Until this year, Middle Sunday was the day when no competitive tennis was played at the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) unless the weather had been “schedule wrecking wet…” (which it was in 1991, 1997, 2004 and 2016).
I always looked forward to the “Free Day…” and have fond memories of the breaks from match watching/writing that were provided. During the 1990s, my friendship with Gardnar Mulloy led to invitations to Tony Kaye’s annual “Middle Sunday Spectaculars…” Kaye was as adaptable as he was visionary. A fabled raconteur, he could weave stories around his experiences as a book seller, photographer and jazz musician. He realized tremendous success using his talent as hair stylist to develop the cruise ship beauty salon business. He expanded the concept into an onboard spa industry that made him fabulously wealthy. (His autobiography “G-Strings and Curls” superbly tells his fascinating life story.)
He lived in a flat on Prince Albert Road in London and loved to hold gatherings featuring catered repasts and wines that were world class. The guests included people from all walks of life, many of whom were riveting conversationalists. They added to the grandeur of a Middle Sunday at Tony’s.
Susie Barnes, a London resident and a dear friend of Kaye’s recalled, “…Middle Sunday was always something special. Tony was such a wonderful host. He was such a character – a hardheaded businessman with a heart of gold – He loved sharing his gains – and to some extent showing off a bit too…!”
Kaye was a devotee of The Championships, and Mulloy, as a former tournament doubles winner, was able to regularly provide him with tickets to attend the matches.
On a rainy Middle Sunday in 2014, I walked the mile plus from where I “home stayed…” during the tournament each year in East Putney, down Church Road to Wimbledon Park. That was where Maui Jim Sunglasses was holding a promotional activity featuring Martina Hingis.
The first time I had seen her was in 1993 at Roland Garros. To be honest, I thought I was watching one of the petite ball girls having a fun hit before the junior matches started. As it turned out, the individual she was playing short-court tennis with (using the service lines on either side of the court as the baselines) was her mother/coach, Melanie Molitor. I was immediately captivated by the youngster’s racquet control, and the beyond her size presence that she possessed. She caressed the ball and placed her shots with an awareness I had rarely seen in a player so tiny and so young. I had no idea that Hingis, who was born September 30, 1980, was entered in the tournament and would go on to win the Les Filles Juniors’ 7-5, 7-5 over Laurence Courtois of Belgium, becoming the youngest Junior Grand Slam tournament champion, ever.
On the “Maui Jim” Sunday afternoon, I had an opportunity to reminisce with her. After explaining that I had watched her warmup, all those years ago, I wondered if she remembered the match, at Stade Roland Garros, she was preparing to play?
She smiled, and like almost every great player I’ve spoken with, her recall was instantaneous. “I played a Dutch girl in the first round on Court 13.” When I mentioned the top US Girls’ player, at the time, Julie Steven, Hingis continued, “Then I played her in the second round…”
We chatted amiably for a bit over an hour. She wasn’t expansive but had a sly sense of humor and a photographic memory for details of her tennis career. The more questions I asked the more insight she provided…
With the promotion coming to an end, I offered my thanks for the chat…and wandered off through the late afternoon drizzle, which did little to dampen another special Middle Sunday.
(Hingis was always formidable at SW19, winning the Ladies’ title in 1997. An uncanny doubles player, she teamed with Helena Suková of the Czech Republic in 1996, with Jana Novotná, also from the Czech Republic in 1998 and with Sania Mirza of India in 2015 to claim Ladies’ Doubles trophies. The same year she and Leander Paes, Mirza’s countryman, were the Mixed Doubles champions. Two years later (2017) she and “Home Boy II” Jamie Murray, Andy’s older brother, claimed Mixed Doubles honors.)
Since The Championships wears tradition like the Papal Mitre it seemed that eliminating Middle Sunday bordered on heresy. Historically, Middle Sunday came into practice, depending on the story, to give the courts an untrampled upon day to recover or because Sunday is a religious holiday and not a time for competition. In fact, until 1982 the tournament ended on Saturday with Gentlemen’s Singles final.
Last year, during The Championships, Christopher Clarey, the acclaimed New York Times columnist, wrote about the change coming in 2022, saying, “…But through the decades, the Sunday off has become, above all, a moment for the players, officials, employees and tournament neighbors to catch their collective breath…”
Prior to this year’s tournament, Ian Hewitt, Chairman of the AELTC, explained to The Guardian newspaper that court maintenance had become much more sophisticated so there wasn’t the fear that the lawns would be subject to the risk of being “over played on…”. More important competing on Sunday eliminated the “Manic Monday” predicament that resulted in playing a “match catchup” schedule (because of the day-off). With the change, The Championships became a 14 rather than a 13 day event and in the end, gave more people a new opportunity to attend the tournament.
