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


Clia Toris said...

See the real tournament fave at

adem said...

Another one off the list, well done!

I haven't played tennis for about 13 years, but think I may have to pick up a racket over the summer.

Stevie said...

My first visit to your blog results in being introduced to you playing tennis!! And in tracky bots as well!

Surely you should be at least simulating olympic conditions - that way you might have got more games towards the end in true Tim Henman choking style. It then would have needed more 4 double fault games from you to snatch defeat.

Daniel said...


I have been trying to search for Undertaker videos or dvd's to buy.

Can you recommend something in case you know where to order?