Anyone for tennis?

Friday, June 30, 2006

Yesterday saw the playing of two very important tennis matches. One of them involved one of the best tennis players I’ve ever seen, playing against a complete no-hoper from Oxford; the other was between Roger Federer and Tim Henman. The results weren’t entirely dissimilar.

I have a rough rule of thumb that any sport for which a gold medal at the Olympics is not the ultimate achievement in the sport ought not to be in the games. This rule certainly applies to tennis, which was included in the first modern games of 1896, but then dropped after the 1924 games, only to return in Seoul in 1988.

That said, there are a few entertaining stories from the history of the men’s singles tournament.

John Pius Boland (who later became an MP and ardent proponent of Irish independence) was a student at Christ’s College, Oxford in 1896. He went to Athens on holiday and to watch the first modern Olympic games. At dinner in his hotel one night he met a Greek man from Egypt who was playing in the tennis tournament and persuaded Boland to enter too. As chance would have it, they met in the final. Boland considered forfeiting the match, but in the end thought better of it and turned up to beat his new friend 6-2, 6-2 and become the first Olympic tennis champion.

In 1906, by virtue of three walkovers, a Dutchman called Guus Kessler made it all the way to the semi-final round, where he lost 6-0, 6-0.

The 1908 title was lifted by Arthur “Wentworth” Gore who remains the oldest person ever to have won a Wimbledon singles title (aged 41, in 1909) and the oldest person ever to play in a Wimbledon singles final (aged 44 in 1912). In fact, he played in every Wimbledon tournament that was held between 1888 and 1927. Perhaps Tim Henman can take comfort from the thought that Gore won the title 21 years after first playing in the event.

In the Olympics of 1948 and 1952, an Iranian boxer, Emmanuel “Mike” Agassi lost in his first fight both times. In 1996, his youngest son, Andre, won Olympic tennis gold in Atlanta, beating Sergi Bruguera in the final 6-2, 6-3, 6-1.

Gareth manages to serve and give me the fingers at the same time.

I wasn’t quite as bad as Guss Kessler last night, but it was a close run thing. Gareth is easily the best tennis player I know. He’s also a lot more competitive than he pretends to be. I could tell it rather annoyed him (even if it didn’t remotely worry him) when I broke his first service game. At 1-1 in the first set, I was feeling pretty good. It was all rather downhill from there.

Dizzy Gillespie playing the trumpet.

The photos (thanks, Mike!) later revealed that I blow my cheeks out like Dizzy Gillespie hitting a high note every time I hit the ball. I’ve no idea why I do that – I certainly don’t try to – but even once our esteemed photographer had pointed it out mid-game, I couldn’t stop doing it. Or thinking about the fact that I was doing it.

Me dealing with a tricky backhand, in D flat.

Perhaps it was this mental lapse, or possibly Gareth’s considerable talent advantage, that led to me losing the first set 6-1 and the second 6-0.

My first encounter with tennis was watching Wimbledon with my mother – who, for two weeks every summer, becomes the most ardent tennis fan imaginable. She wept when Ivanisevic won in 2001. But then, so did I. And so did he. I’m choking up now just thinking about it.

My first racket was given to me by my father (I’m not sure how old I was) when he came back from a trip to Belgium armed with a pair of Donnay rackets – a small one for me, and an even smaller one for my sister. Largely, while mum was glued to the television and enraptured by Dan Maskell’s exceptional commentary for those two weeks, Caroline and I were in the garden winning Wimbledon ourselves over and over.

I must have been running out of puff by then.

Having decided that it was a sorry state of affairs that I no longer owned a tennis racket (and that I’d been unable to borrow one from any of my friends), at lunchtime yesterday I went and bought myself one. For £28, I didn’t think I’d be getting much worth writing home (or in one’s blog) about, but it’s an incredible piece of kit.

Fully strung, it weighs just over 300 grams – that’s less than a can of coke – and, even though I didn’t demonstrate it much when we played, it feels capable of great things. As the third set marched on to the same tune as the previous two, my new purchase had its moment of glory.

It may have been a moment of glory, but I still looked like Loius Armstrong trapped underwater when it happened.

