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Wimbledon begins as delta variant cases climb in Britain

"Wimbledon in general feels a lot different, but it still has a very special feeling," Serena Williams told reporters.

LONDON — Right on cue, the British weather welcomed the first day of the Wimbledon tennis tournament with rain and gray skies.

But the tournament and London itself face a greater threat: rising coronavirus cases in England, driven by the more infections delta variant, first identified in India.

World-class tennis stars and dedicated fans will gather in the famous neighborhood of southwest London for the next two weeks, in a tournament that will try its best to keep the coronavirus at bay.

The tournament comes as England is experiencing a dramatic spike in cases, largely due to the delta variant of the coronavirus, which is more contagious and fast spreading.

As of Sunday, there were just under 15,000 coronavirus cases in England — a jump of 58 percent over the last week — according to official government data. Some 124 people have also died of Covid-19 in the last seven days, a steep rise in recent months.

Wimbledon, canceled last year for the first time in three quarters of a century, will see the audiences at 50 percent capacity for most games, although the final matches will allow for greater numbers.

Spectators will also need to show proof they have received two vaccination shots or a negative Covid test, they must wear masks when not seated and observe social distancing and a one-way system on site, the All England Lawn Tennis Club said in its updated regulations.

Ball boys and girls will also not handle player towels or drinks this year. Those unable to enjoy the traditional strawberry and cream snack on site can have afternoon tea hampers delivered to their door at home, the club said.

"We have an inspirational role to play for fans and players alike — but we will do so safely," the All England Club said, adding that 100 tickets per day would also be provided to key workers during the public health crisis such as health staff, teachers and charity groups.

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"Our aspiration is to stage the best Championships possible, but it has always been our absolute priority to do this safely," AELTC chief executive Sally Bolton said this month.

The players too have been affected with British women's top-ranked player, Johanna Konta, forced to withdraw and self-isolate on Sunday after a member of her team tested positive for Covid-19.

Monday will see Novak Djokovic, Jack Draper, Andy Murray and Venus Williams in action on court.

Naomi Osaka and Rafael Nadal both withdrew from Wimbledon, for health and personal reasons.

"It's a little different walking the grounds now," Serena Williams told reporters on Sunday. "Wimbledon in general feels a lot different, but it still has a very special feeling." The tennis superstar also announced on Sunday that she will not be heading to the Tokyo Olympics next month.

Players are limited to a maximum entourage of three and even the biggest names must stay in approved so-called Wimbledon bubble hotels rather than the usual option of renting private homes in the upmarket neighborhood.

Officials walk past an order of play board before the start of play at Wimbledon, London, on Monday.Toby Melville / Reuters

The surge of cases in Britain comes despite a relatively successful vaccination program, with 84 percent of adults having had at least one vaccination, according to the ministry of health.

The increased case numbers come at a time of U.K. government crisis with the country's health minister resigning over the weekend after a scandal that saw him break social distancing rules when caught in a romantic embrace with a colleague. A new health minister was appointed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday.

Summer vacations are also set to begin with schools ending for the summer and travel-starved Brits seeking destinations that will let them in, especially on the European continent.

Sports events including the soccer Euro 2020 tournament and Wimbledon will likely lift spirits for a nation that has endured lockdowns and severe social restrictions for over a year.

"When Wimbledon was canceled last year, that was a shot in the gut for our sport. A terrible time," three-times Wimbledon winner, John McEnroe told Reuters. "To have it back is incredible."