June 27, 2021
By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – The soothing sound of tennis balls thudding off racket strings and applause rippling across the manicured grasscourts return to the All England Club on Monday as Wimbledon regains its rightful place on the British sporting calendar.
Andy Murray will also resume his role as flag-bearer for the home nation with a prime time engagement on Centre Court.
Whisper it quietly, but it almost feels like old times.
The 134th edition of Wimbledon will not be a ‘normal’ one — the iconic “queue” will be absent, players will not be spotted strolling into the grounds from plush rentals in the Village and crowds will be thinner than usual for the majority of the tournament.
There will be many other changes in line for the tournament being used as a government-approved ‘pilot event’.
But after last year’s tournament fell victim to the pandemic and was cancelled for the first time since the Second World War, excitement is brewing for a fortnight of grasscourt drama.
Even the rain forecast over the first few days will not dampen the enthusiasm — after all weather delays are all part of what makes Wimbledon… Wimbledon.
There will be a few notable absentees.
Spaniard Rafa Nadal, whose 2008 final win over Roger Federer is part of Wimbledon folklore, is not playing. Neither is reigning women’s champion Simona Halep.
But a high-quality cast has assembled in the biosecure bubble, guaranteeing 13 days of sporting theatre.
Women’s top seed Ash Barty summed up what Wimbledon means.
“I think you walk through the gates here at the All England Club and you’re instantly filled with gratitude,” the Australian said at the weekend. “I think it was a tournament that was sorely missed last year. Every time you get to walk through these gates, it’s a feeling that you can’t take for granted.
“Genuinely I think it’s excitement that everyone’s being able to play on these beautiful courts again.”
For Murray, who ended a 77-year drought for British men when he won the 2013 title, before triumphing again three years later, the return of Wimbledon represents a return to some kind of normality, on a personal level and in a wider sense.
The former world number one has not played a singles match at the All England Club since a quarter-final defeat by Sam Querrey in 2017 — after which his body began to fail and his career appeared to be hanging by a thread.
“I know it’s not normal, but it feels somewhat normal now…, with all the players around and practising, knowing that… we’ll be playing not in front of a full crowd but in front of a lot of people,” Murray told reporters on Saturday.
The 34-year-old will close the schedule on Centre Court against Georgian 24th seed Nikoloz Basilashvili and win or lose, there could be a few tears.
Centre Court, which will be 50% full on Monday, will open in traditional fashion with men’s defending champion Novak Djokovic beginning his quest for a record-equalling 20th Grand Slam title against British teenaged wildcard Jack Draper — a David and Goliath clash if ever there was one.
Following that, two-time women’s champion Petra Kvitova takes on 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens in the pick of the women’s first round action.
Garbine Muguruza and Venus Williams — two former women’s champions — feature on the opening day Court Two programme.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)