In 2021, Alexandra Willis, AELTC Marketing & Communications Director, cut to the chase offering, “…the tradition of not playing on Sunday had served its time. If we were confident in Centre Court being able to handle the extra day’s play, why wouldn’t we open it up so all those people who are available on weekends would have another chance to watch and engage with Wimbledon and come to Wimbledon?”
Wallis talked about the positive results obtained from social media polls which indicated a majority of fans supported Sunday play. She admitted that the broadcast industry was delighted with the change but was quick to add…“But to be very clear this was our initiative, not theirs.”
So, Middle Sunday and Manic Monday were cleaved…for the fans…as well as a few additional Pounds Sterling…(Though, it must be mentioned that free tickets were given to Ukrainian, Syrian and Afghan refugees, along with community groups and schools.) As Wallis pointed out, “There will be a knock-on effect in that so-called Manic Monday, the day normally reserved for the entire fourth round of men’s and women’s singles matches, will become considerably less manic.
“It is perhaps a better concept than a reality. With all those meaningful matches competing for attention on all those different courts, it is a bit like collecting seashells with the tide quickly rising.”
In 2022, Sunday and Monday featured fourth round matches. “Our modeling shows it will give us roughly a 10 percent bump in audience figures”, Wallis said a year ago.
The presentation staged on the “First Play Middle Sunday” received richly deserved kudos. The Centenary of Centre Court was celebrated with a Parade of Champions. John McEnroe and Sue Barker, the consummate tournament finals host, held court…as it were, introducing the players as they walked through doors (befitting a luxury London hotel) that were opened by ushers.
In order of appearance, based on the number of singles titles won, those saluted included Angela Mortimer, Ann Jones, Stan Smith, Jan Kodes, Pat Cash, Conchita Martínez, Martina Hingis, Goran Ivanišević, Lleyton Hewitt, Marion Bartoli, Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep (one championship). Stefan Edberg, Rafael Nadal, Petra Kvitová and Andy Murray, with two championships each, followed. Margaret Court, John Newcombe, Chris Evert and McEnroe (who Barker introduced) were the three-time champions that appeared. Four-time champion Rod Laver was next to be acknowledged. Then Bjorn Borg and Venus Williams, both five-time champions, entered. Then Billie Jean King and Novak Djokovic, six-time champions, had their moment and…which set the stage for the final honoree…eight-time champion Roger Federer…Who received a “Standing O…”
Federer made his first SW19 appearance in 1998 winning the Boys’ Singles title and teamed with Olivier Rochus of Belgium for the Boys’ Doubles trophy. Five years later, he collected his first Gentlemen’s Singles trophy. (Borg and Cash also scored a “Boys’/Gentlemen’s Double”, the Swede in 1972 and 1976; the Australian in 1982 and 1987.)
Resplendent in a dark suit and wearing his Champion’s Members Badge, Federer told the appreciative crowd, “I’ve been lucky enough to play a lot of matches on this court. Feels awkward to be here today in a different type of role…But it’s great to be here with all the other champions. This court has given me my biggest wins, my biggest losses.”
One of which is still a painful memory…It was four days short of the one year anniversary (July 7, 2021) of his 6-3, 7-6, 6-0 quarterfinal loss to Hubert Hurkacz of Poland in which he damaged the meniscus and cartilage in his right knee again (and had his third operation on the knee in August).
He continued, “Of course I’ve missed being here. I would have loved to be here. I knew walking out of here last year, it was going to be a tough year ahead. Maybe I didn’t think it was going to take me this long to come back. But the knee has been rough on me. I didn’t know if I should make the trip, but I’m happy to be standing right here, right now.”
Federer concluded, “I hope I can come back one more time.”
(He is planning to make his first 2022 competitive appearance at the Swiss Indoors in October.)
Change is part of life…but I am fortunate to have a library of Middle Sunday recollections that will not be erased by the delightful “First Play Middle Sunday” one-off.
(In the end, it is important to note that in 2022 The Championships is offering $50.5 in player compensation, along with a regularly overlooked per diem that totals another $48.8 which clearly puts the onus on Revenue Earning…)
Title photo by Zac Goodwin