At Wimbledon 2019, the losing finalists in both men’s and women’s singles would have ruefully looked at their runner-up plates, remembered the times they were on the other side and thought: ‘Next year, I’ll get there.’
The assertion would not be unfounded. After all, Serena Williams and Roger Federer both know how it feels to hold the winner’s trophy aloft – on Centre Court, at the balcony and at the Champions Ball. Federer has done it a record eight times before while Williams has been there seven times. No reason to think why they wouldn’t reach the final again next year and convert the championship point or get over the mental block.
In the careers of these two age-defying 38-year-olds, ‘next time’ has been a successful mantra for so long that it seems inevitable they will get another chance. Another shot to claim a title they missed or break a new record.
But with Wimbledon cancelled for the first time since the Second World War due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, this next chance won’t come for another year. Federer, Williams, hundreds of other tennis players, officials, groundskeepers, caterers and media persons won’t get a chance to earn from and enjoy the unique Wimbledon experience. In fact, there will no live tennis till at least July 13 as the clay and grass court seasons are wiped out.
It seems insensitive and absurd to regret missed sports tournament given the grave situation the world is in because of the rapidly spreading coronavirus. It’s just a game, after all, there are more important things at stake.
But even amidst the global crisis, one cannot help but feel sadness at an announcement everyone knew was inevitable. Public health is the priority and no one disagrees. But fans are allowed to be emotional even as they rationally process the absence of the tournament that is synonymous with tennis to many.
When a journalist tweeted that the reaction from the tennis family seemed much bigger for Wimbledon than it was for previous cancellations, Donna Vekic voiced what all stakeholders were thinking when she replied: ‘Because it’s Wimbledon’.
The oldest Grand Slam, occupies a special place in the hearts of all tennis lovers. Even those who are casual viewers of the sport recognise it as the pinnacle of the sport, despite the other three Majors having equal points and importance by now.
For one, it’s the nostalgia. Tennis evolved from Wimbledon and it’s the only Major still played on grass – the surface that the sport started on. Despite being reduced to a small fraction of the calendar, success on grass always counts a lot in a player’s pedigree. Then there’s the aura of tradition that surrounds it, from the all-white dress code, the manicured venue, and staying in homes, not hotels. The ambiance just adds to the magic as no other tennis venue is as old-school or steeped in history.
The two weeks of Wimbledon are almost like entering an alternate dimension away from hustle and bustle of the global sport. The competition is no less intense, but the paraphernalia around it makes it an experience more than a tournament.
But in 2020, there will be no ‘Championships’, no people on sunlit mounds of grass eating strawberries and cream. While French Open can be played later in the year, a decision that is still controversial for its unilateral announcement, Wimbledon can’t be rescheduled. Grass is a natural surface and the time has to be just right enough to sustain two weeks of continuous play. Dew in later months and daylight in the second half of the year affect the conditions.
On the bright side, as Federer said, this only makes us appreciate the sport more. In their first reactions, he said he was devastated and had no words to describe this feeling while Williams said she was ‘shooked’.
Admittedly, the start of 2020 had been mixed for both. The Swiss world No 4, who underwent knee surgery earlier in the year, had timed his return for the grass-court swing knowing it’s his strongest shot at more titles. For Williams, Wimbledon still presents the best chance to win that elusive Major No 24 and tie Margaret Court’s record. She reached the last two finals (like she did at US Open) and will always hold an edge on grass.
Federer promised to be back and it’s likely that Williams will as well. In 2021, a year when both players will turn 40, it won’t be surprising to see them out on Centre Court in their pristine whites on a surface that rewards their style of play.
But the ravages of time and the uncertainty of sport bow to no one, no matter the number of Grand Slams they hold. If the two are healthy and willing, there’ll be no stopping them but who can predict if they will continue to defy their aging limbs for another year?
As disheartening as the very thought is, one can’t help but wonder whether the cancellation of the 2020 edition has robbed two of the greatest a chance at more history. And of fans to see their icons meet triumph and disaster on Centre Court. For these two have been such a regular fixture on tour, it’s hard to imagine Wimbledon without both of them. The game will go on, but will two of its best exponents be able to keep pace with it?
The health of the entire world is of greater concern than the fitness of tennis players but in a way, the raw emotion associated with the twilight of these modern greats’ careers is a sobering footnote to the larger implications of a cancelled Wimbledon and the pandemic.
For now, fans have to hope that two ageless wonders, along with our society, economy and almost all other stakeholders, hang on and come back stronger in the times to come.