With the grass court season getting underway, four excellent books are now available featuring The Championships from very different angles.
THE PEOPLE’S WIMBLEDON: MEMORIES & MEMORABILIA FROM THE LAWN TENNIS CHAMPIONSHIPS by Richard Jones (Pitch Publishing)
Life is about a lot of things. Of course, it is. One is about collecting memories. Preferably fond ones. Ones that sustain well-being, lift spirits and generally gets endorphins dancing. It could be seeing a child take its first steps. Hearing a favourite musician performing a favourite piece of music. Experiencing fun times with friends.
Or harvested from the tennis Championships at the All England Club, represented as quintessentially British but also known, respected and loved globally. Being there or watching it on the ‘box’ stirs up the memory cells of millions. One of those millions is Richard Jones, a charming chap and Tennis Threads colleague with a genuine affection for all things Wimbledon. And he has written this beautifully produced book, as the title suggests, from the spectators point of view, although officials, broadcasters, journalists, coaches and players also get a look in among the contributors.
The individuals, of course, cover a wide range of experiences.
As Jones writes, ‘When people take a nostalgic look back at their visits to Wimbledon, certain themes recur. These include travelling to Wimbledon, ticket ballots and queuing, impressions of the Club and grounds, favourite players and memorable matches, ‘people watching’, and food and drink. One theme, however, is mentioned more than any other. Watching Wimbledon on BBC Television is one of the highlights of the British summer. The BBC’s wall-to-wall, free-to-air coverage has been a fortnight-long advertisement for The Championships for more than half-a-century, each year prompting thousands of people to make their first visit to the All England Club.’
We discover even the journey to the tournament can be memorable, albeit by either horse-drawn carriage, horse-powered vehicles, train, plane or shanks’s pony. Obtaining a ticket that probably at least ten other people want is another; perhaps through the public ballot or queuing. As is finding a vantage point if that ticket is limited to the grounds. Even if it is just standing outside the players’ office to collect autographs. You can add the changes in dress code with the increase of the leisure industry. And, of course, there is the witnessing of great matches and forming a fondness for particular players (with Aussie Ken Rosewall, a four-time final loser, highlighted).
Anecdotes abound. One fan tells of how he met his tennis hero Arthur Ashe and another of how she spoke to Roger Taylor and discussed physical ailments years after witnessing the Brit stopping the emerging Bjorn Borg in his tracks on Centre Court.
The lavish, illustrated tome is in two parts. Memories of Wimbledon is the first. The second? Wimbledonia, going through the development of ephemera such as programmes, postcards, photographs, books and films.
Jones makes it clear the debt he owes the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, with the late Alan Little, the honorary historian, among those thanked.
It is, as Ian Hewitt, chairman of the All England Club writes in the foreword “a book for people who love Wimbledon. It will appeal to fans of all ages”.
Hewitt adds: “I admire his (Jones’) passion, his determination and his desire to share his enthusiasm with all Wimbledon fans.”
The All England Club celebrates a century of staging tennis’ No.1 event next year, but the history of the tournament goes back to the more modest setting of the original site in Worple Road relatively close by. And Jones is across it all. Giving those behind the scenes, due credit for helping to create and maintain Wimbledon’s reputation as tennis’ theatre of dreams. But overall, the author gives us an opportunity to dip into a unique piece of social history and discover how the magic of the tournament has rubbed off on the people since 1877.
THE GOLDEN BOY OF CENTRE COURT: HOW BJORN BORG CONQUERED WIMBLEDON by Graham Denton (Pitch Publishing)
Bjorn Borg went from teenybop idol with his long, blond hair, slim build and a history of temper tantrums to winning a record five Wimbledon singles title on the bounce having developed an Iceman Cometh persona, with no outward sign of emotion on court.
A fire and ice rivalry with John McEnroe is part of the glory run, which has been only emulated by Roger Federer, who also struggled to keep his emotions under control as a youngster. But at the age of 26 Borg quit the professional circuit, made a short, belated comeback having disappeared from public view.
Borg returned to the fold long term. Popped up to renew his on-court rivalry – in a more light-hearted arena – with the volatile John McEnroe at the Master doubles event at the Royal Albert Hall. Came back to SW19 to take his place in the Royal Box. And even, despite his reserve, opened up to us media folk about his life and times, mostly centring on what he did at Wimbledon.
Graham Denton has scoured contemporary news outlets to give us a picture of the time leading up to the Swede’s introduction to the All England Club. When Borg switched from ice hockey to tennis using unorthodox grips and strokes. Impressed coaches in his country like Percy Rosberg and, most significantly, Lennart Bergelin, his Davis Cup captain turned personal coach, with his metronomic groundstrokes and speed about the court. And established his name in the annals of Wimbledon history following his debut when he claimed the 1972 Boys’ singles crown, defeating Britain’s Buster Mottram in the final.
We discover how he developed an army of female admirers through the turbulent times of the players’ strike of 1973 when the politics elevated him to No.6 seed in his first senior Wimbledon. It was love at first sight for the Centre Court crowd as the 17-year-old defeated Indian veteran Premjit Lall, 32, provoking headlines quoted by Denton of ‘A STAR IS BJORN’. When he was ‘mobbed’ by his fans at the end, BBC’s legendary commentator Dan Maskell opined: “I’ve never seen this before in my life.”
