There’s little time for cultural pursuits during Wimbledon fortnight. But then I suppose that ‘Wmbldn’ (as Harry Carpenter would have put it) is a culture in itself.
These days, there just aren’t enough hours in the day to sit in front of the telly and simply watch. We have to content ourselves with Today at Wimbledon, the highlights programme, hosted by the debonair John Inverdale in the company of the marvellous Boris Becker, the much-improved Tracy Austin and others of their kidney. It’s reassuring that such brats from the past have, for the main, evolved into reasonable human beings.
Even John McEnroe can now look back in wisdom at his teenage anger and admit with humour and good grace that he was an unregenerate asshole. I strongly suspect that my childhood bête noire, Rod Laver, is a thoroughly decent, pleasant and rather modest man. Poor guy. My brother and sisters used to sit in front of the screen and chant ‘serve a double’ to try and put him off. It rarely worked and he often won. Which was the trouble, of course. Had we but appreciated our tennis lore, we would have watched a legend in his prime with proper appreciation and awe – as I do now when Roger Federer’s on. Even my wife and daughter have forgiven the swish Swiss his emblazoned jacket of a few summers back.
Whenever I worry as a parent that The Daughter might be spending too long in front of the box, I think back to those Wimbledon fortnights of yore and blanche at the realisation of the hours my siblings and I must have spent parked before the screen. To be fair, the fortnight usually coincided with that delicious hiatus between end-of-exams and end-of-term when there was little homework and much frivolity. Caramba! I seem to remember watching a whole chunk of the legendary Charlie Passarell/Pancho Gonzales match, which established the template for endurance until John Isner and Nicolas Mahut re-designed it this time last summer.
Much of our erstwhile viewing took place in the evening. The fading light of day was consecrated to doubles. If there’s anything I regret about the modern game, it’s the absence of the four-(wo)man game. I know doubles are still played, but for me the golden age expired with the retirement of MacNamara and MacNamee. In my day… (are you listening, children?) there were wonderful doubles partnerships, the likes of which we will never see again. There were the plucky Mexicans, Osuna and Palafox, who would send up towering lobs from the baseline for the opposition to smash until they tired of the game and sent the ball into the net or into the crowd. There were Hewitt and MacMillan: Leyton’s belligerent dad and white-capped Frew, who never had a prayer in the singles, but on a doubles court was virtually unassailable. There were Tiriac and Nastase, the Roumanian renegades, who looked like they could defeat the opposition with a series of fierce looks. There were Emerson, with his funny wind-up serve, and the perennial runner-up, Fred Stolle. There were Ann Jones and Francoise Durr, the unlikely slow-moving slow-serving big-busted couple, who somehow won more matches than logics and physiology would have suggested. And, of course, there were Newcombe and Roche on one side of the gender equation and Navratilova and Billie Jean King on the other. Ah happy days, happy evenings!
Of course, there are still the Williams sisters (curse ‘em), but for the main gripping star-studded doubles matches seem to have been consigned to Wimbledon’s history – along with invisible white balls and wooden racquets and their presses: those strange contraptions that stopped the racquet head from warping while allowing child racquet/guitar heroes like me to play their Slazenger Les Pauls and use the lever of the press as a tremolo arm.
So now those days have gone and if the telly goes on in the late afternoon during Wimbledon fortnight and stays on up to and including Wimbledon Today, it’s more for the familiar pock-pock of ball on racquet as a reassuring background. My viewing days, like my playing days, have gone into a fairly steep decline. Nevertheless, I’ll have you know that I was once runner-up in the under 14 competition at the Saint Polycarps tennis club of Finaghy, Belfast. I wore a hand-me-down lilac airtex shirt and yellow socks, a right little André Agassi. I played with a cheap wooden racquet (made in Pakistan) from F.W. Woolworth. I was 5-1 up in the first set, but as soon as I started sniffing victory, my mind started to play games and I went to pieces, losing to a chubby Stuart Smith in straight sets. Who knows what I might have achieved with a bit of coaching, some proper kit, a physio and a sponsor? (And a little more talent and drive.) ‘I could’ve been a contender, Choliie…’
‘New balls, please!’