Wimbledon 2021: Masks, social distancing and smaller crowds - yet it still feels the same

A huddle of photographers and TV cameramen at Wimbledon usually means a player or famous face is imminent but today they were reserved for two unsuspecting fans.

This moment had been a long time coming, two whole years since spectators last walked through the gates of the All England Club.

They looked quite taken aback by the cameras awaiting them as they walked out of security, but there were smiles behind the face masks, it was obvious.

Because Wimbledon is back.

It’s 715 days since Novak Djokovic won his fifth Wimbledon title, since the last time a certain fruity alcoholic drink was poured, since the last punnet of strawberries was taken out of the fridge.

Cancelled last year by a coronavirus pandemic that continues to rage, it was a welcome relief that the 2021 Grand Slam was able to go ahead, and with fans in seats.

In true British style, the weather quite literally put a dampener on things, the start of play on the outside courts delayed by more than four hours as rain plagued the opening day.

But for many, it was just a joy to be out of the house.

"It feels a little bit different, but I'm just as excited as I usually am," says frequent attendee Debbie, who was at Wimbledon with her friend Juli, who was celebrating her 40th birthday. "I was expecting a lot less people."

The tournament is part of the government’s Event Research Programme, operating at 50% capacity across the grounds, and building to full capacity crowds of 15,000 on Centre Court for the finals weekend.

It still feels busy, but Juli – on her first visit to Wimbledon – felt safe. “We’ve got the confidence that everyone is being sensible, we’re wearing masks when we have to, there is handwashing everywhere and the facilities are really good.”

Though still busy around the grounds, it looks different. Hand sanitiser stations are plentiful, as are signs reminding of the need for social distancing.

Everyone is required to wear face coverings while moving around, and one woman was spotted embracing the requirement with a strawberry-themed mask.

The much-loved Wimbledon queue – in which those who didn’t get a ticket in the ballot hope for the chance to grab on-the-day tickets – is usually seen snaking through Wimbledon Park but is no more this year, with tickets now bought in advance online and replaced by a QR code.

There were teething problems when tickets went on sale, but for many, this new experience is not a bad thing. Take Cristobal, for example. On previous visits to SW19 he’s waited for hours in the queue, but this year, all he had to do was wait for his turn to get through security.

“It was unexpectedly quiet,” says Cristobal, who attended the opening day with his son, Julian. “We arrived at 9:10 so we expected a much bigger queue. We were second and we couldn’t quite believe it.

Cristobal added that he much preferred this year’s method of entry, and “100%” wants it to stay for future years.

From the grounds, to the courts, and that’s where the differences are few and far between. More empty seats, yes, but no face masks or social distancing are required.

The cheers were deafening for Jack Draper, as he took the first set but ultimately fell to Djokovic on Centre Court, but even louder for those in the Royal Box, where notable contributors to the fight against Covid-19 were greeted by a standing ovation.

On the opening day, they included Dame Sarah Gilbert – who co-developed the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine – and those involved with clinical trials, as well as NHS nursing and critical care staff.

Such people will be welcomed to Wimbledon throughout the tournament, where a large ‘thank you’ has been painted on Henman Hill in tribute to those who have helped the country through the last 15 months.

They are people most would not have known of 715 days ago, but who have become so important in the many months since.

The world is a very different place, but Wimbledon feels largely the same.


Original article 28.06.21 on the BBC Sport website

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