0-2 down, and serving at 30-15, it produced an ace to Gareth’s (left-handed) forehand. This was exciting on several levels. For one thing, it was one of only a handful of first serves with which I managed to hit the court (let alone the service box); for another, it gave me two game points; but most importantly, it put me ahead in the ace count, 1-0.

I went on to win the game (my second and last of the match), but Gareth had new worries, and the final games became all about him trying to ace me, and me trying my best not to be aced. In what looked likely to be his final service game (at 4-1) he put what was likely to be his final first-serve (at 40-15) into the net. I secretly smirked.

Then he aced me (quite beautifully) with his second serve. The final game of the match consisted of me trying to ace him with every (first and oh-so-inevitable second) serve, so he won that to love without hitting a shot and the match was all over. Just as in the badminton a little less than two years ago, he had beaten me quite soundly.

Tennis may or may not belong in the Olympic games – and it’s a frustrating game for two people of differing abilities to play against each other – but last night was a lot of fun, and I’m delighted to report that my knee withstood not only the tennis, but also the moment of madness that saw Gareth and I have a 400 metre race round Bannister’s track on our way home (he won that too by the way – Gareth, not Bannister - by about 50 metres).

Result of Tennis - Men’s Singles
Gareth Forber (GBR) beat John McClure (GBR) 6-1, 6-0, 6-1

Le Plus Important...

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

An unlikely setting for an epic sporting encounter...

Having played a leading role in most of my convalescence, it was probably fitting that alcohol should once again have been involved in what I hope was the final stage. At five-thirty on Sunday morning, after a French wedding that will live long in the memory, all the necessary elements for recovery finally aligned.

It takes a clever friend with a very special brand of madness I can’t resist to understand that, after a wedding and when everyone else has gone to bed, the best possible thing to do is play badminton in the garden under floodlights until the sun comes up – that kind of thing seems obvious to me, and infinitely preferable to anything as mundane as sleeping, but surprisingly, we were the only players.

Badminton evolved from an Indian game that had no rules or defined playing area. There was no winner, just one, simple, shared objective – keep the shuttlecock in the air. It adhered perfectly to the Olympic ideal that values taking part above winning.

We played in the spirit in which the game was invented, across what had earlier served as a homemade dance floor. Neither of us scored a point, but I doubt we could have made more effort had it been an Olympic final.

I leapt for high shots, I lunged to retrieve the short and wide ones – I even managed to break a racket (pardon, Nico!) trying to retrieve a shot that flew a little too close to the marquee – and all without a single twinge in either my knee or my competitive spirit.

Later in the day I took a walk, half expecting my knee to be stiff, but if anything it felt better. I tried running a couple of hundred metres. It hurt a little, but then so did the other one; it’s been a while, and I wasn’t wearing running shoes.

I’m writing this as I sit on a train on my way back to the UK. I hope that tomorrow I’ll find an hour after work to go to the gym and move the knee-recovery process on. Who knows? Maybe I might even find the time to do some events before the end of the summer and you can all start reading about something other than the wretched state of my health.

The regular (frequently disappointed) visitor to this site will know that, in addition to being injured, I have been rather lazy recently. As ever, the excuses are legion but dull. I have been in need of some inspiration (I even thought about taking another trip to Ikea), and this weekend it has arrived with a vengeance.

All weekend, I played games as they should be played - trying to win, but too busy enjoying the attempt to worry about whether or not it was successful. Sport provides a vehicle for making new friends and basking in the warm glow of old ones. Put a man in a garden with a small child and you have a man and a child looking at each other awkwardly; add a ball to the equation and suddenly there is laughter and play, and later there will be stories: of triumph and disaster, of near misses and moments of brilliance, of mistakes and achievements – of life.

I played this Finnish game in France with a Mexican bandit. It was that kind of weekend.


UPDATE - I didn't make it to the gym last night, but tonight Gareth has very kindly agreed to beat me at tennis. I don't have time to write a preview - if you really need one, tune in to BBC1, BBC2 or BBCi any time for the next fortnight and you'll soon work out what tennis is all about.