Wimbledon fortnight has long been one of excitement in my family. It marks the glorious moment when the London suburb where I was born and bred is transformed into tennis town. Hanging baskets, overflowing with white and purple blooms, dangle from every lamppost. Local shops fill their windows with elaborate displays involving giant tennis balls, desperate to outdo each other.
But not this year. Instead of listening to the satisfying thwack of new balls, the first pints of Pimms poured and the fortnight’s two million overpriced strawberries dripping their juice onto SW19’s hallowed ground, I find myself in Covid-SW19. The mood is decidedly more ‘game, set and mask’.
Driving through Wimbledon, on the way to a socially distanced meet-up with my parents just hours before the first serve should have been hit, is oddly quiet. No hordes of visitors, excitedly buzzing around the village in their tennis whites. Where were the official tournament cars, with tinted windows, at which I have spent a lifetime squinting to try and see which famous player is sitting in the back?
Wimbledon without tennis is a sad sight. And disorientating. As a child, it was the surest sign that the holidays were almost here. As a teenager, it meant the end of exams and the chance to get a job catering at the tournament where you’d get to serve lobster cocktails to Frank Bruno.
Spotting players in the days before the Championships began became a sport in its own right. See Tim Henman eating Sunday lunch with his family in a local restaurant. Spy the Williams sisters moving into the house they’d rented.
Growing up, I was fortunate enough to see some of those greats play, just minutes away from home: Becker, Graf, Sampras. And even if I wasn’t sitting on court, it was good enough to know I was within touching distance of it. We played endless childish games of tennis in that same back garden, with fluorescent balls that had been used at Wimbledon and had later been sold off.
Had Navratilova handled them? Ivanesevic? We would pretend to pat ourselves down with that year’s Wimbledon towels, also heavily discounted at a nearby department store and used for bath time until threadbare.
Of course, thousands of people who attend Wimbledon each year go home with such prized souvenirs. But for me, they acted as a reminder of how, for two weeks, my little postcode is elevated out of banal suburbia. This year, I’m faced with two weeks of watching BBC reruns of classic matches (not the same) and swigging Pimms straight from the bottle (no organic lemonade left on Ocado). I’ll even miss shouting at the TV screen whenever John McEnroe pronounces Djokovic as ‘Joke-a-vich’ on the BBC.
Roll on Wimbledon 2021. You can’t come quick enough.