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The Rally: On tennis' grand reopening at Wimbledon; Federer's and Serena's chances for a last dance, and Djokovic's chances for No. 20
There's a lot of history on the line this summer.
Published Jun 26, 2021
As Wimbledon returns, I have a memory of a documentary I saw nearly 50 years ago. The gravel-voiced narrator uttered just one word: “London.” The setting was the 1948 Olympic Games—the first Olympics since the end of World War II. Following “London,” there came the British national anthem, God Save the Queen. After years of horror, the world commenced a communal gathering, dressed as an international sports event.
Transpose that same notion to this year’s Wimbledon. Our planet has weathered and continues to endure the effects of something the world has never seen. Fear, dread, death and uncertainty linger. Zoom in to this sport we love so much, and the pandemic’s impact remains, both operationally and emotionally.
But come Monday, June 28, the tennis world will gather at its cathedral. In all its pageantry and glory, the event locals like to call The Championships will begin. No other tournament does a better job of demonstrating that tennis is not merely a collection of individuals, but a community.
There will be plenty of time to chew through the tennis—the iconic champions, the perennial contenders, the young hopefuls. When you cover tennis day in and day out as we have for many years, there come times when even the grand cultural significance of a tournament like Wimbledon threatens to fade into the background and give way to the rough-and-tumble nature of a highly competitive sports event. At Wimbledon, I’ve always noticed this most sharply when watching players practice, seeing them tote racquet bags, crack open cans of ball balls and strike one after another, no different than if they were at Indian Wells or Vienna.
But for this moment, prior to all the energy of competition blasting forward, I wish to pause. Many times, when at Wimbledon, I’ll arrive on the grounds at 8 A.M. I’ll make way to Centre Court, where at that time, only a few custodians are present. And I’ll sit, for just five minutes, taking in that remarkable spot—what’s happened before and what’s to come. But even more, simply being there.
It’s a new morning at Wimbledon. As they like to say in Great Britain, order has been restored.
Steve, what are your feelings, memories and hopes on the eve of Wimbledon?
Back in my Wimbledon-attending days, which hopefully aren’t over, I liked to make two stops on the grounds the day before the tournament began.
Like you, I started with a peek into Centre Court, where Wimbledon’s security guards and stewards—we call them ushers over here—gather to get their assignments and hear a final pep talk. I was always struck by the meeting’s highly regimented vibe, and the military-style uniforms that everyone involved wore. It’s a stark contrast to the ultra-casual style we see from tournament personnel at the US Open. I’m not sure that more militarism at a tennis tournament is a good thing, necessarily, but it does make for a striking visual, and suits Wimbledon’s sense of itself. This is an event that used to hire former RAF wing commanders to be tournament referees and chair umpires.
After that, I’d head over to the Aorangi practice courts, which had an entirely different atmosphere. There the players spent the day scrambling for any spare patch of grass they could commandeer, so they could hit as many balls as they could on this strange surface before matches got underway the next day. Roger, Rafa, Serena, Venus, Novak, Murray, Halep and dozens of others only slightly less famous: Everyone was part of the scrum. I don’t think any day on the tennis calendar creates a greater sense of anticipation. No matter how many times the players had been to Wimbledon, no matter how tired of the road they might have been, they acted like giddy kids again as they tried to get ready for it. The same was true for those of us watching.
I agree that it’s good to take a step back and appreciate Wimbledon’s return. A year ago, when a vaccine seemed to be five years away at best, I doubted that the tournament would take place in 2021. But like the French Open, it’s also a sign of the continuing uncertainty of this moment. Our war, the pandemic, isn’t over. You saw it in the empty seats at Roland Garros, and you’ll see the same thing in the early rounds at Wimbledon—the tournament plans to allow 50 to 75 percent capacity in the early going, and hopes to have every seat filled for the semifinals and finals. Hopefully, just the sight of Centre Court, and the grass, and the players in white, will do what it does each summer: Create a kind of pure-tennis bubble that lets us hold the rest of the world at bay for two weeks.
And how about those players in white? To start, with Rafael Nadal and Naomi Osaka absent, all eyes will be on Roger Federer and Serena Williams. The world may be starting over, but this could also mark the end of a very long era in tennis—the Serena and Roger era. They’re both nearly 40, they could both retire very soon, they may be the best male and female players of the Open era so far, and they’re both looking to add another Slam before they go—Federer to keep himself ahead of Djokovic and Nadal (for now), Serena to tie Margaret Court. And while they may not be the favorites, they both have a shot.
