Back in love with Wimbledon… In the year of the drop shot

I’ve rediscovered Tennis… And the season’s only half over.


Murray should never have risked mentioning the outgoing Prime Minister

The Wimbledon men’s final was blitzed by Andy Murray this afternoon, in three disappointingly light sets against first-time Canadian grand slam finalist, Milos Raonic.

Suited under a glaring surprise sun, lodged at the end of a Royal Box front row packed with some of his distant cousins, the Wimbledon Men’s final is the only time I’ve felt remotely sorry for David Cameron during the past three weeks. In his winner’s interview with the ever calmly-startled Sue Barker, Murray should never have risked mentioning the outgoing Prime Minister on the way to a distracting punch-line. The Prime Minister was always going to earn some boos, even from the hallowed stands of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Ah yes, All England. The Home championship for the British Number One, for now, and another win picked up under the gaze of the also present Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Bieber or Shatner keeping the Maple Leaf aloft?

On Raonic’s side, there was the odd flash of red and white but it was hard to pick out any Canadian heavy-weights in one of the most partisan championship games. Sod the chance that Canadian PM Justin Trudeau could have grabbed a last minute flight, but couldn’t there have been space for a Bieber or Shatner keeping the Maple Leaf aloft?

It certainly won’t be the last grand slam final for tennis’s heaviest server, but on the other side of the net Murray, who really is playing his peak tennis, would had surely had momentum enough to rip the trophy from the hands of any of top seed who failed to make it to this final stage. In the players’ boxes, commentary runs and stands there were found the increasingly interesting phenomena of past champions, now more than ever warming to coaching roles. Much of this year’s Murray coverage fell on his re-appointment of the ever-stoic, rather wry, Ivan Lendl. Slotting back into his coaching team, he’s the rediscovered cog that’s already guided the Scot back to Grand Slam contention.

Raonic, evidently with his own fine thirst for improvement has managed to secure the consultancy, if not the full-time coaching, of John McEnroe. The great American ambassador of sporting temperament mixing practice shots with the young Canadian alongside his commitment to broadcasters either side of the Atlantic. In the Centre Court stands, chatting merrily, sat Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker. One the former coach, but confirmed friend of the sublime but nobly ageing Roger Federer and the other the current, we can still assume, coach of the missed Novak Djokovic, both free to enjoy the final from an objective distance. A few seats down, the steady steely gaze of Bjorn Borg fell on the court.

Simmering, lingering rivalry, endlessly and silently repeating

Surrounded by that simmering, lingering rivalry, endlessly and silently repeating the clashes of the 1980s in this rise of the ‘Super-Coach’, clearly much to the amusement of the BBC, it was a tournament of two halves as things so often turn out to be. A first week riven by rain spells before the Club’s fourth ever, oddly named, People’s Sunday heralded blue skies over London for most of the second week.


Wimbledon, by its very nature, is one tournament that can reassure the world that Britain has not fallen to chaos.

Today’s heightened replay of the Queens final may have been disappointingly quick, but helped close a brief chapter. Coming just after Lewis Hamilton’s win at Silverstone, before Heather Watson astonishing addition to British wins in the Mixed-Doubles final, ahead of tonight’s European Championship showdown between surprise Champions Portugal and hosts France, it helped draw the curtain on an early summer onslaught of sport that’s desperately tried to grab some attention from the news rapids that have swirled around the British Isles since 23 June. Wimbledon, by its very nature, is one tournament that can reassure the world that Britain has not fallen to chaos. Those tuning in from overseas expecting hulking cyborgs crushing skulls into the worn lawn of SW19 based on the comments of some European leaders who should know better were to be disappointed .

“England has collapsed politically, monetarily, constitutionally and economically,” said Dutch PM, and general Cameron ally, Mark Rutte in the days following the Referendum result. When quizzed on what the country did have left, “well, BBC” came the reply.

Although the country resolutely remains in bat on a sticky wicket, against all odds and government poking, the BBC is fairly unruffled and assuming its normal level of national importance. True, David Dimbleby’s irritation might not be weathering the storm too well, but the BBC stands remarkably unaffected at the close of the Cameron regime, while most other of Cameron’s goals, for the economy, for Europe, remain in uncertain tatters.

The BBC is fairly unruffled and assuming its normal level of national importance.

And there’s few times the Corporation likes to preen those feathers than Wimbledon. In fact, she’s upped her service game.

To labour the sports metaphor, to labour the point (drone), this increasingly feels like the year of the drop shot.

Either a sublime change of speed and showcase of agility that resoundingly wins a point and rapturous applause or… A deafeningly close miss, catching the net with the full face of the ball that normally leaves you helplessly prostrate and agonisingly close.

