It was to have been the opening day of the oldest tennis tournament in the world, one that attracts 500,000 spectators over two weeks and millions more watching on television and online.
But today, the 42-acre Wimbledon grounds are silent; there will be no diehard fans camping overnight to secure a prized ticket or tennis stars preparing to compete in what is widely regarded as the leading Grand Slam.
When Ian Hewitt was appointed chairman of The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) last December all looked set for Wimbledon 2020. But five months later he announced its cancellation — only the first and second world wars had previously stopped it going ahead since 1877 — amid the rapidly escalating coronavirus pandemic.
“The decision weighed heavily on our minds,” says Mr Hewitt, 73, who leads the club’s main board. “Public health had to be the main consideration and we acted on advice from the government and health authorities. Given the measure of this global crisis, it was ultimately right to cancel this year’s championships and instead concentrate on using the breadth of our resources to help those in our local communities and beyond.”
The risk of spreading infection at large public gatherings had become clear: 500,000 tennis fans attend the tournament, along with 6,000 support staff providing everything from security and food and drink to umpires and ball boys and girls. Added to this was the danger of infection spreading among the hundreds of competitors taking part.
Staging the event behind closed doors (and televised worldwide) was ruled out as not protecting staff and competitors — as was postponing the event. “It was impossible to know how the virus would spread and there’s only a narrow window for playing on grass as the weather becomes more uncertain beyond high summer,” says Mr Hewitt.
While giving three months notice of cancellation established one certainty, other problems were created. It robbed the club of its core mission to “stage the world’s leading grand slam” along with an estimated £250m in potential tournament revenue from sources including broadcasting rights and tickets.
Only months after taking on the demanding role of leading the club founded in 1868, Mr Hewitt was facing a huge financial hole and having to unpick the web of commercial arrangements needed to stage the tournament while maintaining morale among staff who had spent thousands of hours preparing for an event that would no longer happen.
The club had taken out infectious disease insurance after the Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2003, but was entering unknown territory as the magnitude and global impact of coronavirus was not known when first reports emerged from China. But Mr Hewitt adds: “Our management committee and senior executive team draws on wide experience of business and tournament planning and we were able to move quickly in monitoring developments and taking account of government and other advice.
“The club’s culture has always been to work together in the best interests of tennis, our members, staff, suppliers and partners and the local community — and these values have been our guide. Our small size with tight management structure (350 full-time members with some 300 permanent staff) also brought agility to coping with the unexpected.”
Mr Hewitt became a full member of the AELTC in 1998, joining the management committee in 2012, chairing subcommittees and leading its charity, the Wimbledon Foundation. After being awarded a blue in tennis at Oxford while reading law at St Edmund Hall and playing for Hampshire, he began a 30-year career with law firm Freshfields, becoming a senior partner and working in business areas including mergers and acquisitions.
“My career has been helpful in understanding contracts with suppliers and others involved in staging the championships,” Mr Hewitt believes. “But I also know the power of team work that’s at the heart of the club in dealing with the unexpected as well as long-term priorities. We can never stand still in the competitive world of Grand Slams — there’s always the next big investment in courts and other facilities to consider.”
He also acknowledges that having played competitive tennis helps with understanding the pressure of playing at Wimbledon and meeting the needs and concerns of competitors, including big names such as Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Serena and Venus Williams. “The club is also fortunate to have Tim Henman (former British number one and Wimbledon favourite) on the club board,” Mr Hewitt points out.
But no one could have foreseen the huge virus-related challenges. Did he have sleepless nights? “I’m working with talented colleagues who’ve provided tremendous support,” he says. “We continue to consider the consequences of cancellation — communicating decisions and the thinking behind them is vital. We have to take people with us.”
Mr Hewitt recognises that while stars of the game live a millionaire lifestyle, the sudden cancellation of tennis tournaments worldwide has been a huge financial blow to most lower ranked players. “The club has been pleased to contribute to the Player Relief Programme,” he says.
Other issues ranged from handling refunds for tickets paid for after being awarded via public ballot (with the option of buying tickets for the same seats for Wimbledon 2021) and compensation for Centre and number one Court debenture holders, which come with seats, to continuing negotiations over the infectious disease insurance policy.
The virus also led to the swift suspension of year-round activities at the grounds such as education services, the museum and guided tours, and arranging remote working from home for most staff, with none furloughed. Many staff are working on community-related initiatives: grants and food are being donated via the Wimbledon Foundation to local organisations and medical facilities and supplies in the grounds are open to the NHS.
“We may not have a tournament this year, but we can still help with the consequences of coronavirus,” says Mr Hewitt. “It’s something that the club and staff were keen to do — and has boosted morale after the decision to cancel. We will always be part of the local community and are glad to use the club’s resources to help in any way we can,” he says. “Our kitchen in the grounds has been opened to deliver 200 hot meals a day to those in need in Merton and Wandsworth.”
While the tournament might be off, the club wants fans to still enjoy what it is calling, “The Greatest Championships”. Featured highlights of past championships over the next fortnight and other material will be hosted on wimbledon.com and social media during what would have been Wimbledon 2020.
“I’ll be looking at our efforts to help the local community on the day Wimbledon 2020 would have opened,” says Mr Hewitt. “But I’ll also be following the online content we’ll be offering.” And his message to fans missing live matches? “We’ll do everything possible over the coming year to make Wimbledon 2021 happen safely.”
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