On a night of the highest sporting drama, Andy Murray rolled back the years with a stunning, seesawing win in his first appearance at Wimbledon since 2017. But it came only after an epic wobble against the 24th seed, Nikoloz Basilashvili, when victory had appeared a foregone conclusion.
In some of the most astonishing scenes seen on Centre Court in recent memory, Murray was 6-4, 6-3, 5-0 ahead of his Georgian opponent and twice held match point, yet suddenly and inexplicably lost seven games in a row and the third set.
It meant that the match, shown live on BBC One, had to be paused for 15 minutes as the roof went on and the match went deep into a fourth hour. But inspired by the break and the 8,000 crowd on Centre Court, Murray found a second wind in the fourth set to come through 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 6-3.
What made Murray’s slump so extraordinary was that for the best part of three sets he had given a masterly display of grass court tennis, infused with daring and bedevilment.
Frequently he would dink the ball short, drawing his opponent in, before passing him. It carried heavy echoes of the player who had won two Wimbledon titles before injury intervened.
Download the Guardian app from the iOS App Store on iPhones or the Google Play store on Android phones by searching for 'The Guardian'.
If you already have the Guardian app, make sure you’re on the most recent version.
In the Guardian app, tap the yellow button at the bottom right, then go to Settings (the gear icon), then Notifications.
Turn on sport notifications.
But the 34-year-old, who these days sports a metal hip that is more conducive to being a Marvel superhero than a professional tennis player, suddenly and inexplicably got nervous in sight of victory.
“It’s amazing to be back playing on Centre Court in such a brilliant atmosphere,” he said. “It is something I have really missed. People keep asking me if this is my last Wimbledon, but I want to keep going.”
It was a day when Wimbledon’s iron gates finally swung open again after the 2020 tournament was cancelled due to the pandemic, yet the most heartfelt ovation wasn’t for a returning hero, Murray, or the defending champion, Novak Djokovic, but for the scientists who made it possible.
When the MC announced before play that “the leaders who have developed the anti-Covid vaccine” were in the royal box the whole of Centre Court erupted in sustained applause.
That was a reference to Dame Sarah Gilbert and her colleague Sir Andrew Pollard, the professors who helped develop the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. They were among hundreds of key workers invited by the All England Club as part of a “small gesture to those who have gone above and beyond” in the pandemic.
Wimbledon also confirmed that over the next fortnight, 100 tickets for Centre and No 1 court would also be given daily to NHS staff, Transport for London workers, teachers and those in the creative industries as part of a new ‘Thank You’ campaign.
Murray wasn’t the only drama involving a British player on Centre Court. Earlier the teenager Jack Draper, the world No 253, threatened an extraordinary shock after taking a set off Djokovic.
“Novak is an inspiration,” admitted Draper. “He’s one of the greatest players of all time. To win a set against him on my Wimbledon debut is something I won’t forget.”
But while the tennis was high class this year’s Wimbledon inevitably felt a little different – with the grounds half the capacity than normal due to Covid and fans walking around the grounds in masks – although they were able to take them off while watching matches.
With Wimbledon part of the government’s events research programme, spectators were also required to show proof of either full vaccination, a negative coronavirus test or immunity through a recent infection, while all tickets are electronic.
The lack of paper tickets led to a long wait for some in the ticket resolution queue for those having problems. Among those to express his frustration was Graham Archer, 76, from Burnham-on-Sea, who said he had paid £75 for Centre Court tickets, but had encountered “endless problems” with downloading the right version on his phone.
“You just wouldn’t believe how complicated it all is,” he said. “There are hundreds in the queue here and people will say it’s because we’re old, but I think they’ve just made it all overly confusing. They’ve made a right mess of it.”
In response the All-England Club said that mobile ticketing was required by the Sports Ground Safety Authority for any events taking place in the midst of the pandemic. And it insisted that it wanted Wimbledon to be for everyone and had “handled thousands of inquiries to provide assistance and comfort as best we can.”
Yet much was also reassuringly familiar, including the persistent mizzle that delayed play on the outside courts for nearly five hours – and the sight of numerous British players going out in the first round.
Those watching the early action on Henman Hill included Johanna Cade, a nurse from Greenwich, who worked in the intensive care unit at King’s College Hospital during the height of the pandemic. “After the year we’ve had, it’s amazing to be here, relaxing with a Pimm’s and enjoying the tennis,” she said. “I’ve been six or seven times before but this one feels extra special. A bit of rain isn’t going to ruin it for us. We’re British after all.”
With a more patchy weather forecast for the days ahead, it is likely that further matches will be played under the roof. However Wimbledon chief executive Sally Bolton insisted that everything would be Covid safe with roof shut due to “the quality of the ventilation that we have in Centre Court and Court One.
Bolton also revealed that Wimbledon was ordering the same number of strawberries this year despite the reduced numbers of spectators. “Strawberries that are surplus are used for jam that can be eaten throughout the year,” she added.
Meanwhile as Djokovic departed Centre Court he sported a broadest of grins. “It feels great being back on probably the most special and sacred court in the world,” he said. “I’m really glad the sport is back.” The sustained cheers across Wimbledon throughout the day suggested that he was far from alone.