We still hope for miracles. Maybe magic will strike and Wimbledon, slated to start on June 29, will not be postponed. But already reports are circulating that it will be canceled. In that light, I wrote these words.
Rarely has a shout in the wind resonated so loud.
In 1981 a boy rebelled. Infused with fury, the veins in his neck bulged as he gave the universe his full-throated cry. A raw protest, a clear challenge and a fierce taunt – John McEnroe shouted his immortal words: “You cannot be serious!”
Now it’s the world’s turn. “You cannot be serious!” is the anguished mantra we hear now from Chinese markets to Italian apartment complexes, from cramped apartments in Manhattan to quiet streets in Manhattan Beach.
The whole world had been struck by a plague that even the bluster of politicians and the majesty of the All England Lawn Tennis Club can’t counter. Now Britain’s Prince Charles and Prime Minister Boris Johnson have tested positive, and it’s hard to imagine that Wimbledon won’t be postponed.
As Virginia Wade noted, “Wimbledon has all the wisdom of a grandmother and the energy of a teen.” But even mighty Wimbledon may have to bend to reality.
Yes, it’s the grand sports gathering that annually draws giddy kids who sleep out in tents and wait in endless queues. Here we see proper ladies and refined gentlemen, aspiring long shots and lofty royals. But not this year.
Wimbledon is a tennis championship that doubles as an English garden party. Its traditions have traditions. But COVID-19 spits at tradition. So, there will be no strawberries and cream. The storied Tea Room will be shuttered. The Royal Box will issue no invitations to the Duke and Duchess of Propriety. Champagne bars won’t uncork their bubbly, and only locals will hear the gentle bells of St. Mary’s Chapel. The roars of knowing crowds that echo past petunias will be muted. Worst of all, Wimbledon’s pristine lawns will not be reduced to dust by the desperate sprints of players from California to Korea.
The hundreds of seekers in sneakers and streakers in nothing will fail to appear. Glory will be deferred. On Monday, June 29 at 1:00 pm Novak Djokovic will not be out on Centre Court starting his title quest, he’ll be stuck on his couch having a rest. On July 5 Wimbledon will not give us its most quiet gift. Middle Sunday is the best (and most biblical) day of rest tennis offers.
Sir Andy Murray will not forge a mighty comeback. Not a single tweedy fan from Edinburgh or Parsons Green will plead, “C’mon Andy!” Roger will not defy time and gravity, and seem to float above the lawns. Serena’s might will be grounded. Her Ahab-like voyage to equal Margaret Court will remain in port. Venus will be out of orbit. Coco will be just another kid on summer break. It’ll be us, not Nick Kyrgios, who’ll be in danger of imploding. We face a void.
Wimbledon, which has long drawn presidents, princes, potentates and characters of all stripes, will not offer any beaming, self-important celebs or a single zany tennis lover. We remember so many – Ted Tinling, Princess Di, Johnny Carson, Jack Nicholson, Harry and Meghan. But we will see none. The queen will remain in her palace.
Yes, Wimbledon draws critics. Jimmy Connors said, “New Yorkers love it when you spill your guts out there. You spill your guts at Wimbledon, [and] they make you stop and clean it up.” The Daily Mirror’s Brian Reade called it a bastion of conservatism for paunchy snobs who want to keep it that way. And writer Will Buckley claimed, “There has always been a middling public school element to Wimbledon. The uniform of blue blazers and fawn slacks, the deadening decorum, the air of restraint. A suitable motto would be, ‘With privilege comes the duty not to be seen to be enjoying oneself too much,’ or ‘All things in moderation except moderation itself.’”
Art Spander added, “The trouble with Britain is that everyone still thinks it’s the ‘90s. The 1890s. They can’t get over the loss of the Empire, much less the loss of a few soccer games, cricket matches or tennis matches.”
But never mind, despite all the dizzying critiques, Mother Wimbledon thrives and is beloved. Marion Bartoli was succinct: “Wimbledon saved my life,” said the 2013 champion. “I feel this place in my bones,” gushed nine-time winner Martina Navratilova. “I feel all those champions, dead and alive, when I’m out there. There’s no place like it.”
Herbert Warren Wind claimed, “Of all the evocative names in sports, I do not believe that any has more significance or rings the bells of memory more loudly and clearly than Wimbledon.”
But this year we will see none of the crazy headlines that provoke us. “Streaker Puts Some Bounce into Stodgy Old Wimbledon,” said one. There will be no fistfights in the press room, and no off-the-wall predictions. Once I asked a Cockney cabby if Tim Henman would beat Pete Sampras in the Wimbledon semis. He replied, “Well, lad, I’ll be serving you breakfast on the moon tomorrow if that bloke wins.”
We will get no gotcha press questions, like the time Boris Becker was asked, “Are you going to return those videotapes that are overdue from the shop in Southfield’s?”
This year we won’t be able to gripe about the imposing array of annoying rules. Once 79-year-old gatekeeper Ted Edwards guarded fortress Wimbledon by asking a young woman, “Got your ticket, love?” “I’m Navratilova,” Martina replied, “I’m a player.” “Sure,” said Edwards, “and I’m Bill Tilden!”
Such is Wimbledon, the jolly, zany mother church of tradition. It is the confident, unblinking guardian of sporting civility. Pomp and propriety ooze from every well-scrubbed corner. Some dismiss her as but a green haven in a suburban valley. Or, like Marat Safin, some complain that, “You have to wear white, be nice and polite to people.”
Frank Deford said Wimbledon was the most overrated event in sports. But no other sporting organization so adeptly brands quaint traditions while quietly and incessantly initiating cutting-edge changes. Here change is an art form. But COVID-19 is one change Wimbledon probably will not be able to overcome.
After No. 1 Martina Hingis suffered a shock loss to No. 129 Jelena Dokic, Ian Woolridge spoke of the “sheer enormity and staggering implausibility” of her loss. Now, as we face the sheer enormity and staggering implausibility of Wimbledon’s cancelation, only one thing comes to mind: “You cannot be serious!”