Wimbledon: sporting methadone

With no football on, footie fans have become the equivalent of tramps looking for discarded cigarette butts. Some are even turning to tennis.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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For UK sports fans, football is usually king – other sports appear as stand-ins for the main attraction. Yes, the Cricket World Cup or boxing, for example, might occasionally pique our interest, but it’s usually for a non-sporting reason like forensic pathology (in the case of the murdered then not-murdered cricket coach Bob Woolmer) or a desire to see Mike Tyson struggle to remember what the prison counsellor said about ‘seeing red’. Whatever the spectacle, rest assured our gaze quickly returns to that most beautiful of games.

Except of course, during the summer. This is traditionally the time when sports fans, deprived of footie, scrabble around for their sporting methadone, and, with no European Championship or World Cup this year, this turns into the multi-channel TV equivalent of tramps looking for discarded cigarette butts. There are few sights less edifying (save for The Friday Night Project or those men that like to don giant babygros and pretend to be pre-toddlers).

Out of desperation, then, many turn to a variant of tennis called Wimbledon. The drawback to this placebo is that every year, debate on the dismal state of the British game ensues, at the end of which the football season starts and the handwringing is shelved until next year. Following the Brits’ earlyround exodus – only Tim Henman and Katie O’Brien made it to the second round – this year looks like being no exception.

But what if the British identification of tennis with Wimbledon is part of the problem? What if our dearth of competitive players stems from an overemphasis on Wimbledon at the expense of the game itself? Our lack of decent players is certainly not for want of the willing. Every year during the Wimbledon fortnight, we become a nation of tennis-heads, packing out local courts, attempting forehand drives like Andy Roddick, and disputing line calls like there’s an umpire. And every year, as the realisation hits us that tennis isn’t as easy as the telly makes it look, we lose interest. Meanwhile, the half-a-million or so who actually follow the sport continue their ghetto-like existence at their private clubs (1). All wearing non-marking soles no doubt.

Wimbledon fans and tennis fans, you see, have different relationships to the sport. The former, driven to it either by the suspension of other interests, or the fact of a blue rinse, see it as a chance to cheer on their favourite, be it a gawky Scottish Nationalist, or the unlikely superhero, Tiger Tim. Either way, tennis is less important than who’s playing it.

It’s in just such a context that the crisis of modern game is often formulated: ‘Contemporary men’s tennis is boring because there are just no characters anymore.’ Where are the modern-day equivalents of the tantrums of John McEnroe, the drollery of Henri Leconte, or the embarrassing right-wing politics of Buster Mottram? Nowadays it’s just an endless stream of identikit players, with only ‘a temper’, or lack of, to differentiate them.

Tennis fans are different. Their interest entails a knowledge of the Semi-Western grip and the mechanics of serving. They also follow the ATP tour and appreciate gaunt pathos where Wimbledon fans saw Ivan Lendl. Likewise, they see not Federer’s nationality, but the liquid ease with which he performs. Theirs is not a Manichean take on the establishment versus the rebels, Sampras versus Agassi; it’s a technical appreciation of contrasting styles of play.

If such an approach seems a little earnest, all it really means is that tennis is not only more than Wimbledon, it is not Wimbledon. Wimbledon is a place where gales of laughter accompany either a) a pigeon’s appearance or b) an ill-timed ‘Go on Roger’. Tennis, on the other hand, not only denotes a hard-won technical accomplishment, but a sport that continues all year long.

The annual enthusiasm for Wimbledon, if it’s to really generate something more than a Union flag face-paint rash, and its corollary, a ‘where art thou, Fred Perry’ angst, really ought to be transformed into an enthusiasm for tennis as a sport, not a refuge for displaced sports fans. Or else, come August each year, interest in tennis will slink back under the shadow of the real thing. Come on Everton.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

(1) Wimbledon’s grass-roots game going to seed, Guardian, 27 June 2007

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