Joel, who and what are you looking forward to seeing at Wimbledon over the next two weeks?
Wimbledon’s opening Monday, when the reigning men’s champion enters the court, has always struck me as a powerful moment: the commencement of a title defense, on hallowed Centre Court. Now, given the two-year gap, it will be that much more dramatic to see Novak Djokovic take the stage. That he’s also half-way to a calendar Grand Slam is also a compelling story line.
Then there’s the man who lost that 2019 final, Roger Federer. What will be his fate at Wimbledon? Back in action this year, Federer has only shown traces of his longstanding brilliance. At Roland Garros, Federer intentionally set the bar low and skipped over it nicely, exiting Paris quite pragmatically when he opted to withdraw in hopes of keeping himself healthy for Wimbledon. So now Federer arrives at his cherished Wimbledon in search of his ninth title. Fresh? Probably. Healthy? We wonder. Razor-sharp? Questionable. Each round, each set, each break point, the clock will take its ticks.
I’m also interested to see how well Serena Williams plays; though I suspect her early rounds will be much less challenging than Federer’s. Williams has risen to the occasion so often at Wimbledon, her grit and confidence a perfect fit for the grass. And let’s not forget that she’s reached the last two finals, only beaten by opponents who were in the zone from start to finish.
Coco Gauff, Wimbledon’s surprising newcomer in 2019, rounds out my quartet of curiosity. While of course she’d have loved to come back to Wimbledon last year, I think not having competed in London for 24 months has greatly aided Gauff’s growth. Imagine the microscope she’d have been under had there been a Wimbledon last year. Instead, Gauff’s had more time than usual to learn to manage life as a pro and enhance her skills, as demonstrated by her excellent clay-court season.
Beyond those four prominent players, I’m looking forward to the kind of quick-paced tennis you only see on grass. As much as grass has slowed over the last 20 years, it still remains a surface for alert opportunists, rewarding those who seize the moment mid-rally and most of all on those vital break points. Just the green of the grass itself is a sign of comfort and summer’s wide-open possibilities.
What players are you curious about, Steve?
You’re right, the sight of Djokovic opening up Centre Court on Monday will have extra resonance in 2021. It isn’t just his return we’ll celebrate, but Wimbledon’s. Which makes it doubly unfortunate that Simona Halep, who has withdrawn because of a calf injury (which also kept her out of Roland Garros), won’t have a chance to do the same the following day. Who knows if she’ll ever win Wimbledon again.
But as much as Federer will be the sentimental favorite on the men’s side, it’s Djokovic who has the better shot at making history. I’ll be interested to see how he handles his Roland Garros success. There’s a sense now that he has turned a corner in his pursuit of Federer and Nadal, and all of their records. He beat Rafa at Roland Garros, he pulled to within one Slam title of them for the first time, and now he has a chance at the ultimate prize, the calendar-year Grand Slam. The last time he won in Paris, in 2016, he said he lost motivation because he had basically conquered everyone and everything, and he didn’t win another Slam for two years. I’m guessing he’ll react differently this time, because he still has two big goals right in front of him: 20 majors and the Grand Slam.
On the women’s side, what strikes me looking at the draw is how large and formidable the WTA’s middle class of players has grown. No one is dominant, but there are dozens of legitimate contenders, and precious few easy opponents, even in the first round. Serena, Barty, Krejcikova, Kvitova, Pavlyuchenkova, Sakkari, Muchova, Azarenka, Gauff, Andreescu, Muguruza, Rybakina, Samsanova, Badosa, Kontaveit, Kasatkina, Kerber, Pegula, Sabalenka, Svitolina and half a dozen others are all in the running. It makes for an interesting and unpredictable tournament from the first round on. As our colleague Chris Clarey pointed out, there are 15 Grand Slam champions in the women’s draw, and four in the men’s. While we concentrate on a few specific stars on the men’s side, we can take in the women’s field as a whole and find a competitive match everywhere we look.
That’s a balance that has worked well at Slams in the past, and hopefully will again over the next fortnight.