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Mark Steyn

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New Balls

I was sorry to see my compatriot Eugénie Bouchard lose in the Wimbledon ladies' final. A Montrealer, she's named after the Queen's granddaughter, Princess Eugenie, yet bears the illustrious francophone surname of the former future président de la république himself. Most unusual. Eugenie's mum, Julie LeClair, named her twin sister after Eugenie's sister Princess Beatrice and her brother after Prince William. My friend Dr Roy apparently has a rival for the hitherto not terribly competitive title of Quebec's most ardent monarchist.

I wrote the piece below for The Sunday Telegraph 15 years ago - June 1999 - and the jokes about the British players were so timeless I merrily recycled them through the ensuing decade. Indeed, I have a vague feeling I used some of them as far back as the early Nineties, on "Loose Ends" and in The Evening Standard. But last year, with the characteristic contempt for tradition that characterizes today's generation, Andy Murray went and won the men's singles, the first Briton to do so since Fred Perry in 1936. And, aside from trashing Johnny Foreigner in straight sets, he swatted all my old reliable useless-Brit gags into the garbage can of history, leaving my poor little Sunday Telegraph piece looking like old strawberries squashed by the Wimbledon roller.

In turbulent times, the consistent mediocrity of the home team in SW19 was one of the few reassuring constants on an ever shifting landscape. And then suddenly no more. The big question was: would the rampant unstoppable Brit colossi repeat the triumphs of 2013 this year? Alas, no. Defending his title, Mr Murray was knocked out in the quarter-finals. So, while we commiserate, SteynOnline is herewith dusting off all my now momentarily obsolescent jokes for old time's sake on the off-chance they'll be newly relevant again. In Wimbledon, where the other man's grass was always greener, this is how things looked from the parched end:

June in south London, in a corner of an English field that is forever foreign: on Centre Court a surly Yank is whacking aces at a charmless Czech; across the languid haze of a perfect English summer afternoon (54 degrees and light drizzle) drifts the sound of simulated female orgasm from the two grunting Brazilian nymphettes on Court Number 1; far away, on Court Number 73, a British player is being knocked out in straight sets by a 12-year-old midget from the South Sandwich Islands; and, as if by clockwork, the air is suddenly rent by the traditional cry of "You cannot be serious, man!" as John McEnroe finds the strawberry tent expects him to pay £23.95 a punnet ("includes two to four actual strawberries and use of complimentary serving utensil").

Ah, Wimbledon. It's as English as Greg Rusedski, as discreet as the advertising on the Ladies' Number 1 seed's thong. A relic of a more genteel sporting era, it's the only international competition from which you won't be expelled if traces of grass are found in your urine, though you might well be if traces of your urine are found in the grass. Wimbledon's Lawn Tennis Championship is now the last oasis of green in the blaring orange clay of the rest of the Grand Slam tournaments: sadly, Britain's chaps aren't very good on clay, except when it comes to having feet of them. But, for this year's competition, the nation's hopes are riding high, following last year's surprisingly good showing, when several British players achieved a personal best and made it through to the second day, due to rain postponing their opening matches.

But, of course, no one comes to Wimbledon to see British players. We come to see foreigners - Americans, French, Swedes, Germans, Czechs, even Croats, for this is where the world's great geopolitical struggles are reduced to two men battling for the honour of their country and a sponsorship deal for their shorts. It was Goran Ivanisevic who in 1992 became the first Croat to make the Wimbledon semi-finals, an impressive achievement since, as the tennis correspondents pointed out, Croats aren't known for playing on grass - presumably because at that time, thanks to Slobodan Milosevic, most of the grass in Croatia was scorched. If Wimbledon had been played on rubble, we would probably have had the first all-Croat final. "The Croat with the big serve," the BBC called him. "The Croat with the big Serb" would have been more fun: Ivanisevic marked the dawn of a dangerous decade for Wimbledon when professional tennis seemed to be dwindling down to two serving machines firing off aces too fast for the naked eye to see, and old-timers pined nostalgically for the great personalities of the game, such as, um, Borg and, er, Lendl.

