Anyone For Tennis?

27 Jun

It’s Wimbledon fortnight again, the time when many of us think of tennis. It’s always virtually impossible to get on the local courts at Wimbledon time as everyone is on there pretending to be Roger, Rafa or Andy, or maybe Maria, Serena or Caroline. I wonder how many are grunting or screeching, or smashing their rackets in frustration? Tennis is played all through the year, all round the world and on at least 4 different surfaces. However, because of the long- held monopoly of the BBC in the good old days of terrestial television, many people think it is still  only played on lawns in south-west London and for only 2 intensive weeks in June and July.

I love tennis. I’m glad the Tudors invented it and gave it to the world. I have played it on the parks since I was a teenager and watched Wimbledon since I was about 10 years old. I still remember Chuck McKinley and Rod “Rocket” Laver. The brilliant Laver was a leftie like me, but there the resemblence ended.  I recall being impressed that his left arm seemed to be at least twice as wide as his right!  Laver did the tennis grand-slam twice, once as an amateur and once as a professional in the new Open era of the late 60’s — Australia, French, Wimbledon and USA championships in the same year.  I vividly remember  Billie-Jean King and Margaret Court — little and large, but they had some titanic struggles. In those days ( the early 1960’s): the game was dominated by the Americans and the Aussies. It was before the long march of the East Europeans, the Swedes, the French, the Spanish and now: the Chinese. The British keep plodding on. but never seem to arrive, except for Fred Perry in the 1930’s, Ann Hadyn Jones in 1969( also a former World table tennis champion) and Virginia Wade in the Silver Jubilee year of 1977.

Why is tennis so gripping and addictive? Well I believe that the whole of human nature and life is laid bare out there on the court. There is: excitement, drama, skill, imagination, agony, ectasy, determination, hope, triumph and despair etc., etc. We see supreme human strengths and talents but also human weaknesses and failings. It is so much more intense than a team game because it is just one on one — a dual ,out there on the court where there is no hiding place. Sometimes this is not a pretty sight. Some matches, particularly on the slower clay courts, are long, drawn out wars of attrition. Sometimes though, a tennis match is a thing of beauty especially when featuring elegant sliced backhands, subtle drop shots and lobs or unexpected angles in the midst of intricate rallies. At yet other times we are excited and stunned by raw power or supreme athleticism such as an Andy Murray running forehand, an ace by Andy Roddick, a Pete Sampras slam- dunk smash or an Andre Agassi return of serve like a lightning bolt. I also associate watching tennis with my adolescent sexual awakenings. Where else could I observe attractive young women running around in short skirts? How could I ever forget Maria Bueno’s frilly knickers or the ravishing Gabriella Sabatina from Argentina. I don’t think my mum ever cottened on to this aspect of my passion for tennis. It’s funny but I seem to recall that my dad was often sitting there observing the proceedings on Centre Court right there beside me. I wonder who he fancied?

There have been so many great players and fascinating matches.  I recall being incredulous with disappointment when the uncomplicated serving and volleying of the blond, ramrod- straight Stan Smith defeated the wily, creative genius of the dark Rumanian, Ille Nastase( in the early 70’s.). Then there was Jimmy Connors , representing up and coming youth, blasting Ken Rosewell, representing the old guard, right off the centre court. Poor Rosewell, one of the game’s most elegant and skillful players had not had a chance to challenge for the Wimbledon title when at his peak , because professionals were barred from the championships until towards the end of his illustrious career. Thinking of the enormous prize money on offer today, it seems very strange that for over two thirds of the 20th Century, it was open to amateurs only. A year after destroying Rosewell, the seemingly unstoppable Conners was himself destroyed by the calm, serene,  intelligent Arthur Ashe. He out-thought, out-psyched and out-manouvred his young opponent, such that Connors was reduced to pathetically reading a sweat-stained note from his mom, which he had tucked down his sock. Later came the titanic duels between Chris Evert ( “The Ice maiden”) and Martina Navratilove, the great Czech player, and one of the first of many East Europeans to become naturalised Americans  .It still amuses me today when Maria  Sharapova shouts “Come On!” when she wins a crucial point, What’s wrong with saying something in Russian ? Evert later married John Lloyd, an English player, so the nation tried to adopt her as one of their own, even though she was American through and through.The British had tried the same trick a few years earlier when Evonne Goolagong, the delightful and richly talented Australian Aborigene player also married a lucky Englishman and we tried to turn her into an honorary English woman.  Later came the titanic struggles between the cool Swede, Borg, and the hot-headed American, McEnroe.  — the base liner versus the volleyer. Who can ever forget that never- ending and super tense tie- break in the early 1980’s?  My wife went out to furiously mow the  lawn that afternoon, because she couldn’t stand the stress! There have always been gripping battles between great rivals. The next era ( 1990s) brought us Sampras v Agassi and now of course we have the classic encounters between Federer and Nadal . The game has a long, fascinating history and many colourful, charismatic personalities, two big reasons for its enduring appeal.