If Raonic had a bit of a nightmare with his drop shots today, the Prime Minister will be regretting his missed shots far more.


Raonic sounded like the Foz chatting to himself in the mirror.

On court. it certainly wasn’t a classic year for base-line grunts, or servegasms. Raonic’s intriguing utterances during rallies sounded like the Foz chatting to himself in the mirror. But still, at the start of the journey that ended today, this is the year I rediscovered my admiration for the sport.

In a complete lack of defence, I’ve done very little for the last three weeks or so. Ostensibly I was building some websites and peppering business plans with adjectives. Really, the political debate, Glastonbury, European Championships and Wimbledon have given me very little time to concentrate on anything. In what will most certainly go down as hardly a classic year for any of them, they’ve each managed their jaw-dropping moments – basically: every news bulletin, Gibb, Wales and Djokovic in no particular order).

Wimbledon under racquet


But Wimbledon’s been my sporting highlight. It would have been a perfect year to attend, but work consciousness stayed my hand when last Sunday’s tickets unexpectedly came on the market. Next year I’ll make a renewed effort, having never been. I did win a seat in the public ballot once, but ended up with that letter arriving at the wrong house and me realising too late. Rats. Again, as with most things on this blog, that’s a tale for another time.

This year, with Arthur and Merlin resolutely refusing to return to Britain, Wimbledon lived up to its prime position as an oasis of calm.

Wimbledon’s been a staple of summer television for many years. The kind of gentle purple and green behemoth that’s always possessed an unmatched power to knock things off the BBC schedule. I grew up with it of course. My early teens coincided with the rise of Sampras and the back hand rallies and aces of lean finals. Over the years my interest waned as the summers filled up. But this year, with Arthur and Merlin resolutely refusing to return to Britain, Wimbledon lived up to its prime position as an oasis of calm.

And I grew up with it because of the BBC. The BBC and Wimbledon are almost indistinguishable in late June, early July. It’s a relationship unthinkable for any other sporting event, as football, motor racing and cricket have shown over the years.

It’s deep foundations in British culture are obvious to the point of perplexity of course. That’s partly down to the Championship’s foreign support. It’s difficult to evaluate Wimbledon objectively. Yes, it’s the oldest championship, in the heartland of tennis’ development. But really, are those accents, many American, Australian and French, all of whom have their own Grand Slams, really genuine in their belief that this is the pinnacle? Yes, I think they are. Otherwise, how could those outfit regulations remain?

Still prone to spewing some sickeningly sycophantic praise

Wimbledon’s a heady mix, and always surprising in its warm familiarity. In the commentary box, one-time umpire David Mercer’s voice has travelled further towards John Cleese’s, while the divisive Andrew Castle almost managed to out-trend Stevie Wonder on Twitter tonight as the singer readied himself to take the stage at Hyde Park. Castle’s one of those rare, bridging characters who’s managed to get stuck into the tennis (on BBC) and the EU Referendum (on LBC) in the past few weeks. And he’s still prone to spewing some sickeningly sycophantic praise for players during the dead spots of the game.

His tribute to all-round sportsman and brilliant cricketer Tim Henman still rankles all these years on, and Henman’s presence in the commentary box to help Castle heap further praise on the current generation makes for some kind of horrid, self-reproducing, fawning encomium. Perhaps it’s elements like that, the unending deference while players swear and test the ground with rackets, the nationally self-declared status as underdog in our own back garden, so un-British, is what helps it all feel incredible British.

There’s a tonic for that gin, though.

A prime example of why you can never judge someone’s personality from their playing days

In what seemed a particularly overflowing box of commentators this year, Pat Cash was again on hand to remind us about 1987 . But Andy Roddick was gone after his wide-eyed brilliance last year. In his place came Jim Courier, a prime example of why you can never judge someone’s personality from their playing days. His quiet, mildly fraggle-ish concentration under cap on courts of the 1990s didn’t endear me to him. How great he’s not only articulate but in possession of a sense of humour. The freshly retired Lleyton Hewitt was on hand too, ready to bolster the BBC’s strong line-up of champions. And the addition of those two newly appointed Davis Cup captains added another web of intrigue to the fabric of ‘Super Coaches’ hanging over SW19. Tennis is a sport as routed in national pride as individualism .

Courier was joined by fellow Americans McEnroe, Lindsay Davenport and Tracy Austin who all helped dipped some of the critique into Americanisms. But I’m not sure Sue Barker noticed. For the most part, she was left in quiet isolation. That was partly with the banishment of the freelancing free-wheelers John Inverdale and Clare Balding.

Barker looked  like a lone skipper on the bridge of an interstellar ship.

