For decades, there have been complaints that the tennis season — sprawled across continents and different surfaces — is far too long. In this eerie and tragic year, it has quickly become far too short.
The biggest blow to the sport came Wednesday when the leaders of Wimbledon, the oldest Grand Slam tournament and a cultural institution in Britain, announced that the event would not be held in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m Shooked,” Serena Williams, a seven-time Wimbledon singles champion, said on Twitter as she absorbed the news and its implications.
This is unquestionably a shaky period for the world and for the games it enjoys watching. Though sports have rightfully receded during the outbreak, it is still a jolt to the system to realize that there will be no Wimbledon this year — no chance of another classic final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic; no possibility for Williams to return to the singles final and win to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles;no servings of strawberries and cream; no opportunity for the next generation of talents to step onto the meticulously tended grass of the All England Club and prove that they belong.
“These are just very weird and strange times,” said Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon men’s singles champion. “For me, it’s just a big kick in the gut, because it’s a tournament I love and a tournament that so many love.”
Founded in 1877, Wimbledon had previously been called off only during World War I and World War II. Postponement or delaying a decision until late April were options, but Wimbledon’s leadership chose to make a clean break with 2020 and cancel the tournament, which was scheduled for June 29 to July 12.
The hand-painted board inside the clubhouse that lists each year’s champions will skip from 2019 to 2021, just as it skipped from 1914 to 1919 and from 1939 to 1946.
“Last year’s final will forever be one of the happiest days of my life,” said Simona Halep, who defeated Williams in the 2019 women’s singles final. “But we are going through something bigger than tennis, and Wimbledon will be back. And it means I have even longer to look forward to defending my title.”
Britain remains under a lockdown that began last week, banning public gatherings of more than two people and permitting residents to leave their homes only to shop for necessities, to exercise and to travel to work.
“At present there are just no easy options; the way ahead is hard,” said Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, who tested positive for the novel coronavirus last week.
Organizers at the All England Club, which stages Wimbledon, said the restrictions on large gatherings, travel and the strain on medical services made it impossible to prepare for the tournament properly without putting people at risk.
Even though the government restrictions are to be reviewed later this month, the organizers wanted to quickly give certainty to players and others in the sport.
The cancellation was immediately followed by the suspension of the preliminary grass-court season, halting all men’s and women’s tournaments until July 13. No tour events have been held since early March, which means the forced hiatus for the players will last four months, and possibly much longer.
“It’s a definite realization that the tour might be canceled for 2020,” John Isner, long the top-ranked American men’s player, said by telephone from his home in Dallas. “With Wimbledon being gone and with New York City essentially being the epicenter of all of this crisis currently, the U.S. Open is next. And there are countless U.S. Open warm-up events as well, so we would need this situation to get better very quickly.”
The pressure to stage at least some tour events before the end of the year will be significant because players have lost months of income. The challenge is that tennis is among the most global of sports, and countries that have shut down travel and restricted public gatherings are unlikely to lift those measures at the same time. This could create inequities.
“We might have countries want to have a tournament, but they might have travel restrictions on other countries where players are residing,” said Isner, who is on the player council for the men’s tour. “There’s a lot of stuff that could cause a lot of issues.”
The All England Club’s leaders quickly ruled out hosting Wimbledon without spectators, and they were always leery of postponing because of the narrow scheduling window for grass-court tennis.
Wimbledon has always been played on grass, which was once tennis’s most common playing surface but has long since been superseded by clay and synthetic hardcourts. Still, the tournament has maintained its prestige, relevance and financial clout.
Total prize money at Wimbledon in 2019 was 38 million pounds (about $47.3 million at the current exchange rate).
“Wimbledon is the one event that transcends tennis in a lot of ways,” said Patrick McEnroe, the ESPN commentator and a former elite professional who has tested positive for the coronavirus. “It’s because of the history and their ability over the years to adapt. It’s an anachronism, but they have found a way to really balance the tradition and the history of the game with being progressive.”
McEnroe added, “It just tells you the magnitude of what we’re facing, especially for them to do it this early, three months out.”
Other annual premier sporting events, including golf’s Masters and horse racing’s Kentucky Derby, have chosen to postpone rather than cancel.
Wimbledon is the first Grand Slam tournament to skip a year since the Australian Open was not held in 1986, when its organizers shifted the start date from December to January.
The French Open, the clay-court event in Paris that usually precedes Wimbledon, has shifted this year to a Sept. 20 start. But because of resistance from players and the leaders of the men’s and women’s tours, the organizers may be obliged to alter those plans or pay compensation to tournaments damaged by the unilateral move.
The United States Open, normally the last Grand Slam played each year, remains scheduled for Aug. 24 to Sept. 13, but its leaders are exploring the possibility of postponement. The United States Tennis Association said on Wednesday that it was still preparing contingencies. At the moment, part of the tournament’s site, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, is being converted to an emergency 350-bed hospital.
Unlike nearly every other tennis tournament, Wimbledon has cancellation insurance that will cover some of its losses during the pandemic. The All England Club also has considerable reserves.
According to the most recent figures available, from the fiscal year ending July 31, 2018, Wimbledon reportedly generated revenue of 256.7 million pounds and a pretax profit of 39.7 million pounds. Approximately 37 million of that was provided as funding to the Lawn Tennis Association, the governing body for the sport in Britain.
The decision not to play the tournament this year could have repercussions in the record books.
It eliminates the possibility that Djokovic, the world’s No. 1 men’s player, will complete a calendar Grand Slam in 2020 by winning all four major tournaments, a feat not accomplished by a men’s player since Rod Laver in 1969.
It also means that Federer and Williams will not be able to play in the major tournament that best suits their games and their title chances at this late stage of their careers.
Federer, who had arthroscopic knee surgery in February and had planned to restart his season on grass in Halle, Germany, in early June, has won eight Wimbledon singles titles and a men’s record 20 Grand Slam singles titles, one more than Rafael Nadal’s 19.
Federer and Williams will each turn 39 this year, and it is unclear whether they will still be playing when Wimbledon resumes in 2021.
After the cancellation, Federer quickly declared himself willing to try again. On social media, he said he was “devastated” by the cancellation and made it clear that he intended to return to both Halle and Wimbledon next year.
Tony Godsick, Federer’s agent, said in an email that Federer thought that health and safety should be the No. 1 priority. “He shared with me that he looks forward to participating on the grass once again in 2021,” Godsick said.