For two weeks every summer, the manicured courts of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club are ubiquitous on television every morning for American sports fans. Even if you don’t particularly care about tennis or have just glanced at the tournament in passing on ESPN, there’s only one place in the world that looks like Wimbledon.
But what makes that particular event such a standout on the sports calendar is also what makes it extremely difficult to move — and why it may end up being canceled altogether within the next week due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wimbledon’s courts are built from perennial ryegrass cut to 8 millimeters that, according to the club, requires 13 days of hard and dry soil underneath to play properly without incurring any damage. But even before that, it takes 15 months for the courts to be seeded and cut and installed to perfection. And given the weather patterns in England, the season to have a championship-quality grass court is relatively short, with members being able to play the regular courts from May to September.
It is truly a living, breathing, fragile surface, and the difficulty of maintaining it explains why grass court tennis is pretty much a relic of the past. Unlike the bygone era of tennis when three of the four Grand Slams were played on grass, these days the grass season lasts only a month.
Thus, it is completely understandable that Wimbledon announced Wednesday an emergency meeting next week to determine the fate of the tournament.
According to the All England Club, “the very short window available to us to stage The Championships due to the nature of our surface suggests that postponement is not without significant risk and difficulty. Playing behind closed doors has been formally ruled out.”
That means the tournament will start as scheduled on June 29 with fans in attendance, be delayed no more than a few weeks or not played at all.
Unlike the French Open, which made a unilateral decision to move to a Sept. 20 start, Wimbledon just doesn't have much wiggle room here. If the tournament is canceled, of course, the implications are huge, particularly for the two most important figures in the sport.
Roger Federer and Serena Williams, who were born about six weeks apart, will both turn 39 later this year. Even at this advanced stage of their careers, they are both in a Grand Slam race without much time remaining.
Federer, who has the men’s record of 20 Slam titles, is just one ahead of Rafael Nadal and three ahead of Novak Djokovic. Williams has 23, and the quest to surpass Margaret Court’s 24 borders on obsession.
For both of them, Wimbledon is by far the best chance to add one more Grand Slam at this point. Federer has won it eight times and lost arguably the most heartbreaking match of his career in last year’s final to Djokovic, showing he is still a real threat on grass. Williams has seven Wimbledon titles and lost the last two finals after returning to the sport from childbirth.
Federer and Williams are both all-time champions and still among the best players in the world, but they are diminished athletes at this stage. The quirky Wimbledon grass, which produces shorter points and gives an advantage to dominant servers (which both Federer and Williams are), helps restore some of what age has taken away from them.
So from that perspective, striking this particular Wimbledon from the calendar potentially alters the history of the sport. While cancellation of a Grand Slam would be big any year, losing a Wimbledon so close to the end of these two careers would be a gut-wrenching thing to accept.
There are, of course, bigger problems right now. People are dying from COVID-19 and the world is basically paralyzed, with no defined end to the suffering.
If the tennis season didn’t resume the rest of this year, or if Federer and Williams never played again, they’d be able to walk away from the sport having accomplished more than anyone else in the Open Era. By contrast to what’s going on in England and Europe and everywhere else right now, losing a final or shutting down a tennis tournament isn’t such a big deal.
But unlike a lot of other tournaments and sporting events around the globe that are claiming new space on the calendar, Wimbledon is pretty much in an all-or-nothing position.
Unfortunately for tennis fans, and particularly anyone who wants to see Federer and Williams have one more great chance to win it, time isn’t on their side.
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