The All England Club will make a decision on the fate of Wimbledon next week, it was announced Wednesday, in a statement that strongly hinted at a cancellation.
Although the AELTC had originally wanted to leave their options open until the end of April – the stage at which they would have to start building stands – the rapid progress of the Covid-19 pandemic has forced them to call an emergency board meeting within days.
“The single most important consideration is one of public health,” said Richard Lewis, the club’s chief executive. “We are working hard to bring certainty to our plans for 2020.”
It is hard to see any other outcome than the cancellation of the Championships for the first time since the Second World War.
Pressing ahead as normal would seem irresponsible, especially after Monday’s decision to delay this summer’s Olympics until next year. But Wednesday's statement said that “playing behind closed doors has been formally ruled out”. And postponement – the course already taken by the French Open – is much more difficult for Wimbledon because of the delicate nature of the grass.
Even a month’s delay, which would move the tournament into the slot vacated by the Tokyo Games, would mean less sunlight in the big stadia and more dew. It might also add further complication to the club’s legal position.
The AELTC’s insurance policy is under heavy discussion at the moment. For a cancellation to be covered, they would normally need to cite a government ruling. Right now, the Prime Minister’s instruction that everyone apart from key workers should stay at home is probably strong enough to qualify.
But what happens if the government advice is relaxed into a greyer area by August? That could make it harder for the Championships to recoup their losses – and also leave the Lawn Tennis Association without their huge annual surplus payment, which stood at almost £41m in their last published accounts.
After Monday night’s Prime Ministerial briefing, the AELTC is now operating with a skeleton staff, including a small number of groundskeepers led by the club’s head groundsman Neil Stubley. An army of people would be required to deliver the Championships, even without any spectators on site, which is why the idea of staging the event behind closed doors is not seen as practical.
Once the AELTC has announced its likely cancellation, the other European grass-court events – most notably the Fever-Tree Championships at Queen’s Club – can also be expected to follow suit.