Anyone for Tennis
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 BBC2.
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 to reverse.
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 sitting room.
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.