Wimbledon is the event that the greatest number of people — legions of whom would not identify as tennis fans per se — in the greatest variety of places make time to watch. It’s mostly because of Wimbledon’s historic importance, but also because of the All England Club’s ambiance. No other event in sports — not the Hahnenkamm downhill in Alpine skiing, the Daytona 500, the New York City Marathon nor the Kentucky Derby — stands out so starkly from the other fixtures in the sport.
Just how has the All England Club pulled this off?
Start with a calculation. The stewards of the tournament counterintuitively understood that no matter how much the game grew and changed — or maybe because it has mutated so much in recent times — the mystique and rituals of Wimbledon would become more rather than less cherished.
Those aren’t plug-and-play attractions, but features developed over 123 years of nearly continuous play on the grounds of the All England Club. Wimbledon was the first major, predating the first US Open (1880) by five years. Anyone lucky enough to visit Wimbledon repeatedly sees the way All England Club officials controlled growth.
Unlike some other major tournaments (the US Open and Australian Open abandoned grass courts and built entirely new facilities), Wimbledon stubbornly clings to the high-maintenance, fragile, limited-use grass courts. When Wimbledon builds a new stadium or court, it doesn’t produce a contemporary marvel, but a structure that fits in with the basic, long-term theme. Expanding, Wimbledon doesn’t emphasize how new and different it is, but how traditional and familiar it has remained.
The Millennium Building, the new roofs on Centre Court and Court No. 1, the Broadcast Center, Henman Hill, the food court at No. 1 all were aggressive improvements, but they were all integrated smoothly with what was already there. No venue has changed as much while appearing to remain the same in all the vital ways as Wimbledon.
“The Championships,” as the All England Club somewhat arrogantly but accurately describes its tournament, is sometimes cast as the Super Bowl of tennis. But that’s not precise. It isn’t the end point of a season, or the ultimate arbiter of the sport’s uncontested male and female champions. Wimbledon is the sun around which all other tournaments revolve.
Now that sun has gone dark. It has happened before. While the US Open has chugged along without interruption since 1881, Wimbledon went unplayed for a total of 10 years over the course of two world wars. Wimbledon bounced back on both of those occasions. It will bounce back from this interruption as well.