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Wimbledon Steams Ahead While Paris Prepares for Lockdown • Two Grandslams Worlds Apart

By Alix Ramsay

It has certainly not been the best of times but, here in dear old Blighty, it is not quite the worst of times. As we mark the first anniversary of the first Covid lockdown, there is a little glimmer of light at the end of this interminably long tunnel.

The vaccine roll out is going well. It may not be going as well as in Israel or the UAE where, it seems, there are people armed with hypodermics behind every lamp post and pot plant, each ready to jab any unsuspecting passer by (you don’t even have to stop; just slow down slightly and you’ll get your jab), but the UK’s programme is still going pretty well by any standard. As a result, the government is offering cautious optimism that we are on track to be free of most restrictions by mid-summer.

It means we can see people again. Proper people, not just the ones you are tied to by blood, marriage or that multi-occupancy housing rental that seemed like such a good idea before you were locked in with accountant Graham and his collection of Lonnie Donegan records, librarian Cyril and his unusual personal hygiene regime and budding-chef Paula and her 402 ways with mince. No, we are talking about real people, like-minded people – people you actually want to meet and have a laugh with.

These people do not look the same though. They are hairier, for a start. A quick look at Boris Johnson will tell you just how long it has been since the hairdressers and barbers were allowed to ply their trade.

Never the most disciplined of quiffs, the top of BoJo’s head now looks like a blond floor mop that has been plugged into the mains (think Peanuts: Woodstock meets Pig Pen). He can’t even get his other half to have a go at it with the nail scissors in case the viewing public thinks he has used his prime ministerial clout to smuggle a coiffeur into No.10. Rumour has it that in order to prove that they have been observing the lockdown rules, all members of parliament have been advised to gain 20lbs, wear their jim-jams on Zoom calls and grow a beard. And that’s just the women. But we digress…

The upshot of all of this is that Wimbledon is steaming ahead with its preparations for The Championships. Last week they announced their initial plans and they all sounded very promising. Sure enough, there may well be reduced numbers on site but that will be decided at the last possible minute. The good news is that there is no mention of restricting the movement of those spectators when they actually get inside the grounds.

In order to keep to social distancing rules, ‘The Queue’ will not be allowed this year. So no eager (and somewhat demented) souls camping out for days in order to bag their place at the head of the line for the Centre Court extras. But even that has a positive side: the aforementioned accountant Graham (he of the odd musical tastes) had volunteered to bring his ukulele to SW19 so as to entertain (and we use the term loosely) the campers with a selection of Lonnie’s greatest hits. Sadly, he will not be required this summer. A nation rejoices.

‘The Queue’ at SW19 will not happen at this year’s Wimbledon.

Neither will there be a ticket resales facility, that fabulous institution that encourages those in the posh seats to hand over their ticket stubs as they leave. Those stubs are then sold on for a few quid to allow the rest of us to have our time on Centre Court as the afternoon fades into early evening. And all the money goes to charity. Alas, this ticket exchange involves another queue (we Brits do love a good queue) so it has been binned for this year.

But other than that – and the fact that there will be no Invitation Doubles and the players will have to stay in official hotels rather than private houses – it should be Wimbledon as we know and love it. But, hey, after this past year, even a 12-hour, socially distanced rain delay sounds like a blast if you can spend it with a couple of mates and a pitcher or two of Pimms.

The day after this jolly news came fizzing through the ether, the FFT sent out a sad little missive inviting us inky-fingered hacks to apply for accreditation to Roland Garros. We could apply, all right, but the FFT warned that they still had no clear idea what sort of tournament they would be allowed to stage. Or, indeed, if we would be allowed to attend even if we were accredited. It all depends on the French government and their health authorities.

The FFT did well to stage last year’s event in the autumn but, even then, Paris was shutting up shop all around them as infection rates began to rise. Going back eight months later, things have only got worse.

As the crow flies, it is a little over 200 miles between London and Paris (and a little under 300 miles if you are not a crow but have a car) and Roland Garros will start just five weeks before Wimbledon. Yet Paris is back in lockdown and France, like much of Europe, is bracing itself for the worst of a third wave of Covid. The two grand slams sit cheek by jowl on the map and the calendar and yet they are currently worlds apart.

The European vaccination programme is moving at the speed of setting custard which, combined with a limited understanding of what strain of the virus is causing havoc in which area, means that nothing seems likely to change in the near future. And the Roland Garros main draw is due to start on May 23.

In the meantime, the Miami Open burst into life on Tuesday. ‘Burst’ might be putting strongly – five of the world’s top 10 men have offered their excuses and apologies and the last man in with direct entry is Denis Kudla, the No.118.

The latest to add his name to the long list of withdrawals is Andy Murray, he of the tin right hip. He had arrived in Florida with high hopes: he had worked hard on his fitness, he was feeling good and having missed the Australian Open due to a bout of Covid and the Dubai Open due the arrival of his fourth child, he was itching to play. And then last Friday, it all went wrong. Come Tuesday, he had pulled out with a groin injury.

“I had no issues while training,” he told Michelle Kaufman of the Miami Herald, “I felt fine, did some gym work Friday, no problem. And then I woke up about three in the morning, felt pain in the groin, not on the side I had my surgery, and when I got out of bed, I struggled quite a bit to walk. I have no idea what I did. It’s one of those freak things. Each day it has gotten progressively better, but it’s not enough. I’ve not practiced since Friday.

“I am really gutted. This is a place I have done so much training over the years. It’s like my second home. Last time I played here was 2016 and so much has happened. In 2017 I had an elbow issue, last few years various issues with my hip. Last year, the day before I was supposed to travel here, Covid stopped the tennis tour. Miami’s been a place that has given me a lot, but this just wasn’t meant to be.”

Still, Murray – like Roger Federer – is plotting a path to Wimbledon. He hopes that with a decent run of luck (and heaven knows, he deserves some after all he has been through) and good number of matches under his belt, he can be ready to compete with the best on the grass.

And as we now know, Wimbledon is – at the moment – going full steam ahead towards a proper tournament with top players, happy spectators, strawberries, petunias and as much Pimms as is deemed seemly for the occasion. That light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter by the day.