Medical staff and other “inspirational individuals” who have been invited to the Royal Box on the first day of this year’s Wimbledon were given a standing ovation before the first match on Centre Court.
Guests included Hannah Ingram-Moore, daughter of veteran fundraiser Captain Sir Tom Moore, who raised over £32 million for the NHS, as well as designers of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine.
Announcers paid tribute to the “important work” done by keyworkers before the first game on Centre Court which saw defending champion Novak Djokovic beat 19-year-old Jack Draper from the UK in four sets.
Andy Murray, playing his first singles match at Wimbledon since 2017, later delighted the Centre Court crowd with a four set win over Nikoloz Basilashvili from Georgia.
Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, who co-designed the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, also attended the Royal Box, and she and her colleagues were applauded and cheered by other match-goers.
Tributes were also paid after the match, led by the Prime Minister and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Boris Johnson wrote on Twitter: “An inspiring moment at Centre Court today as spectators thanked those who have contributed so much in our fight against Covid-19.
“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who have saved lives and helped us on the road back to normality.”
A tweet from the official Kensington Royal account said: “Thank you Dame Sarah Gilbert and the incredible team that developed the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine.”
Dame Sarah was joined by the Duke of Kent and former British racing driver Sir Jackie Stewart.
Ms Ingram-Moore, who wore a blue dress, smiled widely and waved as her father’s name received cheers.
Organisers have issued hundreds of free tickets to keyworkers throughout the tournament to say thank you for their work during the pandemic.
“In order to say thank you, the AELTC (All England Lawn Tennis Club) has provided 100 daily Centre and No.1 Court tickets to various groups ranging from the NHS to Transport For London … and other inspirational individuals, all in recognition of the service they have provided to those in their communities throughout the pandemic,” the organisation said on its website.
The competition’s chief executive, Sally Bolton, has said there will be a “familiar feel” at the championship following a “level of uncertainty” caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Ms Bolton said she was feeling “excitement” that the famous tennis tournament was starting, adding that “we can talk about tennis and not talk about Covid”.
Speaking as the SW19 gates opened to fans for the first time in two years, she said the degree of “trepidation” felt while organising Wimbledon had been no different to any other year.
Monday sees tennis fans return to the internationally renowned courts, with multiple changes to ensure that the event remains Covid-secure.
Fans will have to present evidence of either double-jab status or negative lateral flow tests upon arrival at the grounds.Multiple hand sanitiser stations have been installed and guests are being asked to wear face coverings when walking around, although these can be removed while watching the matches.
Fans were pictured huddled under umbrellas as they queued for entry in the drizzle, and some wore Union flag facemasks.
Speaking at a virtual press conference ahead of the first matches, Ms Bolton said extra effort had been made to deliver a “familiar feel” to the championship.
“When people arrive through the gates this morning, as they are doing now, what they will see and feel is something very familiar, a championship that we’ve all missed for two years,” she said.
“That’s been a really important part of what we’ve done as we’ve gone about thinking about how we do that in a safe way.
“Obviously, it’s necessarily different in certain ways this year.
“The challenge above all has been the level of uncertainty that we have had throughout this year.
“But at this point, the thing I’m feeling most is excitement that we’re finally here and we can finally open the gates, get some players on court, get some tennis played, so we can talk about tennis and not talk about Covid.
“That feeling is no different to any year delivering the championships, there is always a myriad of things that you have planned hard for and want and hope to go perfectly, but may not.
“This year there’s an added layer … but every year there is a degree of trepidation going into the tournament, there’s no doubt about that.”
Wet weather threatened to put a dampener on the tournament’s opening day, with the Met Office putting a yellow weather warning for rain and thunderstorms in place across parts of southern England.
But investment in roofs over Centre Court and Court 1 in recent years means the unpredictable weather is less likely to affect the schedule.
The Met Office said weather conditions were expected to steadily improve throughout the week despite the “drab and murky” start.
Ms Bolton added that the investment, which occurred before the start of the pandemic, stood organisers “in good stead” and that both courts were considered to be outdoor venues, even when the roofs were closed.
“When we put the roof on there was significant focus on how we maintained the grass surface when you have lots of people in a stadium with the roof closed,” she said.
“So we did invest in outstanding ventilation which stood us in good stead this year.
“Both of those courts with the roof on are still considered to be outdoor venues, so there is no issue.”