Wimbledon, a longstanding tradition, opens with a flurry of changes

WIMBLEDON, England — It’s a tradition this year at Wimbledon on center court’s 100th anniversary, but as defending men’s singles champion Novak Djokovic returned to the grass on Monday to kick off this year, it was also about change.

There are many at the All England Club in 2022: big and small; obvious and subtle.

The big problem: Russian and Belarusian players (and journalists) have been excluded due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The tournament has gone from 13 days of play, with no games scheduled on the first Sunday, to 14 full days that will leave no respite to grass and leafy neighborhood.

The little things: Benches and desks in the center court press seats have been replaced with padded chairs. All members of the England club with their circular purple badges no longer serve as moderators at press conferences. Now the stars sit alone on the podium, as they do almost everywhere else in the world of tennis.

As if to underline the theme, Djokovic and his first-round opponent, Kwon Soon-woo, arrived on tennis’ most famous court in unprecedented fashion.

The players have long left the clubhouse and turned left, passing behind a screen with a club member in the lead, before turning right and stepping onto the grass.

Starting this year, they walk straight ahead and unaccompanied out of the clubhouse and onto the grounds through a new set of green doors that quickly close behind them.

It seemed unceremoniously abrupt to those used to the old ways and who loved the murmurs of the crowd that turned into cheers as the players navigated the passageway before being fully visible to the audience.

But the pixie dust was still there, as Djokovic confirmed after his 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 win that looked even closer than the score.

“Childhood dreams came true here in 2011,” Djokovic said of the first of his six Wimbledon singles titles. “I will never forget that. He will always have a special place in my heart. Of course, every time I step onto the pitch, I have this goosebumps feeling, butterflies in my stomach.

It also happens the first time around, as Emma Raducanu later confirmed. Last year, she became a global star and a superstar in Britain when she won the US Open aged 18, becoming the first player to win a Grand Slam singles title as a qualifier. Victories have been much harder to come by since then, but she already had fond memories of Wimbledon after reaching the fourth round in her first main draw appearance last year.

Monday, however, was her first game on center court, and despite having barely played on grass this season due to injuries, she managed the moment, and a tricky opponent in Alison Van Uytvanck, to win 6- 4, 6-4.

Raducanu may not be ready to return to women’s tennis. No. 1 Iga Swiatek, who just turned 21, has taken on this air and this space. But Raducanu clearly knows how to rise to an occasion.

“From the moment I walked through those doors I could really feel the energy and the support and everyone was behind me from the word ‘go,'” she said. “I just really tried to cherish every point there, I played every point like it could have been one of my last on that court.”

It was indeed an imaginative thought, given that Raducanu, the first British Grand Slam singles champion since Virginia Wade in the 1970s, is poised to be a Center Court staple for a decade or more if she can stay healthy.

Andy Murray knows the drill. He too became a Center Court regular as a teenager and finally lived up to the bill by ending a 77-year drought for the British men’s singles by winning Wimbledon in 2013 and again in 2016.

Playing with an artificial hip at 35, Murray has proven his love of his craft beyond a reasonable doubt. Although he will never close the achievement gap that separates him from the big three of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – each with 20 or more major singles titles – Murray remains a threat on the grass every afternoon.

He demonstrated that with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 victory over James Duckworth which closed the game on center court on opening day, almost exactly eight hours after the start. and almost exactly 100 years after the first. opening day on center court.

It was June 26, 1922, after the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club moved from its more comfortable original home on Worple Road after buying land on Church Road to accommodate a new, larger stadium. Worple Road’s main court had been called Center Court because it was actually in the center of the field. The club retained the name even though the new main court was no longer so central.

The new Wimbledon got off to a soggy start with rain and more rain, forcing the 1922 edition to end on a Wednesday, but it was still a popular success with worthy singles champions: the elegant and long unbeatable Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen and Australian male star. Gerald Patterson, two-time Wimbledon champion nicknamed “The Human Catapult” because of his big serve (he could also fly).

Lenglen and Patterson would have had a few surprises had they watched on Monday. Center court is now rainproof thanks to its concertina retractable roof which was put to good use for Djokovic and Kwon’s duel.

The electronic scoreboards and touchscreen operated by the chair umpire would also have caught their attention, as would the once unthinkable fact that the chair umpire for Monday’s men’s opener was a woman: Marija Cicak .

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