Wimbledon’s restless Middle Sunday mixes new ideas and old favourites | Wimbledon 2022

What is there to do on the first Sunday in Wimbledon? Well, if you head to the common, you can join up with the classic car owners parading their highly polished Caterham Sevens and Austin Allegros at the monthly meeting of the Southside Hustle. Wander past Rushmere pond and you can join the locals as they pick up their weekly necessities – artisanal cheeses and heritage aubergines – at the farmers’ market.

Or you could carry on through the village, a place whose extravagant and tangential shop‑front floral arrangements suggest the cost-of-living crisis has not yet hit the allium industry or the honeysuckle trade, a place where no pub patio goes unturfed for Wimbledon fortnight. You could even head down a steep hill and arrive at the gates of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, and – ticket-dependent – help yourself to a dose of fourth-round grand slam tennis.

Given how often Centre Court is referred to as the cathedral of tennis, it is a surprise how long it has taken to open on a Sunday – aside from the four memorable “People’s Sundays”, when poor weather forced a pile-up in the schedules. But last year a new decree finally came down. And on the seventh day, the Lord said: let there be tennis, and lo, there was tennis, because someone at the top had noticed that their traditional “rest day” meant missing out on major revenue streams, and after all what was the point in building lavish hospitality facilities if they sat empty for half of a potentially lucrative weekend?

So here it was, the start of a new Middle Sunday tradition: the end of the sacred pause, when even the greatest of tennis crushes from Rafael Nadal to Maria Sharapova could walk to their practice court in peace, and the beginning of a 14-day continuous tournament. On first sight it was a no-brainer. The concourses bulged with grinning folk toting towels and Pimm’s; the Hill was heaving. No 1 Court – not quite full – was bursting with boisterous support for Britain’s Cameron Norrie as he defeated Tommy Paul.

Sue Barker in attendance to mark Centre Court’s 100th anniversary
Sue Barker in attendance to mark Centre Court’s 100th anniversary. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

People’s Sundays, with their cheap tickets and their hint of midsummer madness, have always raised the roof here, even before there was a roof. Back in 1991 the crowds were so giddy with the unexpected opportunity and the £10 entry they imitated Gabriela Sabatini’s shots in her warm‑up and counted Jimmy Connors’s strokes aloud.

All this has established a rather useful mythology of democratic engagement for the AELTC, one its leaders still like to lean on. Last year Ian Hewitt, the chairman, used words such as “access” and “best interests of fans” to announce the change of schedule. But these were not discount seats they were selling: tickets cost as much as any other part of week one.

There has been some thought beyond the purely commercial. More than 2,500 tickets on Sunday were apparently given away, to NHS Covid Heroes, and to Ukrainian, Afghan and Syrian refugees. Another 15,000 were “made available” for purchase to local communities, which sounds like a welcome break for the residents of the millionaires’ row lining Wimbledon Common.

The centenary celebrations on Centre Court, scheduled in between the first and second matches, had the true spirit of a devotional. The crowd chanted a countdown to a montage of memorable moments and stirring strings, bringing a micro-flashback to the good times of London 2012. It turns out that all you need to Make Britain Feel Good About Itself Again is Sue Barker and John McEnroe walking out on a green carpet and purring the words “class” and “history”.

Sir Cliff Richard turns back the clock with a Centre Court singalong.
Sir Cliff Richard turns back the clock with a Centre Court singalong. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

They were touting some weapons‑grade nostalgia, too. The Royal Box had been stuffed with 60s and 70s favourites, like a tin of Quality Street that’s all Green Triangles and Purple Ones: Des Lynam, Rod Laver, Twiggy. Sir Cliff Richard even gave us another a cappella Summer Holiday, although it was a bit awkward that no one joined in this time.

But it was the lineup of living legends that packed the biggest punch, an Avengers Assemble of champions from Angela Mortimer and Stefan Edberg to Björn Borg and Billie Jean King. Even Notable Wimbledon Absentee Roger Federer was Notably Present. Was it possible he was also sending us a secret message by wearing those white trainers with his Hollywood‑glamour suit? Apparently so. “I hope I can come back one more time,” he told a screaming, besotted audience.

There was no sign of the laryngitis that has threatened Barker’s big finish this week, and the event turned into an impromptu appreciation of a woman who has, as much as any, encapsulated the Wimbledon ethos of goodwill and good manners. When McEnroe went off script to tell his co-host that “we’re going to be lost without you”, the heartfelt ovation that ensued brought that consummate professional to tears. And everyone loves a few tears on Centre Court. So no – Middle Sunday may not be such a revolutionary change after all.

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