Reduced to a one-woman army Sue Barker was often alone in her extraordinary studio. Opening camera pans made her look like a lone skipper on the bridge of an interstellar ship, selflessly transporting cryogenic pods transporting across the vastness of space , each containing a tennis player whose BBC card’s expired. And Barker’s access to the competitors was as immense as her technology. I’m not even sure all of them were holograms.

Captain Sue Barker at Wimbledon

All thoughts of classic repeats that used to mark water-logged sessions were lost as soon as the Centre Court roof was installed.

They often materialised beside her captain’s chair as production managers who’d hastily pushed a chair into shot hid behind parts of the bridge set. But there’s more to this immense BBC operation than that. It’s as powerful as the Club rules, as the greying skies. The BBC often found time for the biggest stars to record asides. This year there was Serena’s poem, Andy’s odd biographical trawl through a decade of “er…” interviews. All thoughts of classic repeats that used to mark water-logged sessions were lost as soon as the Centre Court roof was installed. But even during this year’s precipitous opening week, there was little chance of Sir Cliff sing-alongs that seem so resiliently 20th century. I was reminded of that this weekend as he hung around a corner to surprise and congratulate Serena Williams, caught on BBC cameras just before he confirmed that  he’d shortly be suing the BBC.

The Championship theme’s title ‘Light and Tuneful‘ is not ironic but descriptive.

But now the canny organisation has different tools to attack the weather with; all many of content for pauses and delays. There was even time for a self-congratulatory dig into the history of the theme tune, interviewing library music maestro Keith Mansfield about the famous tune that he wrote in half a day.

That’s a theme self-described by the BBC as “much-loved”. Quite correct, engrained and familiar as it is, and as it reaches 40 this year earning a remix from Phil Hartnoll of Orbital. In reality, its title ‘Light and Tuneful‘ is not ironic but descriptive, and 40 years ago it was arbitrarily picked from library with no thought of national institution status.

The BBC and Wimbledon’s symbiotic relationship, the perfect blend of two of Britain’s finest creations – bureaucratic, ritualistic tradition carried in style – are more noticeable than ever. I know, because The Guardian issued a photo series reflecting it this weekend. The BBC’s own missed drop shot of 2015’s Wimbledon 2day is already meticulously archived away.

The true champion is of course tennis.

But aside from the BBC, and the Gormeghastian ruleset that dictates every step of the All England Club, the true champion is of course tennis. A follower of team sports as I am, nothing touches the purity of individual bouts. And tennis really has that and more, quite incredibly for a non-contact sport. The discipline and physical training that reaches new levels with each generation. The combination of skill, deft touches and power play, any of which can be applauded as much the other. And there’s plenty of room for individual lapse, boiling over and irrationality to rip through the discipline. The mental battle, all the better on grass and dust at Wimbledon but catering for different surfaces and environments through the epic, well-moneyed, year-round tour. Built on history, but always standing at the front of the sports crowd, with athletes clamouring for respect and praise.

The question that got #GOAT trending on social media

When, cry the Americans, will Serena Williams, hailed as a glimmer of hope in a difficult week, be enshrined as the greatest American athlete of all time? It’s the question that got #GOAT trending on social media once again.

Most of all there’s the games scoring system, so perfectly developed. Seemingly bizarre, but able to turn on a die and pull out moments of tension and glory as much as emotion and frustration for players who are utterly wound up in their very public private space. Like few other sports, the length of the match is unpredictable.

A wonderfully arbitrary end

And as there should be, there’s also room for nonsense and eccentricity. After Heather Watson’s difficult fall in the first round of the Single’s tournament, she closes the Championship by claiming the Mixed Doubles with a partner she’d never played with before. A wonderfully arbitrary end; one that secured a fourth British champion of the day after Murray and the brilliant Jordan Whiley and Gordon Reid in the Ladies’ Wheelchair Doubles and Men’s Wheelchair singles respectively.

Now I feel a bit robbed, all built up with reheated tennis appreciation with nowhere to go for the immediate future. But I’ve plenty of fresh knowledge to take through the ATP tour probably onto September’s US Open, perhaps with a splash of Davis Cup. Still, it’s great to have it back. I might even pick up a racket again this summer. I’m sure I still have that one stunning serve in me every match if little else.

Game, Set, Match

They don’t like to make a meal of it

Before that other theme Sporting Occasion could ring the close of the tournament, there was time to add one more feather to Auntie’s cap. Caught on camera meeting the rather lank haired Benedict Cumberbatch, Britain’s now twice Wimbledon Champion fist-pumped when the actor confirmed to him, and indeed Twitter, that he’s not only filming Sherlock but the new series will again be three episodes.

The BBC might be running the UK’s political parties close with regime changes afoot at Doctor Who and Top Gear, but they don’t like to make a meal of it. Keep it at orange slices.

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