World Cup fever grips players at Wimbledon

Published by Reem Abulleil

While the world’s biggest tennis event unfolds at SW19, an even bigger tournament is playing out in Russia. And tennis players at Wimbledon are loving it.

As the last-16 clash between England and Colombia went to penalty kicks, Denis Shapovalov gathered with some journalists, Wimbledon staff, and Belgium’s Kirsten Flipkens, around a screen in the media centre, to witness the nerve-wracking shootout. The Canadian teen, rooting for Russia this World Cup (his parents are from there), was commentating every spot kick, and guessing which side the players would opt for.

Two floors up, the tension in the players’ lounge was palpable while the nearby media bar was standing-room only. I made the mistake of walking past the TV screen towards the end of extra time. British journalists who were there, mostly hyperventilating, are yet to forgive me.

Before the start of the match, Wimbledon security personnel drew the blinds on all the windows of the main press room, located on the ground floor just across the walkway from Centre Court. Times reporter Stuart Fraser asked them why and they cited safety reasons. The number of people who would peer through the windows to try and catch the England game on monitors inside the press centre would be considered a safety hazard.

Nearby houses around Wimbledon faced similar problems with tennis visitors leaving the club stopping to follow the game through living room windows.

Several tennis loyalists, though, were sat in the compact stands of Court 14, watching Britain’s Heather Watson face Flipkens in a first round that was inconveniently scheduled at the same time as England-Colombia.

READ: Federer setting new records at Wimbledon

While no public screens are showing any World Cup footage around the grounds of the All England Club, football’s biggest showpiece event is ever-present behind the scenes. Andy Murray was having his pre-tournament press conference during the last-16 showdown between France and Argentina; the roars that came with every goal – heard from the players’ lounge upstairs – were eventually too much for him as he stopped midway through an answer to a question and said: “I can’t believe I’m missing this match. What’s the score? It’s like 4-2 or something. Should we just go and…?”

Having the World Cup coincide with Wimbledon means the banter between players in the locker room and around the club sometimes reaches comical levels. Russian Daria Kasatkina, the No.14 seed at Wimbledon, is a football fanatic and has been following her home team every step of the way. “Now I’m making jokes around all Spanish players and coaches, because I don’t think I’ll have this opportunity again,” Kasatkina said with a laugh, referring to Russia’s penalty-kicks win over Spain in the round of 16. “In the players’ lounge everybody who is still in the club is watching the World Cup. I love these kind of things because then the world is really connected, we’re all together, just sitting and watching football, that’s great.”

The trash talk is alive and kicking among the players, and even between couples. Croatia’s Donna Vekic said she was hoping her home side would face Switzerland in the semifinals so she could square off with her Swiss boyfriend Stan Wawrinka. She must have been disappointed by Switzerland’s defeat to Sweden shortly after.

England’s Kyle Edmund posed in a picture with his Swedish coach Fredrik Rosengren, dressed in their home teams’ jerseys ahead of Saturday’s highly-anticipated clash between the two nations. “When your coach is a Swede and you tell him it’s coming home… let’s go @England! #ThreeLions,” wrote Edmund.

There is no escaping the Three Lions chant: ‘It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming, football’s coming home’. It is the ongoing soundtrack at all the pubs around Wimbledon Village, typically packed with tennis fans, players, their entourages, and journalists.

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American Madison Keys has heard the anthem so many times, it turned her into an England fan. “I watched England play last night. I was actually watching with [British tennis player] Laura Robson. She was singing the ‘It’s coming home’ song consistently for, like, two-and-a-half hours,” laughed the 10th seed. “Where I am in the Village I can hear the Rose & Crown [pub]. My TV was ahead of theirs, so something would happen and Laura would scream, and then, like, five seconds later the whole pub would scream. I was actually into it at the very end. So now I’m cheering for England.”

Most Argentineans and Germans have understandably lost interest in the World Cup after their countries made shocking early exits, but for Juan Martin del Potro, there is a shot at revenge when he takes on Frenchman Benoit Paire in the third round on Saturday. “Hopefully the result could be different,” the Argentine quipped ahead of the match.

The Wimbledon final and the World Cup are both taking place on Sunday 15 July, and with the tennis scheduled for 2pm UK time, and the football starting at 4pm, there is a real chance both matches will overlap. All England Club officials refused to move up the start of the Wimbledon final, and claim FIFA also wouldn’t push back the Russia showpiece.

Some tennis players are very clear on which final they will be watching that day. “Definitely soccer if it’s France, not tennis,” said Frenchman Lucas Pouille. Gael Monfils, who is into the Wimbledon fourth round for the first time in his 10 appearances here, was playing against Sam Querrey at the same time as France were taking on Uruguay. He finished his post-match TV interview with a signature ‘Allez Les Bleus’ and moments later, Raphael Varane scored the opener for France. “It’s the perfect day so far,” said a smiling Monfils, who timed his press conference to coincide with half-time.

Monfils was asked what he’d do if both he and France reach the final in their respective competitions. “I’d be the first player walkover to [leave the Wimbledon final to] see the World Cup,” Monfils joked.

Hopefully tennis fans prove to be more committed than that come Sunday.

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