My mother was a tennis enthusiast and a sun-lover, but not necessarily in that order. “Which way do these seats face?” she asked the uniformed attendant who was checking our Centre Court tickets. “Madam,” he replied, gathering himself to the very peak of hauteur, “All seats face inwards, towards play.” Sanctimonious prick, but at least my mother’s wish was granted. The seats did indeed face inwards towards play but there was plenty of sun for her to soak up. If memory serves, we were watching Steffi Graf, who possessed the finest pair of legs as well as a siege gun of a forehand that I have ever seen – in a woman.
Famously – well, in our family anyway – my mother put off the birth of my brother until the final of the men’s competition had been completed. Dick Savitt (USA) defeated Ken McGregor (Aus) in short order, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, which was just as well, because her contractions by then were coming thick and fast. This was in 1951 and to be truthful, I had to look up the identities of the two finalists. Neither had impinged on my consciousness as had some of their contemporaries, Budge Patty, Frank Sedgman, Jaroslav Drobny (a firm favourite of my mother’s) Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall and others. If my mother loved Drobny, the left-handed Czech who became a naturalised Egyptian, she worshipped Rod Laver, the ‘Rockhampton Rocket’. Short for a tennis player (5’8”) and of diminutive stature, he played an explosive brand of tennis that was according to commentator Dan Maskell, “technically perfect”. My mother’s admiration had as much to do with his conspicuous sportsmanship as his glittering strokeplay. One shot remains indelibly inked in my memory. Chasing a lob to the back of the court, he swivelled and hit a backhand of blistering pace past his startled opponent. Recently, during one of my gentle doubles matches, I attempted to replicate the stroke. The ball sailed high into the adjoining undergrowth, never to be recovered.
My mother valued good manners above all else and strove to inculcate good sportsmanship in all her children when playing games. The worst insult she could level at any tennis playerwas “he’s not a good sport”. In that number could be found Gonzalez, Hoad, Nastase and as for McEnroe, well, his behaviour was beyond the pale. She much preferred the quiet and undemonstrative Ken Rosewall and of course, the imperturbable Swede, Bjorn Borg. I dread to think what she would have made of Nick Kkygios; Wimbledon, she would have felt, had gone to hell in a handcart. Incidentally, there is a good story about McEnroe, told to me by my friend Bruce Burnett. Of all people he should be able to vouch for its provenance; after all, his father, Air Chief Marshall Sir Brian Burnett, was chairman of the All-England Club at the time. Itused to be the custom that when the Wimbledon champion finally returned to the changing room after all the formalities had been completed, he would find a club tie in his locker, indication of immediate lifelong membership of the august club. When McEnroe opened his locker, there was no tie. I am not sure when the committee finally relented and elected theformer naughty boy of tennis to the club. Extraordinary to relate that McEnroe is now the eminent grise of the game, greatly respected and, dare I say it, much loved.
Another friend of mine high up in the club’s hierarchy (my word, I do have contacts in high places) had a plum job during the fortnight. Her role was to escort the finalists from their changing rooms onto Centre Court, helping them with their bags. “The start of play for the finals has been at 2.00pm since time immemorial,” she said, “so you would have thought that Rafael Nadal was familiar with the routine. But he was neverready. He always had to go back to fetch something or check he hadn’t left this or that behind. It was infuriating.” Mind you, Nadal clearly suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder; you have only to watch him meticulously place his water bottles around his chair, moving them a fraction of an inch here to a blade of grass there to appreciate that the chap is as mad as a box of frogs.
Wimbledon has the unerring, priceless ability to reinvent itself. Year after year, new buildings spring up, new courts built, and existing courts improved. Amenities are upgraded, restaurants and cafes are increased and enhanced and the whole spectator experience is geared to maintain Wimbledon’s boast that their tournament is the premier grand slam in the world. I have not been to Melbourne Park or Roland Garros or Flushing Meadows. I am sure that each has its own unique atmosphere, but I cannot believe that any of them can touch Wimbledon for sheer class. Nothing is left to chance, 50 of the 52 weeks in the calendar are bent up to ensure that the courts and the buildings are at their very best come the all-important fortnight.
If you sit alongside the court, as opposed from either end, a vantage point to which you have become familiar (that’s where the TV cameras are placed), you get quite a different perspective of play. Obviously, you cannot see the openings that are being created, being sideways on, but you do have a clearer picture – that is, if your eyes are quick enough to take it all in and your neck is flexible enough to watch the ball being hit to and fro – of the speed at which the modern game is played. The athleticism and fitness of the players are remarkable. The women, incidentally, lose nothing, or at least very little, in comparison with the men and the sheer weight of shot. Some of the women serve almost as fast as the men.
Grass. It would come hardly as a surprise to hear that I, a former cricketer, love grass. I do have a particular fondness for a closely cropped outfield, as smooth as a billiard table, much like my lawn, I’ll have you know. One of my colleagues at Malvern College mischievously (at least, I think he was being mischievous) publicly suggested that the Senior (the main cricket ground) should be left uncut and sowed with wildflowers. I retorted that it were less sacrilegious to give up the Chapel to Druidical worship. Thus, I take an intelligentinterest in the Wimbledon grass whenever I have been privileged enough to play on it. After the Championships have concluded – obviously – and only on the outside courts. Once you have adapted to the lower bounce than that encountered on hard courts, playing on grass is an absolute joy, provided it is well-maintained and true, which of course is always the case at Wimbledon. Between points, you look around and imagine playing in front of a full house, with royalty, both Windsor and tennis, watching on with interest. Once again, I think I am Rod Laver. I attempt a scorching service return only for the ball to fly out of court. Into the adjoining court, in fact, and down a gangway to disappear out of sight. I check to see whether anybody saw it. To my relief, there are only a couple of groundsmen in the vicinity, and they are more occupied with the pinpoint accuracy of their lawn mowers than the wild inaccuracy of my strokeplay. Dream on, Murtagh. In fact, that was what my partner accused me of.