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Wimbledon fends off Euros, COVID to reclaim its place as a tennis sanctuary

LONDON — It was nearly three hours into the Wimbledon men’s singles final when the crowd started singing England football anthem “Three Lions” on Centre Court Sunday, then the call for “quiet please” came from the umpire and everyone returned to the matters in front of them.

England’s run to the final of Euro 2020 clashed with the tennis-only protectorate in this corner of SW19, but despite the All England Lawn Tennis Club sticking to its policy of only showing tennis here – just as they did for World Cup 2018 when England reached the semifinals – you couldn’t escape the Euros. Wherever you went on Sunday, there were England shirts, there were debates over the strength of the England and Italy midfields, and whether it was, actually, coming home.

It had been the case for the whole fortnight, especially that second week as England went through to the final. As play on the courts clashed with Euro 2020 matches, you saw the bar staff and security watching the football sneakily on their phones and then dancing around in silent, attempted subdued glee.

England’s semifinal against Denmark – which kicked off at 8pm local time – coincided with the second day of capacity crowds at Wimbledon. When that match started, there were just two courts still active, with doubles on an outside court, and the men’s singles quarterfinal between Karen Khachanov and Dennis Shapovalov on No.1 in its fourth set. The man in charge of the cab rank announced England-Denmark was still 0-0 after four minutes, as folk started finding alternative transport home, or to the pub, to watch the football. By the next day, with England now confirmed as finalists, the “Three Lions” chants were a little better received. They were greeted with laughter, rather than collusion.

The players have also touched on it. Emma Raducanu wore an England football shirt for her interview on Tuesday with the BBC, and even predicted the correct 2-1 final score against Denmark. Matteo Berrettini watched Italy’s semifinal against Spain with his good friend Felix Auger-Aliassime in their players’ bubble at the Park Plaza hotel. The match took place the night prior to their quarterfinal on No.1, but football transcends tennis rivalry and favours friendship. “It was so stressful, so stressful…but I think we struggled a lot,” said Berrettini. “Spain had more possession of the ball, and I think they had more occasions to score and stuff. But we were tough. We were defending a lot. We fought a lot. [Federico] Chiesa scored an unbelievable goal.”

Hearing football analysis from the tennis protagonists has been a by-product of this year’s Wimbledon. Roger Federer was frequently asked about Switzerland’s prospects, and his delight at them knocking out France in the first knockout round. Andy Murray also offered his hope England would end up winning the tournament, having been at the England-Scotland match earlier in the Euros.

But there’s also a feeling of distance between the tennis in SW19, and the football at Wembley 11 miles away. It seems the status quo here is, it’s all very well enjoying Euro 2020, and getting caught up in the hype, but keep that at the door of the courts – once you’re in the inner sanctum, then it’s about tennis, and the various traditions associated with it.

Yet Wimbledon is still inextricably linked with Euro 2020 this summer, through both being part of the government’s Events Research Programme (ERP) – formed to examine the risk of COVID-19 at large scale events and working out best practise to allow spectators to attend the events safely. The AELTC announced on middle Sunday that from the quarterfinals onwards, both Centre Court and No.1 Court would have 100% capacity crowds – the first full stadiums at a sporting event since the UK went into lockdown in mid-March 2020.

When the tournament began the grounds were at 50%, around 21,000 spectators. It was a jarring experience seeing swathes of empty seats on the usually packed outside courts. Those coming to Wimbledon had to show proof of either a negative COVID-19 test in the last 48 hours, or proof of having received double vaccination against the coronavirus. Those in attendance were also asked to wear masks as they walked around the grounds but were allowed to take them off when sitting in their seats on court.

The experience on Centre Court, and No.1 on Tuesday – the first day with full crowds again – was also strange. You had the blissful normality of seeing Centre Court packed to its 14,979 capacity with Pimm’s being consumed by the gallon and champagne corks launched towards the roof, only for daily statistics showing COVID-19 numbers were on the rise again in the UK. Wimbledon was sporting escapism, in every sense.

The players themselves appreciated it. Murray spoke in the first week after his win over Nikoloz Basilashvili (when crowds were at 50%) of the energy in the place. “I think people are just desperate to be out watching sports or going to the theatre…people just want to go out and do stuff and have a good time. I think for everyone and like me included, you realize [over] the last 18 months not to take moments like that for granted. You know, enjoy those things that we love doing. I think everyone was into it today. It was a really good atmosphere, and it didn’t feel like the [court] was half full.” Each player thanked the crowd after their matches. It was more than just a box-ticking exercise; it was genuine appreciation of them being there, a glimpse of hope after 18 months where we’ve lost loved ones and seen the world suffer.

The same routines played out this year as they do any other: the groups of fans dressed in Federer-related regalia stationed underneath the bridge from Centre Court to the press centre, hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero. You have the same-sized huddle of fans waiting underneath the broadcast gantry, each eagerly straining to see if they can catch the eye of whichever victor is being interviewed.

But still there were reminders of the world we live in, and the pandemic still raging. There were hand sanitiser stations dotted around on every court and food hall. You’re meant to respect social distancing when navigating the grounds. The track and trace system ruled out Johanna Konta on the eve of the tournament due to close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19; defending women’s champion Simona Halep — already having withdrawn due to a calf injury – was pinged in a similar fashion; the Duchess of Cambridge was also informed while attending Wimbledon last Friday of her need to isolate from a previous close contact.

However, the tournament progressed regardless and largely unaffected. Ash Barty wrote herself into tennis history with Australia’s first women’s singles title in 41 years, on the 50th anniversary of Evonne Goolagong Cawley’s first triumph here. The men’s draw also played to script, where Novak Djokovic defeated Italy’s Berrettini for his 20th Grand Slam title, meaning the No. 1 men’s and women’s seeds won their respective singles titles for the first time since 2015.

At 6pm on Sunday, Wimbledon began to empty. The local pubs were fully booked long ago by people wanting to watch the Euro 2020 final, so the tennis congregation went their separate ways. For many this last fortnight would’ve felt like returning home, back to where you can escape the world and enjoy remarkable sport. The doors on the AETLC shut late on Sunday evening. It will go into hibernation for a year, and then we’ll all return to go through our usual Wimbledon rituals and routines. And it will be wonderful escapism again.

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