WIMBLEDON, England — Shortly after 1:30 p.m. on Monday, two years minus two weeks from the last time a meaningful match was played at Wimbledon, a voice blared over the loudspeakers: “Good afternoon and welcome to Centre Court.”
Then came an announcement welcoming “special guests in the Royal Box,” including a woman who developed one of the COVID-19 vaccines, prompting the first of the day’s several standing ovations from spectators. And, eventually, came the words, “We’ve waited awhile for this,” before the introduction of Novak Djokovic and the opponent he would go on to beat 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 with the help of 25 aces, Jack Draper, a 19-year-old wild-card entry from England ranked 253rd.
It was, in some respects, as if Wimbledon had never left, as if the All England Club hadn’t decided to cancel the oldest Grand Slam tournament for the first time since World War II a year ago because of the pandemic.
There was raucous cheering from the stands – even before two-time champion Andy Murray played, and won, his first singles match at the place in four years. There was rain – so much rain that play on courts without a roof was delayed more than 4 1/2 hours, 11 matches were suspended in progress because of darkness and more than 20 others were postponed until Tuesday.
And there was tennis – and reminders of how sports are unpredictable and can bring such joy and disappointment. A pair of Americans picked up the most newsworthy victories: Frances Tiafoe eliminated French Open runner-up and No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4, 6-4, 6-3, while 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens beat two-time Wimbledon winner and No. 10 seed Petra Kvitova 6-3, 6-4.
Tiafoe had been 0-11 against opponents ranked in the Top 5.
“That guy is special. He’s going to do a lot of great things, win a ton of Grand Slams,” Tiafoe said about Tsitsipas, then broke into a wide smile and added: “But not today.”
Murray, whose title at 2013 made him the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years, has been working his way back after a pair of hip operations and he tested the locals’ patience during a topsy-turvy 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 win over No. 24 seed Nikoloz Basilashvili at Centre Court.
“Amazing reception when I came out. Great atmosphere the whole match,” Murray told the crowd after blowing a 5-0 lead and two match points in the third set. “So thanks for that.”
Tiafoe and Stephens are among 34 Americans in the singles brackets (21 women, 13 men), the most at Wimbledon since there were 35 in 1998. Others who won on Day 1 included qualifier Denis Kudla, who knocked off No. 30 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3; 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, 2017 U.S. Open runner-up Madison Keys, Danielle Collins and Lauren Davis.
Other seeded men who lost: No. 19 Jannik Sinner of Italy and No. 27 Reilly Opelka of the U.S.
“Not playing last year was very, very disappointing, and it feels a little bit weird that there was such a big gap in between grass seasons. But to have a crowd and the size of the crowd that we had today – I, at one point, felt like it was back to normal,” said No. 23 Keys, who beat British qualifier Katie Swan 6-3, 6-4 without facing a break point.
“It was just very, very nice to be back in a situation where you felt an amazing crowd,” Keys said, “even if they were cheering, obviously, for my opponent and wanted her to win. It was just so nice to have energy and people who are excited to watch tennis.”
The coronavirus still looms over the event.
Fans must wear masks around the grounds (although not while watching a match) and show proof they either are fully vaccinated or had COVID-19 in the past six months. All players and their entourages have to stay at one London hotel, where they take regular tests and are subject to contact tracing.
Britain’s only seeded woman in singles, No. 27 Johanna Konta, was forced to withdraw Sunday night because she must self-isolate for 10 days after one of her team members tested positive for COVID-19.
The top-seeded Djokovic got off to a slow start in his bid for a record-tying 20th Grand Slam title and sixth at Wimbledon.
It would have been so easy – so understandable, even – for Draper to be fazed by the moment and the opponent, the setting and the stakes, right away. This was his Grand Slam main draw debut, after all. But he stole the first break to lead 2-1 and wound up taking that set by saving 7 of 7 break points.
Djokovic took two tumbles onto his backside in the first set, losing his footing on the slick grass behind the baseline. This was his first competitive singles match on the surface since edging Roger Federer in the 2019 final.
“To be honest, I don’t recall falling this many times on the court,” Djokovic said with a laugh. “Well, quite slippery, whether it’s because the roof is closed or it was raining quite a lot the last few days, I don’t know.”
A 125 mph service winner gave Draper the opening set after 37 minutes. He shook his racket, then pumped his right fist.
The crowd roared.
And two hours later, it was all over.
Djokovic cleaned up his act considerably, going from just six winners and nine unforced errors in the opening set to a combined 41 winners and 15 unforced errors the rest of the way.
“I’m really glad,” he said, speaking for many, “that the sport is back.”