Saturday, 4 April 2015
First watched : 1973
My mum and gran were always huge Wimbledon fans so it's almost certain that I saw something of earlier tournaments but I'm putting Wimbledon coverage here because the first thing I definitely recall is the teen hysteria surrounding a 17-year old Swede with his flowing blonde locks who made it to the quarter-finals. Bjorn Borg even got a feature in It's Here And Now which was a bit strange considering he hadn't released a record. Perhaps he practised in his bedroom with a guitar. He was put out by Roger Taylor, the last British male to make the semis for nearly 30 years ( though in truth he probably only got there because a lot of the big guns were boycotting Wimbledon that year ).
Borg became my first favourite and I was pleased he went on to win it five times in a row after growing a scruffy beard to scare away the teenyboppers. After he lost to McEnroe in the 1981 Final - a tournament I followed almost entirely through the papers as I was on a long walking holiday in the Lakes for most of that fortnight - he never played there again, a boycott of the 1982 tournament for some reason or other became a complete retirement the following year. He had his ups and downs out of the game with divorce, a suicide attempt, mixed fortunes as a businessman and a bonkers attempt at a comeback in the nineties when he tried to turn back the clock by using his old wooden rackets. He later joined the Champions tour and seemed more content although in 2006 he put his trophies up for auction until John McEnroe and other champs talked him out of it.
Mum and Gran didn't mind Borg but they had their pet hates. Mum's was Billie Jean King whose career choice to have an abortion made her absolutely beyond the pale and Chris Evert became a huge favourite, despite her crushingly boring playing style, just because she could beat King. Gran's target was Jimmy Connors whose brash , pugilistic manner and graceless demeanour on court lowered the tone at SW19. Arthur Ashe's famous triumph against him in 1975 was hugely applauded.
The first tournament where I recall several events was unsurprisingly 1977 with Virginia Wade's triumph in Jubilee year. Sue Barker reached her career high as a losing semi-finalist and the obscure British player John Lloyd secured a victory he still dines out on against the cannonball-serving Roscoe Tanner in an earlier round. That brings me to a perennial bugbear about the coverage; the assumption that we're more interested in how mediocre British journeymen are doing than anything else and automatically want them to beat the great players when they come up against them. This was at its worst in 1993 when some guy called Andrew Foster had a competitive third set against Pete Sampras and the commentators went along with the crowd's ugly delusion that he could turn the match around. Fortunately the mikes didn't pick up Sampras's "Hasta la vista motherfuckers" to the crowd when he came through the tiebreak. on his way to the first of seven titles.
For the women it was even worse, a situation accurately summed up by a Spitting Image sketch which ran "Passer-by bt Jo Durie, Parking cone beat Anne Hobbs" and so on. Pity poor Laura Robson trying to overturn nearly 40 years of non-achievement in the women's game.
1977 also saw the emergence of the young John McEnroe the teenage qualifier who fought his way to the semi-final against Connors. I feared that might be his one shot at glory but of course he went on to three titles , gaining his revenge on Connors with an utter annihilation in the 1984 final, and oodles of controversy for his on-court tantrums. He introduced a new insult to the UK when he called an umpire "the pits of the world" in 1981. Like his friend Borg, McEnroe faded rather early , distracted by family life but is now the star of the BBC commentary team.
That is actually much improved from my early days with toffs like the crusty Dan Maskell "Oh that angle didn't exist" and the tedious Anne Jones a former champion who looked like the back end of a bus, Unfortunately we still have to put up with "Our Ginny" whose talent for stating the obvious is only leavened by her curious habit of putting the emphasis on THE wrong word. The best in those days was probably Gerald Williams. I remember being shocked in the early eighties when he came out from behind the mike to co-present the highlights programme with Des Lynam : never has the phrase "a face for radio" seemed more apt. He broke up the partnership when he moved over to Sky and since then we've had to put up with the slouching slug John Inverdale whose high reputation baffles me. I've hated him since his boring Drivetime show replaced the excellent Five-A-Side in 1993 ; it seems like I'm the only person who still holds a candle for the original Radio 5. I was rather hoping his comments about Marion Bartoli's looks would sink him but no such luck.
Besides being no oil painting himself Inverdale's comments were misplaced because on the looks spectrum of female tennis players Bartoli is actually somewhere in the middle. What on earth would he find to say about the overweight Lindsay Davenport, hairy Arantcha Sanchez-Vicario, jut-jawed Justine Henin or the sasquatch , Pam Shriver ? Yes of course it's a bit sexist to be discussing female tennis players' looks but how else could you stay interested in the women's game when for such long periods it's been so uncompetitive ?
Martina Navratilova actually seemed like a bit of a flake as a young Czech in the seventies when she rarely justified her seeding but once she'd defected, gone blond and muscled up she dominated the eighties and it was a welcome relief when Steffi Graff arrived to put a stop to that. Since her hey-day we've had to put up with the repellent Williams sisters and their supremely annoying father and I look forward to their retirement. I've tended to back under-achieving lookers - anyone remember Andrea Temesvari or Bettina Bunge ? - and I'm hoping current fave Sabine Lisicki can break the duck.
Talking of seedings why do Wimbledon slavishly follow the world rankings when they know that the grass courts render many players' past records redundant ? Hence you had the annual embarrassment of Guillermo Vilas , continually seeded three or four but always going out in the first round because he couldn't play on the surface. Mats Wilander was another top player who was absolutely wretched at Wimbledon.
There's no doubt which was my least favourite tournament - 1985. I absolutely loathed Boris Becker the boorish brute from Germany. There was an air of inevitability about his progress to the title despite injuries and match points against him . In the fourth round he twisted an ankle against Tim Mayotte, a man who seemed to put being the anithesis to McEnroe on court above actually winning anything. Becker was trailing and ready to quit but Mayotte was reluctant to accept his concession and lost the match when Becker resumed after lengthy treatment. He then beat Kevin Curren who'd removed the heavyweights, Connors and McEnroe, for him, in the Final. As sadly predicted Curren never made the final again. I'm grateful to Edberg and Stich for restricting Becker to three titles.
For all my gripes I'll still be watching avidly this June.