“When people walk through those gates into this magical place, we want it to look and feel reassuringly familiar,” says Wimbledon’s chief executive, Sally Bolton, as she prepares to raise the curtain again on the greatest show on turf. “In our hearts we want to bring back the joy of summer – because that’s what our fans told us they missed last year.”
It is almost two years since the harmonic twang of ball on strings was last heard on Centre Court, when Novak Djokovic defeated Roger Federer in a seesawing five-hour epic worthy of Cecil B DeMille. But on Monday, Wimbledon returns – not only to fulfil its traditional role in the apex of the British sporting summer but as a symbolic staging post on the road back to normal life.
More than 50,000 plants have been moved into the grounds of the All England Club, while 53,000 balls have been pumped, pressurised, in readiness to be pulverised. Very early on Monday morning, the first deliveries of around 20,000 kilograms of strawberries will arrive from Kent. Then it will be the spectators’ turn.
Around 21,000 fans will be allowed in each day, half the normal numbers, but far more than we have become used to. Then for the closing weekend both singles finals will be played in front of capacity crowds – the first UK outdoor sporting events to do so since the start of the pandemic – as part of the government’s event research programme.
Bolton, who will be running her first championships since becoming Wimbledon’s first female CEO in 2019, believes her team has found a sweet spot that ensures people’s safety, which she stresses is paramount, while also putting on an event that feels as reassuringly familiar as always.
“There will still be people on the hill eating strawberries, and players in white playing tennis on grass courts: that enduring vision of the championships over decades and decades,” Bolton says. “And although we will have fewer people in the grounds, I think the atmosphere will be the same. We’ve got a sort of special place in the nation’s psyche. And we are very proud of that. I think people will still dress up for the occasion and have that sense of a day out that goes beyond just watching the tennis. It’s a social occasion, as well as a tennis event.”
Over the past year dozens of plans for the championships have been written, re-tweaked and torn up, as the pandemic has waned and surged. “And behind the scenes we have had to reinvent, or think differently, about almost everything to make sure we deliver the championship safely,” she adds.
This year the famous queue, which snaked its way from Wimbledon park up to Church Road, will be absent. While those lucky fans with tickets must provide a negative Covid test, or show they have been double vaccinated, to gain entry. Masks will also have to be worn when moving around the grounds, although not in seats, and hand sanitiser stations sit outside every court.
Wimbledon is also introducing reusable cups – although Bolton says this is down to the environment, not Covid.
It will be different for the players too. Instead of renting a place within walking distance of the grounds, and hanging out in Wimbledon village, they will stay in a biosecure bubble in the Park Plaza hotel near Westminster Bridge.
Bolton likens her team to theatre directors, setting the perfect stage for the stars and stories to develop and envelop us all. There are certainly plenty of compelling narratives. Andy Murray, a two-time champion, will be playing in his first Wimbledon since 2017. Serena Williams and Roger Federer are still hunting more records, even as they approach their 40th birthdays. And then there is Novak Djokovic, tennis’s iron man, scenting the third title of a Grand Slam.
Alexandra Willis, Wimbledon’s communications and marketing director, says the players are clearly happy to be back. “Obviously they’re all getting their game faces and are consummate professionals, but as they practise you can feel the place coming alive again.”
Willis also insists the traditional image of Wimbledon is outdated, and says the tournament is working hard to attract new audiences. Last year, she points out it was named as one of the breakthrough brands on TikTok, while a YouTube kids’ channel, starring characters named Bounce and Blade, aims to pull in even younger viewers.
“There are multiple different things about Wimbledon that resonate with people,” Willis adds. “For some people it’s the strawberries and social occasion, and they then get interested in a particular player off the back of that. For others it’s somebody’s perfect forehand or backhand. Lots of people still think that Wimbledon is the preserve of the champagne drinkers and very smartly dressed. That’s not the case. But we have to keep working at it.”
Meanwhile Bolton promises that Wimbledon is primed for a brilliant fortnight – despite the prospect of unpredictable weather. “Two weeks ago I was saying to people, I haven’t even looked at the forecast because we’ve had so many other things to keep us occupied,” she says. “Now I am slightly obsessed. It changes all the time. One minute it’s bright sunshine, the next there’s raindrops. So I am keeping everything crossed.”