Can we be serious? (Part One.)

Gary Burns takes a look at Wimbledon and British tennis past, present and future and asks if we can host the finest Grand Slam why can’t we win it?

This month hordes will descend on a leafy SW19 suburb; home to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. By Church or Somerset Road: journalists, team support, data analysts, web editors, bar staff, chefs, silver service, plate-waiters and a plethora of other providers. Not forgetting trusty ball-boys and ball-girls picked from local schools. Each and every one will squeeze in alongside hundreds of TV cameras and burly, overworked – oft unemployed? – chaps who drag tarpaulin across sixty feet of turf for a living. All barely leaving room for feasibly sexy Sue Barker and improbably squeaky Boris Becker to tell us how it all plays out. I will watch on, as I have done since I was a small child: hoping year on year for more than just a fleeting sense of national pride.

Such a hubbub, such a menagerie, such a wonderful bricolage of quaint traditions and more strident modern tastes: strawberries and cream served alongside sushi, straw sun hats obscuring Dolce & Gabbana shades, ornately carved picture rails and staircases beset by sleek plasma screens. The best, busiest and easily the most auspicious Grand Slam of them all. More than that though a truly unique and – lest we forget – quintessentially English event.

Yes, every year we rejoice in the grandeur, splendour, pomp and ceremony of Wimbledon fortnight. Considered, with some justification, the definitive tournament of any tennis season. The one all the players really want to win. A crying shame then that we Brits have more chance of putting togther a manned Mars mission than we do of finding a Wimbledon champion from these shores? The odds are in fact so depressingly remote, that questions regarding the possibility are rarely taken seriously these days; or even posited in the first place. A cheeky parliamentarian might chance it on a slow day in the House and they’d be guaranteed riotous guffaws all the way to the back benches if they did.

It seems tennis has once again fallen into the realm of Great British mystery, next to: ‘Where is Lord Lucan?’, ‘Why does ITV still broadcast?’ and “Who likes Piers Morgan enough to keep giving him work?’ Strange, as it only seems a few years ago that some in the sport felt passionately enough to stand up and implicate the chattering classes. The complex riddle over the sport’s apparent exclusion of anyone without their own court, or three-figure monthly club membership, had been solved. Tennis, in this country we’d realised, was merely a pursuit for those who could afford to play – and very few could. It had all fallen neatly into place, or so we thought?

One-time ‘Superbrat’ and three-time Wimbledon champion, John Patrick McEnroe, even quipped: “For the English, tennis is not so much a sport as a fortnight.” Considering I knew just one lad at school who belonged to a tennis club – and at least a hundred who played football or rugby competitively – he may have had a point? Though I realise mine is hardly a representative sample as I was brought up in Luton. Hardly a breeding ground for the country’s next fresh-faced tennis star? Or even a young – dashing – ribald new entry in to the world of equestrian three-day eventing, perchance? Although, reflecting on those criteria, perhaps it is a representative sample after all? Anyway, demographics and social factors aside, McEnroe’s stock has risen exponentially here in the UK. A huge turnaround for a man who was, for a time, thoroughly reviled in this country. Apparently for unseemly behaviour during his playing days. Though it might have been as much to do with his unruly perm or Celtic ancestry in less enlightened times? For some, more about dalliances with drugs or tawdry tales of his short, tempestuous marriage to Tatum O’Neill?

There were no shortage of reasons, it seemed, to pick up the collective cudgels and seek out the curly one. McEnroe though managed the British press with the same brilliant tenacity and verve as he did most opponents. When a young Alastair Campbell (then working for the Daily Mirror) enquired – with now familiar belligerence – whether Mac had any regrets regarding his on-court behaviour, McEnroe snapped back: “My only regret is that I have to deal with people like you.” (A response that would ring true among Campbell’s colleagues in later years.) Somewhat surprisingly then, Mac the mouth is now Mac the mentor and, to a burgeoning CV, can add some time as a consultant to the LTA (Lawn Tennis Association). An organisation he has criticised quite vociferously and openly in the past. Were he asked, he would probably do so again today; though perhaps more circumspectly than in previous dispatches.

When he won his three All England titles in the early eighties, there were no credible British rivals. Including Wimbledon McEnroe won seven Grand Slam finals out of the 11 he reached – not to mention three end of season Master’s tournaments; and a record 155 top-level tournaments during his career. Across tennis as a whole Britain could only muster a very short list of also-rans. Despite reaching a Grand Slam final, at the 1977 Australian Open, John Lloyd was one of them. (In fact he probably was the list?) He’d lost to America’s Vitas Gerulaitis in five sets, like many of his compatriots before and since – he lost well. Lloyd also never progressed beyond the third round of Wimbledon; often losing not so well. Sadly, even after McEnroe’s era had been and gone, more of the the same: Greg ‘clearly Canadian’ Rusedski made the US Open final 20 years later. He was duly battered into submission by bearded Australian, Patrick Rafter. Apart from his lacklustre performances at Wimbledon, that was Rusedski at his most English; on such form he could even have played cricket for England. Cricket though to Greg would probably have meant the surname of Jiminy, insect friend and confidante of Pinocchio.

The following summer of 1998 a very English ‘Tiger’ Tim Henman sparked ‘Henmania’ when making the semi-final at – yes – Wimbledon! He did brilliantly to repeat the feat in 1999 and successively in 2001 and ‘02. Henman also made the quarter-finals on four occasions in the intervening years and beyond. Easily our most consistent performer since little-known Jeremy Bates, who actually won Wimbledon in 1987. In (*ahem*) the mixed doubles with Jo Durie. Seriously though, despite two creditable fourth round appearances in 1992 and 1994, Bates was never quite the Wimbledon master. Which is perhaps a blessing, considering our tabloid press and their propensity for wordplay.

No, though Jeremy played his part on a couple of balmy June afternoons, Henman’s consistency in the tournament is unparalleled since the days of Fred Perry. He’s even had a large grassy hill – where fans gathered to watch his matches on a big screen – in the All England Club’s grounds unofficially named Henman Hill. An outstanding servant to British tennis in spite of the fact that, like most rare gems, you sense he was unearthed by accident. His achievements though are all the more remarkable for that.

Look out for parts two and three later this week…

Mr Gary Burns


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