Wimbledon returns in all its verdant pomp on Monday, the sun set to shine on SW19 after two years blighted by Covid. The full resumption of the Championships will be welcomed by millions who plot their summer around a sporting fortnight played out against a backdrop of manicured lawns and cultivated blooms. But beneath the people the surface there is change a foot.
Tension between tradition and progress at a global event run by a local tennis club is constant, but this year it has been noticeably heightened. A decision by the All England Lawn and Tennis Club (AELTC) to ban Russian and Belarusian players following the invasion of Ukraine kicked off a political spat which saw the Championships stripped of the ranking points vital to players’ careers outside marquee grand slams. It also deprived the tournament of as many as 20 competitors, including the current men’s No 1-ranked player, Daniil Medvedev, and three of the women’s top 20.
The AELTC found itself taking a political decision that has not been followed by other competitions and that has seen the Championships reduced to the status of an “exhibition”, in the words of Britain’s Cameron Norrie. But despite the rankings sanction, players have chosen not to skip the tournament. Those who are missing, including Roger Federer, Naomi Osaka and Alexander Zverev, are out because of injury.
Norrie, currently the world’s No 12 and No 9 seed in the men’s draw, is a rising star for home fans to cheer on. He should be joined by the US Open champion, Emma Raducanu, who looks to have recovered from a side strain injury and is seeded 10th in the women’s draw. Andy Murray has battled his way through the early days of the grass-court season, too, to claim a place.
The Brits join a cast of stars that offer the prospect of thrilling and uncertain competition in the coming days. Iga Swiatek and Coco Gauff head up a new generation of talent in the women’s game, but there is also the return of Serena Williams to watch and the rise of Ons Jabeur, the 27-year-old Tunisian who this year won the Madrid Open to become the highest-ranked African player in tennis history. On the men’s side, both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will be there, slugging it out as ever, but new stars Caspar Ruud, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz can see their route to the quarter-finals after the draw was made on Friday.
Change on the court will be better showcased by a change in scheduling, with the Championships set to continue through the fortnight’s “Middle Sunday”. This sacrosanct break, only previously eschewed when bad weather dictated, has been given up so as to give breathing room to matches in the last 16. That will mean the end of another tradition, the packed schedule of “Manic Monday”.
The middle Sunday will also see a celebration of Center Court, with the 15,000-capacity arena, which has hosted some of the greatest moments in the history of the sport, marking its 100th anniversary. It will be refreshed, with details around the Royal Box touched up and more accessible seating added, but remain true to the vision of Captain Stanley Peach, the original architect, whose use of reinforced concrete in the structure was, at the time, revolutionary.
A Center Court party will also be the moment to give a last hurrah to another enduring symbol of Wimbledon, Sue Barker. The broadcaster, and 1977 women’s singles semi-finalist, withdraws from her role as her anchor of the BBC’s coverage this summer after 30 years. The head of BBC Sport, Barbara Slater, has already praised the work of the “face and voice” of the tournament, pinpointing Barker’s “unique insight, engaging interviews and analysis of the action” as cause for her enduring success.
Finally, and crucially, 2022 will see the return of fans to Wimbledon. With tickets rolled over from 2020 and the return of The Queue (proper noun, with 30-page guide to queuing distributed to everyone in line), it is likely half a million people will take to the grounds in the coming days.
For David Berry, author of A People’s History of Lawn Tennis, the crowds help create a fortnight-long experience that is distinct from any other sporting event, and one that often confounds pre-conceptions. “Wimbledon today is remarkably easy going and relaxed,” he says. “There’s a peacefulness about it and the reason is simple: unlike other major sporting venues like Lords, Wembley, Twickenham or St Andrews, it attracts just as many women as men, more in fact.”
Wimbledon, Berry says, is “the one time tennis really reaches out to lots of people in Britain. And I think on balance the images people get of the sport from Wimbledon are pretty positive. The most obvious is that here is a sport played equally not just by men and women but by men and women together. It also challenges traditional conceptions of gender identity: you see women play the game just as forcefully as men, and you also see a sport played by men with grace and intelligence and an almost camp style of performance.
“Of course there are many negative things about Wimbledon as well,” says Berry. “The ridiculous banning of the Russians this year is just one more example of the AELTC not getting things right. But, on balance, most tennis players and fans have an affection for the Championships and see it for what it is: much more than strawberries and cream.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism