I've been in training for a while now. I've drawn up a rigid schedule
for the last couple of weeks of June and blocked out the whole of the
first week in July - just in case it rains. Excuses have been made for
non attendance at the children's end of term school events (who would
have a swimming gala on a Saturday for goodness sake?) and all Friday
meetings have been cancelled, I've done a crash course in VCR programming
and practised lots of wrist strengthening exercises so I don't tire while
tapping the remote control. I can stretch as far as the Radio Times without
straining a muscle and have perfected my lunge for sudden, unexpected
changes of channel should there be a good match shown simultaneously on
Oh yes, summer is here - if it's June it must be Wimbledon fortnight,
and I'm all set for a spot of armchair athletics.
Tennis has been part of my life since I was a child. Ile Nastase, Billy
Jean King and Bjorn Borg kept me company on the sofa through most of the
seventies. O levels, as they were quaintly known in 1972, passed in a
revisionless blur while I used my study leave to watch tennis. I
knew Mrs Cawley when she was still Evonne Goolagong - the most exciting
thing to bounce on to the court since Maria Buenos, a decade earlier.
Anna Kournikova might be plastered all over billboards in her underwear
but Maria Bueno, had her very own postage stamp. Fully clothed, to boot.
Even before television had cast its evil spell (Where have I heard this
before?) on couch coaches everywhere, slim, Brazilian Maria Bueno brought
sex on to the centre court for the first - and possibly the last time.
Women tennis players are usually too stocky to be super-models. They talk
to themselves, mumble, blubber at the drop of a bat and - in the case
of Monica Seles - grunt unattractively with each passing shot. Most have
also perfected that too-much-sun squint that no amount of Retin-A is going
I'm guessing that ogling girls on court owes a lot to the Brontosaurus
factor. As anyone who has visited the New Tate and seen Sam Taylor Wood's
exuberant film of the same name will attest - there is a certain hypnotic
attraction for objects in motion that is common to both sexes.
When it comes to men, however, there only thing swinging is the tennis
racket. Nevertheless - serving is one of the few activities that men can
perform faster than a speeding bullet, and still be applauded.
Tennis is the ultimate spectator sport and Wimbledon its supreme expression.
We in Britain is so desperate for a home-grown champion that we bless
our imperialist past and suck players in from the colonies - Virginia
Wade from South Africa and Greg Rusinsky from Canada. Tim Henman? Well
doesn't the name just say it all?
We don't really give a toss about the American Open and The Stella Artois
is a beer, not a ball game. The Davis Cup counts as little more than a
Wimbledon warm up, and passes almost unnoticed. We reserve our special
strawberry fuelled hysteria for that fabled leafy South London suburb
where the grass courts are always greener, and where there is a God, and
umpire be his name. He sits up there in his high chair, all seeing, all
knowing, all powerful while man darts around like a demented retriever
in chase of a small yellow ball..
Not that I've ever been to Wimbledon. Of course, you can go and queue
- another British obsession. You can come down with that most seasonal
of illnesses Wimbledonitis - characterised by sudden onset croaky voice
when you call in sick the morning of the Women's final. Then you can sit,
baking, in the sun for up to three hours, coughing politely between points
and hoping your boss doesn't spot you on television.
Alternatively, you can sit forlornly in the rain with a plastic bag tied
on your head stoically hoping that the weather will clear and play resume.
You can even sing-alonga-Sir Cliff Richard, as they did in last year's
(?) deluge while you wait. Though in this case, real illness may result.
More sensibly, you can follow in the great tradition of grass groupies
everywhere - you can draw up an easy chair, fill the fridge with Pims,
train the ball boys to run underneath the television as they sprint out
to the kitchen for more ice, and practice your lobs by tossing cushions
from the baseline at noisy children. Furthermore you are free to scream
at the players, cheer whenever you like and blow kisses at Pete Sampras.
But during Wimbledon, I'm really a singles player at heart. Mixed doubles
are out of the question for the next fortnight - usually because I'm not
speaking to my partner due to his unwarranted partisanship between one
tennis player and another.
In 1981, the year John McEnroe beat Bjorn Borg in the final I threw a
heavy object at the screen, flounced up the stairs with a gesture that
Mr You-cannot-be-serious himself would have approved of and didn't speak
to my partner for two days. My sister and I are still divided on the Sampras
vs Ivanisevic final in 1998, though we did manage to agree in 1992 when
Ivanisevic lost to Agassi. The man might have shaved off all his hair
but he still doesn't look butch enough for me. Leave that to the girls.
The women's game can often disappoint. Some matches are wearily reminiscent
of those forerunners of Nintendo which you played with two hyphens and
a full stop.
Naturally, as a tennis enthusiast, I've been knocking balls about since
I was about ten. I replayed Wimbledon every year against the side of my
house where I returned my own service and won every match.
It therefore came as something of a shock to discover, at the age of thirty-six,
that I couldn't actually play. I was rather good at tucking the ball into
my knickers but after twenty lessons I still couldn't serve. If I threw
the ball in the air I was running around like Chicken Licken waiting for
the sky to fall on my head, and missing it every time.
It's much less humiliating to cheer or jeer from the safety of your own
Furthermore, if it rains, you simply return to whichever activity you
are pretending to be absorbed in, or watch action replays with Sue Barker.
After all - you've got to learn the terminology. We were all fluent in
tennis long before we even knew how to speak coffee. All those early tongue
twisting foreign names - Navratilova, Nastase, Madikova, Morozola, Metreveli
right through to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. How would we ever have been
able to ask for a grande mocha latte frappe without the groundwork put
in by those early, pioneering tennis players?
I tell you, right across the court - our debt is enormous.