The Championships at Wimbledon will look very different this year, or maybe not, with organisers keeping a close eye on developments surrounding the worldwide pandemic.
There is a real connection, in my mind, between live theatre and sports, that sense that the show starts when the show starts and you’ve got to be ready. When the curtain goes up on the first Monday of the championship everything has to be perfect. We’re basically putting on a production here. The stage is the grass courts and the actors are the players, but the principles are exactly the same. Sally Bolton OBE, Chief Executive, All England Lawn Tennis Club
In January, Micky Lawler, President of the WTA Tour. admitted that Wimbledon would not be able to return to ‘normal’ until 2022 at the earliest
“The safest assumption is that the tour will be back to normal in 2022, but the aim is to be flexible,” she told The Mail on Sunday. “Wimbledon is the Mecca, I found the hardest part of last year was missing that.
“I think it’s too soon for Wimbledon to be fully normal [this summer], but I am really hoping that it will be as normal as possible.”
The Championships were cancelled altogether in 2020, as the All England Club faced the realities of the coronavirus pandemic.
Because Wimbledon is staged on grass courts that need special treatment, it was impossible to postpone the event to a later date, as Roland Garros did.
“As great as it would be to play the tournament in late summer and autumn, it’s not possible,” Neil Stubley, Wimbledon’s head groundsman said at the time. “It is true that we played Davis matches in September, but there you can start at 11 and finish at 17.
“The Championships run from 11 in the morning to 9 for two weeks. In total they make 670 matches. It’s hard to succeed in July, let alone at other times of the year.
“In late summer the sun is lower in the sky. Therefore the dew comes first and the fields become slippery.
“The time frame in a day in which you can play is narrowing. You have to start later and finish earlier.”
By February, organisers confirmed The Championship dates for 2021 as still set for Monday 28 June to Sunday 11 July, with 3 scenarios possible: a full capacity Championships, a reduced capacity Championships, or a ‘behind closed doors’ Championships, all of which are dependent on the status of government and public health guidelines.
Stuart Fraser, The Times tennis correspondent, wrote on 4 February: “An update from Wimbledon organisers this morning to say that ‘the majority of our planning focus is currently centred on the option of a reduced capacity championships’ but they are not yet in a position to rule out playing with a full capacity crowd or behind closed doors.”
A statement on the official Wimbledon website added: “Our overriding priority will continue to be the health and safety of all of our stakeholders, in particular our guests, our staff, and our competitors.
“We are working closely with the relevant government and public health authorities, alongside the rest of the sports industry, to understand the varying challenges and opportunities presented by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.”
Sally Bolton, the new Chief Executive of the Club, believes The championships would provide two weeks of therapy to the national psyche.
“We’ve gone beyond ‘will we, won’t we’, when we dwell on topics such as how to make the famous Wimbledon queue Covid-safe,” Bolton told Helen Rumbelow of The Times in late February. “We have every confidence that The Championships will happen this year.”
Bolton took over the role during the pandemic, the first woman to do so and, unusually, does not come from tennis but helped deliver the 2013 Rugby League World Cup and was the Managing Director of the organising committee for the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London.
She confesses to loving drama and holds a vision is that sport is showtime.
“There is a real connection, in my mind, between live theatre and sports, that sense that the show starts when the show starts and you’ve got to be ready,” she told Rumbelow. “When the curtain goes up on the first Monday of the championship everything has to be perfect.
“We’re basically putting on a production here. The stage is the grass courts and the actors are the players, but the principles are exactly the same.”
The Club takes possession of the new land across Church Road in December and the expansion of grounds will take at least 6 years, with the plan consisting mainly of restoring the landscaping to its Capability Brown origins and creating temporary courts.
“We work incredibly hard to make this feel like tennis in an English garden,” Bolton added.
The extra space would be handy to allow for more social distancing this year, but Bolton explained that her team is ‘planning about five different championships’ and staying as responsive to the changing Covid-19 situation as possible.
Earlier this month, it was reported by Matt Hughes and Mike Dickson in the Daily Mail that all the players must stay in designated hotels rather than book private accommodation in Wimbledon, which is the preferred option for the vast majority of them.
The decision has been deemed a necessary mitigation measure following talks with Public Health England and the Sports Ground Safety Authority, despite the fact that The Championships do not start until late June, a week after the Government is hoping to have lifted all lockdown restrictions.
Players, coaches, officials and other essential staff will not be permitted to step outside the boundaries of their hotel, the All England Club and the private transport in between, in line with present protocols on the ATP and WTA tours.
While not be as strict as the quarantine requirements at last month’s Australian Open, where players were permitted only to train outside their rooms for up to 5 hours a day during the two-week build-up, it still will be restrictive, and probably unpalatable to many of the game’s superstars.
A shortage of hotels in south-west London means that a more central location is the only realistic option, and it is understood that one of the large chains close to Waterloo is among those that have been looked at.
Many players have become accustomed to renting the same house in Wimbledon every year, often for five- figure sums, and will not relish long drives to the Club.
Roger Federer usually books out two homes in the same road, and Andy Murray lives nearby in Surrey and stays at home during the tournament.
It is understood that the operation will be similar to European Tour golf tournaments in the UK last year, at which competitors were allowed to practise as much as they wished after entering the bubble with a negative Covid-19 test result.
“In line with UK government and public health guidance, we are putting in place a variety of infection control measures in line with our aspiration to stage a safe, best practice and trusted event in 2021,” an All England Club spokesman said. “One of the priority measures is to create a minimised risk environment for the players.
“As such, based on current guidance, there will be official hotels for all players, their support teams, and key groups such as officials, which will be a mandatory requirement for entry into this year’s championships.”
Players are now accustomed to these protocols on the tours and will be eager to play for the substantial prize money on offer at Wimbledon.
The Queen’s Club Championships and other grass-court tournaments in the build-up to Wimbledon will follow similar protocols, which will add to the mental fatigue that many players are experiencing at present.
Things are likely to look a bit different on court too, as traditional well-dressed line judges may be replaced by an automated electronic officiating system after 144 years.
Tim Henman, a member of The Championships Managing Committee, revealed recently that while the Club would prefer to have human officials on the grass courts of SW19, current restrictions could impact its decision, with around 300 line judges on a rota to cover the 18 match courts over the fortnight.
Wimbledon closely monitored the use of Hawk-Eye Live at the Australian Open and a final decision is likely to be made in April, when it becomes clearer as to what national restrictions will be in place across public life in the summer.
“For the 2021 championships, we don’t know yet what the restrictions will be,” Henman said. “So if there is a scenario where we are trying to limit the number of people on site, then Hawk-Eye Live would be an opportunity.”
Hawk-Eye Live was used for the first time in the UK last June at Jamie Murray’s Battle of the Brits exhibition at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton, southwest London, and is increasingly being used on the tour to cut down on the number of people required to be on the court.
Before the pandemic, up to 9 line judges would officiate a match at the same time, while the use of an automated system requires only one human official.