Along the history only the bombs have been able to stop tennis. The two great wars of the first half of the 20th century were the only causes that have made tennis players sheathe their rackets and leave the courts. With the coronavirus, the world of tennis fears a similar situation, a suspension in competitions that will drag on without end on the horizon and that will disrupt a sport that has evolved unparalleled since the distant world wars.
The first of these, which occurred between 1914 and 1918, claimed twelve ‘Grand Slams’ without dispute. The Australian Open was held in 1914, months before the conflict began, and also in 1915, but not in 1916, 1917 and 1918. The war did not start until July 14 allowed both Roland Garros and Wimbledon to move forward those years, but the wound of the contest spread so deeply in these countries that tennis was not seen in them again until 1919 in England and 1920 in France.
The United States, with its entry into the final phase of the war and always avoiding the fray on its own soil, was able to continue playing the US Open, although only one European played in the years of conflict.
But the war did not leave sequels only in tournaments, also in tennis players. The most famous case was that of New Zealand’s Anthony Wilding, eleven times ‘Grand Slam’ champion (six singles and five doubles) who died in May 1915 in the British offensive at Neuve-Chapelle.
The blow of the Great War was hard, but ehe tennis was reborn giving prodigious decades, with figures like René Lacoste, Henri Cochet and Suzanne Lenglen, in France, Bill Tilden and Helen Wills, in the United States, or Lilí Álvarez, in Spain.
The new battle between the axis and the allies meant that Australia closed from 1940 to 1946; Paris, invaded by the Nazis, held a tournament similar to Roland Garros from 41 to 45, although it was not recognized by the French Tennis Federation. The US Open was not canceled, but the presence of non-North American players was practically an anecdote until 1946.
Projectiles on the All England Club
And what happened to Wimbledon? The ‘Grand Slam’ on grass, which was canceled in its 2020 edition on Wednesday, was the most traumatized. Located in Merton Township, southwest London, the tournament served as a haven for the military and civilians and as a relief post for doctors and wounded, according to the book “Wimbledon and Merton in Modern Warfare.”
He tournament was a priority objective of the Luftwaffe and its continuous bombings for believing the Germans that high-ranking generals lived in that neighborhood, as well as weapons and ammunition factories camouflaged in toy companies.
It is calculated that during the war about 400 bombs fell on the exclusive London neighborhood, damaging more than 12,000 homes, destroying more than 800 houses and killing 150 neighbors. Some of those shells, to be more precise those launched on the night of October 11, 1940, also defenestrated parts of the All England Club.
One of the bombs fell on the roof of the social club, another on Church Road, the main street leading to the tournament, and two more crashed in the park located in front of the Wimbledon facility. The most important one took part of the central track ahead and 1,200 seats.
Damage that would be repaired years later, with the war over, but leaving scars difficult to suppurate. Fabio Fognini, Italian tennis player, despaired in a match of the Wimbledon 2019 edition and touched the English wound. Separated on one of the outdoor courts, through which the movement of spectators and noise is common, he shouted to the London sky “I wish a bomb fell in the club.” A disaster that had already happened 70 years ago.
But the war not only brought disgrace to Wimbledon, it also left one of the most treasured anecdotes that the ‘Grand Slam’ treasures. Hans RedHe was an Austrian tennis player who played two Davis Cup playoffs under the flag of Nazi Germany in 1938. During World War II, he fought in the Battle of Stalingrad, where he lost his left arm, which did not stop him from continuing to play tennis.
From 1947 to 1956, he contested ten consecutive Wimbledon editions. The tournament allowed him to play despite having only one arm. The only rule that was imposed on him was that he had to throw the ball with the racket when serving.
Unorthodox, yes, but it didn’t stop him from winning eight games throughout those ten years, including his fantastic debut in ’47, where he reached the knockout stages. An optimistic note within all the horror that was the war, the only tool capable of stopping tennis until the pandemic arrived.