I was going to make some profound points about the continued elitism of the game in Britain( partly explaining our lack of success even though we invented the game) or write technical stuff about racket development or courtside technology.( such as Hawkeye to sort out disputed calls, or a beeping machine to replace the net cord judge who used to sit touching the top of the net just asking to be clobbered by a wayward fast serve or swerving ground stroke). I could go on and on but I don’t wish to overplay the point. Suffice to say, I have got in the strawberries and cream and am looking forward to watching the second week of Wimbledon, 2011. Will the Williams sisters, sweep all before them? ( I think so.) Will Andy Murray put an end to “decades of hurt? “, at least in the minds of tablods headline writers — I don’t think so. It’s probably going to be Nadal. Federer or perhaps Djokovic. Will the screamers and grunters be disciplined for gamesmanship — they should be. Monica Seles really started something there. I wonder what the inimitable Dan Maskell would have thought of it all. “Oh my gosh, it’s just like an orgasm, and what’s more, it’s the vital seventh game!”” Then, just when we think it’s all over, the great tennis circus moves on to Flushing Meadows , New York —  for those of us with Sky TV that is. The BBC will only show the Murray matches or the Men’s final, if we’re lucky. That’s why for many , tennis equals Wimbledon with : Sue Barker ( it used to be Harry Carpenter), the Royal box ( which the Queen always avoids), umpires and lines people in white caps and silly blazers, Henman Hill or Murray Mount and Sir Cliff always ready to give us a song if it rains. ( except now we have the amazing centre court roof, so there will be no more complete wash-outs.) Wimbledon fortnight is a wonderful part of Britsh life and long may it continue! Anyone for tennis?

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3 Responses to “Anyone For Tennis?”

  1. Gerry Fenge June 30, 2011 at 8:51 pm #

    I read through this the other day, Stuart, and it brought back many happy memories – e.g. Stan Smith (‘The Leaning Tower of Pasadena’). It set me off remembering the old names. See how many of these doubles partnerships you recall:

    • Newcombe and Roche
    • Santana and Arilla
    • Osuna and Palafox
    • Nastase and Tiriac
    • Jovanovic and Pilic
    • And, of course, Fleming and McEnroe

    The only ladies (as they used to be) doubles team I can remember all that clearly (wonder why) is Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals.

    Doubles ain’t what it used to be since the big players opted out. I suppose the extreme demands nowadays mean they have to.

    Fascinating post, Stuart.

    • scrapstu1949 July 14, 2011 at 11:22 am #

      Thanks for your response Gerry and for bringing up some fond tennis memories of your own. I remember all those doubles teams with a warm nostalga. They used to stage a World Doubles championship in London every year but that seems to have been dropped now. What a shame. The one big partnership you have forgotten is Hewitt and McMillan. Can you remember the special behind-the-back hand signals they devised to decide on which serve to deliver? Frew McMillan , famous for his white cap, still commentates ( very well) on British Eurosport.
      It’s a shame that Wimbledon is over for another year. However, I’m already looking forward to Flushing Meadow. Thanks again.

  2. Gerry Fenge July 14, 2011 at 2:06 pm #

    Hewitt and McMillan indeed – and, for that matter, Hewitt and Stolle. Yes, Flushing Meadow – what chance our Andy getting beat in the final (again)?

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