Sometime in the middle of February, when the coronavirus was beginning to spread outside China, the talk of canceling sporting events began. Big events. Olympic events. Unthinkable events. My mind started to tick forward, week by week, month by month, through the tennis calendar. Every possibility seemed more unreal than the last. No Indian Wells? Could that actually happen? No Miami? Really? What about Monte Carlo and Rome and the clay swing? No Roland Garros? It seemed inconceivable—borderline illegal.
Next, of course, came Wimbledon, and that’s where my mind usually came to a halt. A year without The Championships really did seem impossible. Many of the tennis fans I talked to about it reacted the same way. When I asked if they thought Wimbledon was going to happen this year, they looked surprised and a little distraught, and said something like, “Oh, I hadn’t even thought about that.” Wimbledon, it seemed, was untouchable. It’s cancellation was something that no player or fan wanted to contemplate.
But it turns out even the hallowed lawns of the All England Club weren’t safe from the coronavirus. On Wednesday, tournament officials announced that the 2020 edition has been cancelled. They decided that it couldn’t be postponed because the grass wouldn’t be playable later in the year.
Serena Williams summed up the tennis world’s reaction with a one-word tweet
The announcement wasn’t a surprise, and I haven’t heard anyone claim there was any alternative. SW19 and its environs are on lockdown for the foreseeable future, and every professional sporting schedule is being gradually, reluctantly, painfully pushed backward. There’s a good chance now that tennis won’t return at all in 2020, and it doesn’t seem far-fetched to wonder if 2021 could be in jeopardy, too, at least in the U.S. and Europe. Will people want to gather in huge crowds a year from now, if there’s no vaccine developed for the coronavirus by then?
Wimbledon softened the blow by leaking the news of its likely decision over the weekend. By then, like most people, I had shaken off my earlier disbelief and adjusted to the idea. During this spring without sports, I had started to see them for what we often forget they are: a luxury, a diversion, and ultimately a sign of health. As much as the classic final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer felt like life and death while it was happening in 2019, the events of 2020 have reminded us that it was anything but. It was a celebration of life and life only—of excellence and mastery and achievement, and we should never forget that. The correct reaction to Wimbledon’s cancellation is to say: We have more important things to worry about now.
Still, even with that proper perspective, and the proper preparation, getting the news on Wednesday was a blow. For players and fans searching for prospects of joy, or even just normalcy, in 2020, seeing the sunlight on the grass inside Centre Court was something to hold out hope for. Even among global athletic events, Wimbledon stands out as a summit, the cherry on top of the sporting cake. It’s played at the height of summer. The players are dressed in white. There’s nothing in sports like the tension of a Wimbledon final, when it feels as if every eye on the planet is trained on two people. To see someone win the title and hoist the trophy is to see someone achieve a childhood dream. As commercial as the event is, it retains a purity.
To lose Wimbledon, in other words, isn’t like losing any other tournament. It’s losing a little bit of perfection, and the best of what tennis can offer. There are much bigger issues to deal with and think about right now, but we can be bummed about this one, too.