Wimbledon 2021 started more with a whimper than a bang as drizzle stopped play on the outside courts leaving Aryna Sabalenka to open proceedings on No 1 Court at 1pm on Monday.
If my game’s going to be there and if I'm going to be in a good rhythm, if I'm going to approach the ball and not be late to many of the shots, I think I can do it. We’ll see. It’s going to be tricky... I am so inexperienced on grass, I am always asking the coaches, is this grass different? Iga Swiatek
The No 2 seed from Belarus was in imperious form in her opening set against the wily Monica Niculescu, a qualifier from Romania, who should’ve been the more sure-footed on the lush turf but slithered and slipped around the baseline, prompting her to change her shoes.
Sabalenka raced to a 5-0 lead in 18 minutes before Niculescu got herself on the scoreboard, but before the Belarusian could claim the first win of The Championships, she found herself inexorably wrapped in Niculescu’s web of spins and dinks, and the errors began to ping off her racket.
The 23-year-old World No 4 is the 2nd seed here in the absence of Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka, and her fine form in 2021 has raised expectations for the Belarusian’s hopes at Wimbledon.
While Niculescu made her brief comeback in the second set, encouraged by the enthusiastic No 1 Court crowd, Sabalenka steadied her nerves sufficiently to pull off a 6-1 6-4 win after 75 minutes under the roof.
“I was really nervous to open Wimbledon and also be first playing on Court One,” she said in her on-court interview, an innovation at Wimbledon this year. “I was nervous a little bit because I haven’t played on the stadiums before but really happy that I won the match. The atmosphere was unbelievable.”
It is a mark that the women’s game is in now the hands of the younger generations, many of whom have little experience of the grass at Wimbledon after The Championships were cancelled last year due to the pandemic.
Outside, play had yet to begin, and tempers flared in the lengthy queues that had built up at the club’s ticket allocation office, with some fans left furious that they were unable to obtain a paper ticket after the complications of purchasing online and being unable to download the correct version for entry onto their phones.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, was among those to criticise the arrangement which ‘automatically rules out many older people’.
Over on Centre Court, before Novak Djokovic opened play at 1.30pm, key workers and individuals involved with the development of Covid-19 vaccines made up the vast majority of invitees to the Royal Box on Day 1.
Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, who worked on the Oxford AstraZeneca jab, was given a front-row seat alongside the All England Club Chairman, Ian Hewitt, and looked taken aback to be given a long standing ovation from the 7,500 spectators after being introduced by the master of ceremonies, moving many to tears.
“We would like to thank all those who have contributed so much during this unprecedented period in all our lives,” said the announcer on the Centre Court tannoy.
Hannah Ingram-Moore, the daughter of Captain Tom Moore, was also among the 51 VIP guests.
Later, Sloane Stephens produced a shock on Centre Court to knock out two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova from the Czech Republic.
After being broken in her first game, the American roared back to secure a 6-3 6-4 win, with the 6th game in each set proving critical.
It was a surprise loss for the 10th seed, who had been one of the favourites for the tournament, but she could not keep pace with her opponent during an enthralling battle.
The 2017 US Open champion came into the match with a 2-1 head-to-head lead against Kvitova, who lifted the Venus Rosewater Dish in 2011 and 2014, but all their previous meetings had been on hard courts.
“Obviously seeing the first round, I was like, ‘Oh boy, this is going to be a difficult task’,” Stephens said. “But knowing that I’ll probably play on a big court and feeling good, I was excited to play against Petra.”
Stephens, who was playing on grass for the first time in two years, said: “Being able to come back and my first game is at Centre Court with fans back is really just a dream. I am just excited to be competing here again.”
The American has suffered tragedy over the past year, losing several members of her family to COVID and the former World No 3 has slipped down the rankings to 73, but she produced her previous form against Kvitova as the sun finally came out after a soggy day.
After an early trade of service breaks, Stephens got a second which proved enough for the American to bag the opening set.
The Czech, who injured her ankle in a freak fall while performing her media duties at the French Open earlier this month, appeared sluggish in her movements.
Stephens held on in the second set and then picked up the crucial break in the next game to go up 4-3, after which the American converted her first match point with a forehand winner that was found to have caught the line after a challenge from Kvitova.
She will take on Katie Boulter, was the first British winner of the Championships and had to do it the hard way before she progressed into round two after a 6-7(6) 6-3 6-4 victory over American qualifier Danielle Lao.
Back on No 1 Court, the No 7 seed Iga Swiatek overcame the tricky Su-Wei Hsieh, 6-4 6-4, powering past everything the Taiwanese threw at her.
“Hsieh has great touch, so my main goal was not to let her use that,” Swiatek said, no doubt aware that her opponent’s best run at Wimbledon 3 years ago included the defeat of top seed Simona Halep.
Coming into the match, the 20-year-old Pole knew she had a task on her hands against an opponent who has won the Wimbledon doubles twice.
“If my game’s going to be there and if I’m going to be in a good rhythm, if I’m going to approach the ball and not be late to many of the shots, I think I can do it,” she said. “We’ll see. It’s going to be tricky.”
With a break of serve in the opening game, she managed to counter Hsieh’s impressive armoury to capitalise on that early advantage and take the first set 6-4.
Despite her inexperience on grass, Swiatek looked perfectly at home.
“I am so inexperienced on grass, I am always asking the coaches, is this grass different?” she said, describing the unsettling change in conditions from sunny Eastbourne to chilly Wimbledon.
The 2020 Roland-Garros champion got an early break in the second set, only to concede her own serve and, back on level terms, the intriguing match-up of styles brought stunning responses from both players as the sun came out.
Swiatek broke again in the 5th game and consolidated her lead when Hsieh slammed her overhead smash into the net and from there on it, things fell the Pole’s way.
“It’s amazing to win, and very emotional as the last match I played on this court was winning the Juniors in 2018, and I had so many good memories,” she added with a smile.