season will not drop in a public park in the New York borough of Queens. French Tennis Federation officials responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by postponing the French Open until Sept. 20, just seven days after the US Open ends. But kudos to the French for acting rather than just throwing in the towel and feeling miserable about their lot.
So despite all those canceled tournaments and frozen ATP and WTA rankings, the bottom hasn’t fallen out of tennis. It’s just the center — Wimbledon — that has. Anyone who has been lucky enough to visit knows and feels this and will acutely miss some aspects of the Wimbledon experience.
“The thing I will miss most is not having my daughter, Kaitlin, able to enjoy what’s become, in the past five years, our annual one-on-one trip together to SW19 [the London postal district incorporating the All England Club],” ESPN analyst and Wimbledon doubles champion Pam Shriver told ESPN.com.
Nick Bollettieri, the 88-year-old street-smart coach whose common tastes and values once drove traditionalists crazy, wrote in a text message that he would miss seeing the players “all in white,” as well as hearing that familiar admonition from the chair umpire, “Quiet, please.”
Patrick McEnroe’s favorite time at Wimbledon is the early morning, the hour or two before the gates open to the general public. “I call it the calm before the storm,” the ESPN analyst said. “I like watching the grounds crew prep the courts and test the bounce height. And the flowers being trimmed, that quiet and the fresh smell … I’ll miss that most.”
Jim Courier, a former No. 1 who won multiple Grand Slam singles titles, said what he would miss most is standing on the roof of the broadcast center during Week 2, looking down on courts filled with juniors competing for the youth titles.
Everyone, including the host All England Club, will survive this interruption (the club has insurance to mitigate for just such a catastrophe). Still, this is a heavy blow to the sport. Wimbledon might not be the only tournament that matters (its three sister Slams have caught up in the Open era, and they count for just as much when it comes to rankings points and historical significance), but it’s the one that has mattered most. An entire sport evolved and matured around it.
Wimbledon is the event that the greatest number of people — legions of whom would not identify as tennis fans per se — in the greatest variety of places make time to watch. It’s mostly because of Wimbledon’s historic importance, but also because of the All England Club’s ambiance. No other event in sports — not the Hahnenkamm downhill in Alpine skiing, the Daytona 500, the New York City Marathon nor the Kentucky Derby — stands out so starkly from the other fixtures in the sport.
Just how has the All England Club pulled this off?
Start with a calculation. The stewards of the tournament counterintuitively understood that no matter how much the game grew and changed — or maybe because it has mutated so much in recent times — the mystique and rituals of Wimbledon would become more rather than less cherished.
Those aren’t plug-and-play attractions, but features developed over 123 years of nearly continuous play on the grounds of the All England Club. Wimbledon was the first major, predating the first US Open (1880) by five years. Anyone lucky enough to visit Wimbledon repeatedly sees the way All England Club officials controlled growth.
Unlike some other major tournaments (the US Open and Australian Open abandoned grass courts and built entirely new facilities), Wimbledon stubbornly clings to the high-maintenance, fragile, limited-use grass courts. When Wimbledon builds a new stadium or court, it doesn’t produce a contemporary marvel, but a structure that fits in with the basic, long-term theme. Expanding, Wimbledon doesn’t emphasize how new and different it is, but how traditional and familiar it has remained.
The Millennium Building, the new roofs on Centre Court and Court No. 1, the Broadcast Center, Henman Hill, the food court at No. 1, all were aggressive improvements, but they were all integrated smoothly with what was already there. No venue has changed as much while appearing to remain the same in all the vital ways as Wimbledon.
“The Championships,” as the All England Club somewhat arrogantly but accurately describes its tournament, is sometimes cast as the Super Bowl of tennis. But that’s not precise. It isn’t the end point of a season, or the ultimate arbiter of the sport’s uncontested male and female champions. Wimbledon is the sun around which all other tournaments revolve.
Now that sun has gone dark. It has happened before. While the US Open has chugged along without interruption since 1881, Wimbledon went unplayed for a total of 10 years over the course of two world wars. Wimbledon bounced back on both of those occasions. It will bounce back from this interruption as well.