Her glittering personal triumph was secured in research laboratories rather than the glamorous trophy-laden world of Wimbledon.
For once, tennis’s multimillionaire cast list has been upstaged by an embarrassed-looking scientist who got all the fanfare on Centre Court.
Dame Sarah Gilbert hardly knew where to look as she was greeted with a standing ovation usually reserved for tournament greats.
Some of the 7,500 spectators on the main court were moved close to tears as the crowd expressed their clear gratitude for the professor’s work designing the Oxford vaccine.
Prof Gilbert was the toast of 21,000 spectators returned to the All England Club’s famous courts yesterday after a Covid-enforced cancellation. This year the capacity for the first week is 50 per cent capacity across the grounds, although Centre Court at times appeared close to being full in the best seats, with spectators gathering without having to social distance or wear masks.
While rain delayed play on the outside courts, hi-tech roofs on Centre Court and Court No 1 kept the main action on track. Special technology to allow air to circulate to keep the grass green ensured spectators were as safe from infection as they would have been even if they were outside, organisers insisted.
In previous decades, Sir Cliff Richard might have been the star in the crowd to keep the crowds entertained, especially on a rain-delayed day like yesterday. But this year Wimbledon has deliberately broken with tradition to ensure all the attention is paid on those who helped Britain most during the pandemic.
"We would like to thank all those who have contributed so much during this unprecedented period in all our lives," said a rare announcement on the Centre Court tannoy. Scientists were joined by healthcare workers and Hannah Ingram-Moore, daughter of veteran fundraiser Captain Sir Tom Moore, on a list of 100 largely key worker special guests. The roar for Prof Gilbert erupted after she was name-checked by the announcer listing those who had "contributed so much to the nation’s response to this pandemic".
Standing ovation at Wimbledon’s Centre Court for Dame Sarah Gilbert who designed the Oxford COVID vaccine.
Very moving. pic.twitter.com/q4NosT19eN
— Joe Pike (@joepike) June 28, 2021
Despite delight amongst the lucky fans who made it to see the likes of Novak Djokovic and Sir Andy Murray in action for the tournament’s long-awaited return, not all of them were happy about the new system for downloading tickets on their mobile phones.
Lengthy queues built up outside the club’s ticket allocation office, with some left furious that they were unable to obtain a paper ticket for the first in tournament history. Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, was among those to criticise the arrangement which "automatically rules out many older people":
Graham Archer, 76, who has been coming to Wimbledon from Burnham-on-Sea since the 1970s, added that he had paid £75 for Centre Court tickets, but 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."
The public showing their NHS Covid QR codes to gain entry
Credit: Paul Grover
Day one was a mixture of brollies, strawberries and cream and ball persons
Credit: Paul Grover
Djokovic plays Draper with the best seats at Centre Court close to being full, as spectators gathered without having to social distance or wear masks
Credit: Paul Grover
Djokovic, the reigning champion, secured far less cheers than Britain’s pandemic heroes as he swept aside Jack Draper after the British teenager had raised hopes of an upset by winning his opening set.
Djokovic, a divisive figure who opposes mandatory vaccinations for tennis players on tour, said afterwards that he had "heard a standing ovation" – but had not realised it was for Britain’s vaccine guru.
As far as Wimbledon organisers are concerned, there is no suggestion that any players are planning to take the knee in the coming days like England’s footballers have at Euro 2020. "Our view is that any player who would wish to do that or be keen to represent any particular issue – our door is open," said tournament chief executive Sally Bolton. "We’d invite them to come and have a conversation with us about how they might best do that."
While the outside courts were delayed by several hours of rain yesterday, Claire and Dan Cobden, from Chichester, were among those who insisted that the weather had not dampened their spirits as they watched the action from under an umbrella on Henman Hill.
“I’m not that bothered with the rain as we’ve just had a cream tea and are about to enjoy a nice big bottle of something,” said Claire. “We’ve got tickets for Court 12 so we are just hoping to get some play."
Briton Fran Jones, a trailblazer in the sport due to a rare condition that has left her with only six fingers and seven toes, makes her senior Wimbledon debut on Tuesday against US teen sensation Coco Gauff.
- Wimbledon 2021: Order of play for day one, draw details, seeds and Andy Murray start time