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In Memoriam – the Demise of Wimbledon’s Unique Middle Sunday

By Alix Ramsay

Wednesday was a sad, sad day. Wimbledon’s annual spring press conference is usually one of those special moments in the year like the clocks going forward and the first cuckoo of spring – it means summer is a-comin’ and life is getting better. But not this year. This year, it was a sad, sad day.

For a start, the presser was a virtual affair. Britain may be sticking its nose through a crack in the door and pondering the end of lockdown but we are nowhere near to meeting people face to face. Well, not people you don’t already live with and/or a small sprinkling of neighbours and certainly not in the luxurious facilities of a posh tennis club. But we are all used to Zoom calls and Teams conferences by now. No, that was not the sad bit.

The talk of reduced crowds – the All England Club is planning for 25 per cent of usual capacity and keeping its fingers crossed for permission to have more – and chat about mask wearing was all right. The thought that Henman Hill would be open for business (albeit a socially distanced Henman Hill with socially distanced bottles of fizz) was positively cheery. It all meant that Wimbledon was on its way. Maybe not the Wimbledon we are used to but a Wimbledon nonetheless. And after the last year and a bit, that was something really exciting to look forward to.

But then came the hammer blow. We should have seen it coming, mind you. Have the past 14 months taught us nothing about taking things for granted? Clearly not. The news that as of next year and forever more there would be play on the middle Sunday of The Championships came as a cataclysmic shock. Wimbledon, that most traditional of sporting events, was trampling on its own history. Life would never be the same again.

This summer will be the 134th time Wimbledon has staged its annual championships and in all that time, there has only been play on the middle Sunday on four occasions – 1991, 1997, 2004 and 2016. That span of history includes the Relief of Mafeking, man walking on the moon and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Was there any need to play on the middle Sunday – other than a rain-sodden first week – before? No. So why now? Indeed, why at all?

Before anyone gets all hot under the collar, we know that there are very good reasons for this unholy decision. The extra day of play will earn millions in extra revenue and it will give the public more of a chance to come and watch. After all, most people work Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. They go out to have fun at the weekend but at Wimbledon, there is only one full weekend on offer – and good luck trying to get tickets for the men’s or women’s finals. No, playing on the middle Sunday makes perfect sense. But it doesn’t mean we have to like it.

It is like all changes and “improvements” – they may be logical but they are not always much fun. We all know that a shiny, new electric car is better for the environment than a nasty, smoky old petrol or diesel heap. We also know that the new model will come with all mod cons. But it still costs the price of a small apartment and provides all the motoring enjoyment of driving an overweight, overpriced blancmange.

My first car cost a few hundred quid. It was an elderly VW, left hand drive (unusual for the UK) Beetle with a six volt battery (if you turned the radio on, the headlights went out). It rattled, it did about 55mph – but only downhill with the wind behind it – but at least you always knew the latest weather conditions: when it rained, your feet got wet and when the wind blew, you lost all sensation from the knees down. But I loved it. Much as I also love my current car, which is both heated and watertight and comes with all sorts of modern gadgets like satnav and parking sensors, nothing will ever be as good as my beloved Beetle. Change, then, is not always enjoyable.

The middle Sunday of The Championships has always been a blissful moment of calm in the middle of beautifully choreographed mayhem. Wimbledon never leaves anything to chance – they are awfully good at details – but not even they can predict where the next big story will break: Centre Court? Court 12? Who knows? And for the first six days, everyone has been running around like a whippets with their tails on fire to catch the action. Sunday, then, is a day of rest.

Around the courts, there is an air of peace and relaxation. Players come to practice, they wander off to grab a bite to eat, they sit and enjoy the sunshine. And nobody bothers them. They can walk from one outside court to another untroubled by autograph hunters or punters pushing past on their way to the Pimms bar. It truly is the calm before the storm because on the second Monday – known as Manic Monday – all the fourth round matches are played. Back we go to the mayhem. But not anymore.

By adding an extra day of competition, there will be no need to have 16, high profile, fourth round, singles matches played on the same day – and more’s the pity. Because Manic Monday is another unique part of Wimbledon.

For Joe Public, it is the last chance to see a big name on a court not called Centre or No.1 (where the prices are considerably higher than a ground pass and the demand for tickets always outstrips availability).

For us in the press room, it is the last major hurdle to be overcome before we turn the corner into the home straight. It can be hell on wheels (players have no respect for newspaper deadlines) but it is as much a part of Wimbledon as strawberries and cream, petunias and some eejit at the back of the court yelling “C’mon Tim” every time a Brit plays.

In the old days, the middle Sunday was left free to let the grass courts recover. So, while the players had a day off, the groundsmen were hard at work watering, tending, mowing and repairing. These days, the grass is more hardwearing and combined with a their very own “steaming process” (think of it like steam cleaning your carpets – it kills off bugs and nasties and helps the grass stay strong and grow well. Although, if your carpets start growing after they’ve been cleaned, contact you cleaning company and complain), Wimbledon believe that the courts will never need a day off again. That’s progress for you.

Much is still up in the air for this year’s Wimbledon. Tickets will only be sold online this year but, as yet, there is no date for when those sales will begin and no idea how many tickets will be available. Prize money is still to be decided and will be dependent on what the government allows the AELTC to do in terms of punters on site and social distancing rules. But we do know that Wimbledon is happening – and that is something to be celebrated.

Yet Wednesday was still a sad, sad day. This year’s Wimbledon is something to be looked forward to and enjoyed after so long in the purgatory of Covid lockdown. But from next summer on, The Championships will never, ever be the same again. RIP Middle Sunday. Oh, how we will miss you.