Our year without Wimbledon: 'Lockdown forced players to look outside the tennis world for the first time'

Guy Kelly
The Telegraph
Annabel Croft at Wimbledon in 2013 - Eddie Mulholland/The Telegraph
Annabel Croft at Wimbledon in 2013 - Eddie Mulholland/The Telegraph

Tim Henman, former British No.1 and Wimbledon semi-finalist

In some capacity or another – originally as a fan, then as a player, now as a pundit – I have been to every Wimbledon since 1981. I still have the ticket stub from that first time, as a six year-old holding my mum’s hand. I got to see Bjorn Borg play and decided, there and then, on my one and only career decision: I wanted to play tennis, preferably at Wimbledon.

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Tim Henman at Wimbledon in 2017 - PA
Tim Henman at Wimbledon in 2017 - PA

I managed to achieve that dream dozens of times, having some of the best days of my life (and a few disappointments) playing on Centre or Court One. Ninety per cent of the players around the world, if they could win one Grand Slam, would choose Wimbledon. The grass, the white clothing, the Royal Box, strawberries and cream. It’s all there.

I always felt so lucky to have it as my home tournament. Now, to wander around knowing there’s still a whole section of the club, “Henman Hill”, that’s colloquially named after me, is still surreal and special.

But Wimbledon is special for all tennis fans – and many people who only tune in to one tournament a year. As I sit on the board at the All-England club these days, I played a role in the decision to cancel the 2020 tournament.

On the one hand it was simple, given the risks involved, what other sporting bodies had done, and how unimportant tennis was in the grand scheme of things. On the other hand, it was Wimbledon. Calling off something that’s such a fixture in the British summer, and that hasn’t been cancelled since the Second World War, was never going to be easy.

But it is for the best. Even though tennis players are self-employed and there are hundreds of support staff, officials, coaches, doctors all relying on the sport to keep going, the pandemic is the priority. Luckily all the players are in the same boat, and haven’t been able to do much more than the rest of us over the last few months.

Personally, I haven’t played tennis since well before lockdown. I had a tournament in Australia in January, but haven’t touched a racket since. I don’t miss playing – I’m addicted to golf now, so as soon as it was allowed again, I was out on the green near our home in Oxfordshire. Luckily our daughters are 17, 15 and 12 so they’re at an age when they can get on with things.

I visited Wimbledon to film for our coverage of classic matches this week, and it was the first time I’d been in the area for months. It brought it all home that it’s the end of June and the club isn’t filled with dedicated fans and the world’s best players. But we will return when we can. Fingers crossed 2021 goes ahead. If it does, expect it to be extra special.

Annabel Croft, former British No.1 and broadcasting veteran 

Annabel Croft - Jeff Gilbert
Annabel Croft - Jeff Gilbert

I think it probably goes without saying that a pandemic never interrupted my tennis career – or anybody’s in the modern era. We had long injury lay-offs, the odd smaller tournament cancelled, but never anything like what the current players are going through.

I have a lot of sympathy for them, not knowing when they’ll be able to work again, but they might have learned something about themselves over the past three months. I know from experience that when you’re a kid and you pick up a tennis racket and get into that sporting bubble, you don’t get a chance to think about anything else in life.

Lockdown has forced some of those players to look outside the tennis world for the first time in their lives; reading, doing online courses, yoga, learning other skills. It has been a test, to see whether they really want to be a tennis player, and whether they could survive life without it. In a way I’m envious: as a player, I could have done with that chance to take stock. Mentally, they’ll all be so much fresher now.

It has been very strange. Everyone in the tennis community follows such an unchanging routine: the year being filled with tournaments all over the world, studded with the four Grand Slams, and right in the middle sits Wimbledon. 2020 was my busiest diary ever, but in one go it was wiped.

There will be no play at Wimbledon this year - AP
There will be no play at Wimbledon this year - AP

Having no Wimbledon is an especially odd feeling. My first memory is of watching Jimmy Connors play Ken Rosewall in the 1974 final. My uncle then took me to see Virginia Wade play Chris Evert in 1977, the year she won it in front of the Queen. Then I saw Borg and McEnroe’s epic tiebreak in 1980, and by that point was determined to play there. Luckily I managed to, many times, including the personal highlight of playing my idol, Evert.

I’ve now been on the broadcasting side for far longer than I ever played, and barely stop for the entire fortnight. We are like one big family – Sue Barker was a mentor to me as a player, Clare Balding taught me the ropes on radio, McEnroe’s a wonderful storyteller.

I’ll miss being with them and running on adrenaline for the tournament this year, but like the players, I will try and savour the enforced pause. I’ve cleaned the house, realised how I’d like to have some more quality time with my kids (they’re 26, 24 and 22 but were all home for lockdown), and generally found positives in it. I’ve even found time for a little tennis, now the All-England Club is open again. But I was rusty, very rusty. I suspect we all are.

As told to Guy Kelly

Wimbledon Rewind and Wimbledon: The Best of the Championships is on BBC Two every day this week

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