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Missing that Wimbledon feeling

With The Championships cancelled for the first time since World War II, players and fans alike are missing the joys of Wimbledon

A deserted Wimbledon Centre Court in late June.
A deserted Wimbledon Centre Court in late June. (Getty Images)

In April, when the All England Lawn Tennis Club announced that it was cancelling this year’s edition of The Championships at Wimbledon, Rohit Lahoti was particularly gutted. The architect-turned-student is studying in London and had got Centre Court tickets for 4 July through the public ballot.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance of seeing (Roger) Federer," bemoans Lahoti over the phone from the UK. “I don’t know if I would have another chance since he is also closer to retiring."

The spread of coronavirus has scuppered many such plans. In normal circumstances, Wimbledon’s pristine grass courts would have thudded with the sound of tennis balls, and the world’s best players in spotless whites, from 29 June. Lahoti would have been in the stands on the first weekend of the event, possibly watching his favourite player floating gracefully across the turf.

Though Lahoti will get preference for the same tickets next year, he is not sure if he will be back in 2021—by then, work pressures and normalcy may have returned to life. Lahoti, who is studying for a master’s at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit of University College London, will graduate this year. Since the convocation will be next summer, he does have a sliver of hope of combining the two events.

“I have never been (to Wimbledon) in the last 10-12 years that I have been following tennis. I always had this (thought)—how to get tickets—and in January, I applied for the ballot," he says. He now thinks he will just cycle around the tennis courts and “see it from the outside", a tragic substitute for what would have otherwise been a magical day-long experience of watching tennis, reluctantly spending on the famous strawberries, perhaps lounging on Henman Hill/Murray Mound with a pint and visiting themagnificent museum.

International tennis has been suspended since early March, with the Citi Open in Washington on 14 August expected to be the first event to be held post-lockdown. The Chile Open that ended on 1 March was the last ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) tournament to be completed this year. In the wake of the pandemic, Roland-Garros rescheduled the French Open from its usual May dates to 27 September (played over three weeks for the first time, with the qualifying rounds starting from 21 September). The US Open is expected to be held from its predetermined 31 August date.

Wimbledon, which was first held in 1877, cancelled the event entirely for the first time since the two world wars (1915-18, 1940-45). The tournament organizers put together a sentimental video, voiced by Federer, in the second week of April, in which he says: “We must come together by staying apart…no tents will be pitched, no records broken, no trophies engraved. As front-line workers across the globe compete for us, we cheer for them."

Since different countries started going into lockdown from February-March, fans may have missed their dose of regular sport but tennis players too have struggled to stay occupied. So much so that World No.1 Novak Djokovic, after having done a number of Insta-live interviews and chats with fellow players, organized an ill-conceived event in mid-June in Serbia and Croatia that blew up in his face. Four players, including Djokovic himself, tested positive for covid-19 and the rest of his Adria Tour, which was to head to Bosnia, had to be cancelled amid a barrage of criticism.

“In the tennis context, the news here is Djokovic’s mess," says London-based Juhi Bahl, who also had tickets to this year’s Wimbledon. She says there is little buzz about (the absence of) Wimbledon at the moment, because though people have been missing sports, it has mostly been football. The UK has begun opening up, summer’s in full bloom and the Premier League has restarted, “so the gripe has come down about not having any sport", she says with a laugh.

Both Bahl and Lahoti have got their refunds and she too is unsure if she will go to Wimbledon next year—her priority now is the only Grand Slam she hasn’t seen yet, the Australian Open.

In the absence of actual tennis, BBC Sport in the UK has scheduled over 50 hours of programming, tickling nostalgia with the telecast of older matches. Wimbledon has started a bunch of campaigns, including an interactive game Play The Championships, an activity for schoolchildren to recreate their own Wimbledon poster design, and a retelling of some of its best matches, on its website.

For players, understandably, the void has been surreal. If someone had told Rohan Bopanna at the beginning of the year that he would be spending three months in a row at home, he wouldn’t have been able to imagine it. Having spent the better part of over two decades in hotels and living out of suitcases, there could have been only one adequate substitute for missing Wimbledon this year.

His 13-month-old daughter Tridha has allowed Bopanna to stay joyous, though the 40-year-old does miss being in England at this time of the year, playing on his favourite surface and meeting friends.

“I have always enjoyed grass courts and played well on them," says the doubles player, ranked 37 in the world . “I missed it once (in 2009) when I was hurt. I miss competing, especially not having any grass event at all. I have had some close semi-finals (in doubles in 2013 and 2015) there, lost both in five sets."

He says everybody understands the situation, the need to prioritize the seriousness of the pandemic. “It’s the right thing to do but we all miss that kind of…," he trails off.

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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