LONDON – Just in time, UK weather greeted the first day of the Wimbledon tennis tournament with rain and gray skies.
But the tournament and London itself face a greater threat: the increase in coronavirus cases in England, driven by the more infected delta variant, first identified in India.
World-class tennis stars and dedicated fans will gather in the famous South West London area over the next two weeks, in a tournament that will do its best to keep the coronavirus at bay.
The tournament comes as England experiences a dramatic spike in cases, in large part due to the delta variant of the coronavirus, which is more contagious and rapidly spreading.
On Sunday, there were just under 15,000 cases of the coronavirus in England – a jump of 58% from last week – according to official government data. Some 124 people have also died from Covid-19 in the past 7 days, a sharp increase in recent months.
Wimbledon, canceled last year for the first time in three quarters of a century, will see the audience at 50% capacity for most matches, although final matches will allow more.
Spectators will also need to prove they have received two vaccines or a negative Covid test, they must wear face masks when not seated and respect social distancing and a one-way system on site, the All England said. Lawn Tennis Club in its updated regulations.
The ball boys and girls will also not be handling player towels or drinks this year. While those who cannot enjoy the traditional strawberry and cream snack on site, can have afternoon tea baskets delivered to their doorstep, the club said.
“We have an inspiring role to play for fans and players – but we will do it safely,” the All England Club said, adding that 100 tickets a day would also be provided to key workers during the public health crisis such as health workers, teachers and charities.
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“Our aspiration is to host the best championships possible, but it has always been our top priority to do so safely,” AELTC Executive Director Sally Bolton said earlier this month.
Players have also been affected by British number one female Johanna Konta forced to withdraw and self-isolate on Sunday after a member of her team tested positive for Covid-19.
Monday will see Novak Djokovic, Jack Draper, Andy Murray and Venus Williams in action on the pitch.
Naomi Osaka and Rafael Nadal both pulled out of Wimbledon earlier this summer, for health and personal reasons.
“It’s a little different walking the pitch now,” Serena Williams told reporters on Sunday. “Wimbledon in general is very different, but it still has a very special feeling.” The tennis superstar also announced on Sunday that she would not be attending the Tokyo Olympics.
Players are limited to a maximum of three people and even the biggest names must stay in approved bubble hotels in Wimbledon rather than the usual option of renting private homes in the upscale neighborhood.
The increase in cases in Britain comes despite a relatively successful vaccination program, with 84% of adults having had at least one vaccination, according to the Department of Health.
The rise in the number of cases comes at a time of crisis in the UK government with the resignation of the country’s health minister this weekend after a scandal that saw him breaking social distancing rules when caught in a romantic hug with a colleague. A new Minister of Health was appointed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday.
Summer holidays are also set to start with the end of summer schools and Britons hungry for travel in search of destinations that will let them in, especially on the European continent.
Sporting events, including the Euro 2020 football tournament and Wimbledon, are likely to boost morale in a country that has suffered lockdowns and severe social restrictions for more than a year.
“When Wimbledon was called off last year it was a huge blow to our sport. A terrible time,” three-time Wimbledon winner John McEnroe told Reuters. “Getting it back is amazing.”