WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — At least at the outset, before a tennis ball is struck, this edition of Wimbledon is as much about who — and what — is missing as who’s here.
And that’s even taking this into account: It is no small matter that the grass-court Grand Slam tournament marks the return of Serena Williams to singles play after a year away.
“It’s a mistake,” International Tennis Hall of Fame member Martina Navratilova said about the ban. “What are they supposed to do, leave the country? I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.”
Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 seed and three-time defending champion who will play in the first match in Centre Court on Monday, looked at the situation this way: “It's really hard to say what is right, what is wrong.”
“As a child of a war — several wars, actually, during the ’90s, I know what it feels like being in (the Ukrainians') position,” the 35-year-old from Serbia said. “But at the other hand, I can’t say I fully agree (with deciding) to ban Russian tennis players, Belarusian tennis players, from competing indefinitely. I just don’t see how they have contributed to anything that is really happening. I mean, I don’t feel it’s fair.”
The two professional tours reacted by pulling their ranking points from Wimbledon, an unprecedented move in a sport built around the rankings in so many ways. In turn, some athletes opted not to show up, including 2014 runner-up Eugenie Bouchard and four-time major champion Naomi Osaka.
For others, though, it was a no-doubt-about-it decision to show up. This is, after all, Wimbledon, with its unique surface and long-standing traditions, its powerful prestige and — let’s face it — tens of millions in prize money.
“It’s definitely hard to swallow that there are no points. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’m happy about it. But the cards are dealt. At the end of the day, if I tell my mom I’m not playing Wimbledon, she’d be like, ‘Are you nuts?!’ So I’m going to go, no doubt,” said Frances Tiafoe, an American who is seeded 24th in the men’s field. “It’s out of everybody’s hands. It’s a tough situation, a crazy time. And it’s not just about you. It’s not a ‘Why me?’ problem.”
There were rumors among players that prize money would be cut, too, prompting one, Fabio Fognini, to joke that he’d be thankful for that because — without any ranking points available and with less cash on offer — he’d head to an island for some vacation time with his wife, 2015 U.S. Open champion Flavia Pennetta, and their young children.
But it turned out that’s all that was — a rumor: The All England Club wound up announcing it would provide a record total of about 40 million pounds ($50 million) in player compensation.
There are other important names staying away for different reasons.
Reigning women’s champion Ash Barty retired in March at age 25. Eight-time men’s champion Roger Federer still has not returned from the latest in a series of knee operations; he has not participated in any tournament since last year’s Wimbledon. No. 2-ranked Alexander Zverev is sidelined after tearing ligaments in his right ankle at the French Open.
Also gone in 2022 at Wimbledon, for the first time in its lengthy history: a scheduled day off on the middle Sunday (so what had been a 13-day tournament becomes a full two-week event).
Ah, but guess who’s back? Yes, Williams, thanks to a wild-card invitation, bringing enough star power to fill the spotlight for however long she remains in the bracket.
The owner of seven championships at the All England Club — and 23 from all majors, a record for the professional era — last competed in singles in June 2021, when she slipped on the slick Centre Court grass and injured her right hamstring, forcing her to stop in the first set of her first-round match.
“I didn’t retire. I just needed to heal physically, mentally. And I had no plans, to be honest. I just didn’t know when I would come back. I didn’t know how I would come back,” Williams said Saturday. “Obviously, Wimbledon is such a great place to be, and it just kind of worked out.”
She made a surprise appearance in doubles with Ons Jabeur on grass at Eastbourne this week, but the 40-year-old American will not have played singles before Tuesday's matchup against 113th-ranked Harmony Tan.
If Williams can crank up her best-in-the-game serve and move well enough to stay in points until she can end them with her stinging groundstrokes, who knows what she'll be able to do? Plus, she has made a habit of winning matches soon after returning from lengthy absences.
Also around is Rafael Nadal, who is halfway to a calendar-year Grand Slam for the first time after winning the Australian Open in January and the French Open this month. The latter title, his 14th in Paris and men's-best 22nd at a major, came despite chronic pain in his left foot, which made the 36-year-old Spaniard question whether he could be at the All England Club — or continue at all.
“First of all, I can walk normally most of the days, almost every single day. That’s, for me, the main issue,” Nadal said Saturday. “When I wake up, I don’t have this pain that I was having for the last year and a half. So quite happy about that.”
This fortnight will not lack for story lines, certainly. Full crowds are back after the coronavirus pandemic led to restrictions on spectators last year and the cancellation of the tournament in 2020. This marks the centenary of the current Centre Court, which made its debut in 1922.
French Open champion and top-ranked Iga Swiatek enters on a 35-match winning streak. And Djokovic bids for a 21st Grand Slam trophy, knowing that, as things currently stand, he will not be able to go to the U.S. Open in August because he is not vaccinated against COVID-19 — and he says he won't get the shots.
“That,” Djokovic said, “is an extra motivation to do well here.”
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