But then at Wimbledon so much has changed about the game - not least the game. Wimbledon started in 1872 as a croquet club. If only they had kept that up, we could have enjoyed the sight of an enraged McEnroe hurling his mallet at the umpire a century later. But a couple of years later Major Walter Clopton Wingfield patented modern lawn tennis, and, correctly anticipating they were never going to get anywhere trying to sell US television rights to croquet, Wimbledon decided to switch. In 1877 the club introduced the first Gentlemen's Singles lawn tennis championship, won by an old Harrovian rackets player called Spencer Gore. He was very different from today's star champions: he wore long cotton trousers with vast acres of empty white advertising space that Adidas or Nike would die for. At that time, the British dominated the tennis scene, thanks to their gruelling training regime: on the day of the big match a chap would take the train up to Paddington, drop in at the Savoy for a haunch of venison and some spotted dick washed down with a couple of brandies, toddle down to SW19, change into the heavy underwear and a thick long-sleeved pullover, and dispatch Johnny Foreigner in three sets. Unfortunately, the Americans and Australians then introduced radical concepts like getting up early in the morning and practising.

May Sutton was the first overseas winner in 1905, taking the Ladies' title back to the US. Australia's Norman Brookes won the men's singles in 1907. In the next nine decades Arthur Gore and Fred Perry were the only winning British men, and BBC commentators learned a whole new language to encompass the nation's doomed faith in John Lloyd, Buster Mottram, Jeremy Bates. . . . "Let's keep you posted on the British players," said Des Lynam. "Andrew Castle not having a very good time. . . ." Soon, like Warwick Castle, he was history.

"Always difficult for the British players here," as Barry Davies likes to say. "So much is expected..." Barry's note of wistful regret is all too genuine: after all, most failed British tennis players are hoping to parlay their cliffhanger 1-6, 0-6, 1-6 first-round match against Sampras into a lifetime gig as a Wimbledon commentator, and Des and Barry don't need any more of them grubbing around the BBC presentation box.

We are fortunate, though, that many of our tennis greats survived into the modern era. Until the early Nineties, at Wimbledon finals Dan Maskell could always be relied on to spot some 1920s Ladies' Champion in the crowd. "There's Kitty Godfree," he'd say. "Now 93 and still Britain's highest-ranked world player." Now, alas, even Dan is gone, the voice of Wimbledon stilled.

In a turbulent world he was reassuringly unruffled. Like a dowager on the Tube declining to catch the eye of the nutter across the aisle, he sailed serenely past the temper tantrums. McEnroe would be snapping his racket in two and shouting obscenities at the umpire, but Dan would confine himself to a few technical observations: "McEnroe will really have to work on his beckhend in this next set," he'd murmur, as the young champion roared "mutha------!" and stomped off, possibly to work on his beckhend.

In the commentary box they were almost as worked up. In 1990, the year Martina Navratilova stacked up the all-time record of nine championships, while Dan was coolly admiring Martina's beckhend crosscourt pass, his excitable confrere Gerald Williams was drooling less technically: "A rampant Martina! And she could become rampant very easily in this match and it could become an absolute cascade! A rampant Martina!"

Wimbledon had come a long way since 1926 when the Duke of York - later King George VI - competed in the Gentlemen's Doubles with Sir Louis Greig. History does not record anyone at the time describing His Royal Highness as "a rampant Duke! And it could become an absolute cascade"! Truly, it was a sport of kings in those days. But, in the post-war era, as the Australians embarked on their quarter-century domination, Wimbledon was mocked as a competition of "shamateurs" - faux amateurs, whose earnings from the game were sufficiently murky to enable them to meet the entry qualifications. The first "open" championship in 1968 transformed Wimbledon, and with hindsight it's amazing that the old system lasted so long. But it's a serious business now, and, if you think many of the present players lack grace and personality, look in the crowd at the hatchet-faced stage dads and grumpy lesbian coaches running their careers. For these people, Wimbledon's just another stop on the tour.

But not to the British, for whom a fortnight in SW19 will always symbolise all the glamour and elegance of the London season and for whom no price is too high for the privilege of sitting between Michael Winner and a GMTV weather girl. It's more than tennis; it's about the time-honoured rituals of British life - like the way the Duchess of Kent comes out to present the trophy and always stops for a word with the black ball-boy. You don't get that at the French Open. And who knows? Maybe among this year's crop of plucky British hopefuls there'll be the next Annabel Croft.

~from The Sunday Telegraph, June 20th 1999

from The Sunday Telegraph, July 5, 2014

 

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