Rex Bellamy, the esteemed Times writer who was a mentor to yours truly in the world of the fuzzy ball, said after the Swede had played on No.2 Court that year: “When he (Borg) was driven away last evening it sounded like some pop festival, with his admirers screaming and Borg waving shyly (as if modestly aware that something was expected from him) as the car inched its way through the mob.”
Borg’s run ended in the quarter-finals against home ace Roger Taylor. But it was the Swede who appeared to get most of the attention from fans.
Borg’s band wagon was temporality de-railed by a disappointing second appearance. And eventual champion Arthur Ashe did for the injury-carrying Swede in 1975. But 12 months later Borg had won his first Wimbledon crown, stunning Ilie Nastase in the final. The baseline-playing Viking wore down the flamboyant, stroke maker from Romania.
Denton, of course, takes you through the remaining All England triumphs. How Borg inflicted back-to-back final defeats on Jimmy Connors before overcoming Roscoe Tanner and, most famously, John McEnroe in the following deciders. Borg had writ his name large by overcoming three Americans. And it was the last who ended the Swede’s hopes of a sixth straight title in 1981. In January 1983 he retired. His drive and desire for the game diluted.
It is a fascinating tale, well told.
WIMBLEDON’S GREATEST GAMES: THE ALL ENGLAND CLUB’S FIFTY FINEST MATCHES by Abi Smith. Foreword by Des Lynam (Pitch Publishing).
The biggest decision an author has to make in writing such a book is obvious. What puts a match in the top 50? So many factors, exacerbated by Wimbledon being the oldest, traditional, most famous major of them all. I know the problem, having compiled a book with the same premise on Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. I elected for a chronological order, from the club’s 19th century beginnings to the present day. But Abi Smith has – while also rejecting order of preference like a music chart – mixed it up. Old matches follow new encounters after middle-aged ones. To get each pair of eyes reading through Suzanne Lenglen and Elizabeth Ryan against Dorothea Lambert Chambers and Ethel Thomson Larcombe (1919) from Steffi Graf v Navratilova (1988) to Novak Djokovic v Roger Federer in 2019. It is certainly a way to educate a reader unfamiliar with eras beyond her or his own. And lessens the likelihood of the reader going straight to the familiar.
It is a fun trip, recalling classic, dramatic, history-making encounters. There will be debate regarding the selections, but that’s healthy stimulation and, besides, the choices, by definition, are subjective. If I were to have done the book having covered Wimbledon every year since the late 1980s and Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg were developing their rivalry, I would have agreed with many of those listed. Overall the choices are spread across the generations. To satiate the appetite of most age groups.
Epic clashes between rivals are catered for. John McEnroe v Bjorn Borg, Martina Navratilova v Chris Evert and Billie Jean King v Margaret Court as well as Becker v Edberg. British triumphs, including Angela Mortimer, Ann Jones, Virginia Wade and the Murray brothers Andy and Jamie, are covered, besides the triumphs of the Williams sisters.
It also sparked memories of when I sat in the fading light with the yellow numbers on the electric scoreboard flickering in the swiftly gathering dusk and saw Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer play out a match often considered THE greatest of Wimbledon finals in 2008.
It even conjured childhood memories of when my dad sat me down and told me what a wonderful player Pancho Gonzales, then 41, was as we watched his unforgettable match with Charlie Passarell , 25, in 1969 on the family telly. Astonishing theatre.
The only quibble worthy of note is the fact that Andy Murray’s 2013 final win over Novak Djokovic was not among the longer pieces. It was the first time a Brit had won the gentleman’s singles title since Fred Perry 77 years earlier (with Perry’s 1934 triumph against Don Budge also featured).
Wimbledon has a cultural as well as sporting influence on society and Murray’s triumph produced a collective sigh of relief and rush of home pride in the host nation unequalled in my experience of writing sport. I was front and centre in the Centre Court press box when Murray appeared to roar at the media at the finish as if to say ‘I told you I could win it.’ It was the greatest moment I’ve experienced in 40 years of covering sport. But, as I have stated, the selection has to be subjective.
BEYOND SW19: World Class Tennis In England since the 1880s by Kevin Jefferys (Pitch).
It was at Beckenham in the late 1980s. The start of the grasscourt season. The start of the build-up to Wimbledon. I was covering the Kent event – ran so superbly by Jenny Willis – for Today, the first British national newspaper to ‘go electric’.
I was taking a short break with my family outside the giant marquee, looking through the wire mesh separating off the players on practice courts. Martina Navratilova was on view. Suddenly a ball from her court went AWOL and our toddler rushed through the gate onto the adjacent court to retrieve the ball and hand it back to the tennis superstar. Martina smiled broadly, thanked him and presented our boy with the ball.
Another time, when the rain had prevented play for the day, the media had taken shelter inside the vast marquee wondering what kind of report they would be able to send back to HQ when John McEnroe walked in, off-the-cuff, and sat on a chair as we formed a semi-circle of chairs as the stair rods beat down on the canvas. Now, if you can’t get a tale talking to John McEnroe, you aren’t worth your salt as a journalist. He came up trumps, of course, saying something flippant about fellow American Michael Chang’s chances of winning Wimbledon.
The incidents reflected the more informal atmosphere of the ‘Beyond SW19’ event in the grasscourt season. As much as Wimbledon is the greatest, most treasured, most important tournament of them all, it is a tight ship. The public gaining access to practise courts and having a player of McEnroe’s stature in an impromptu huddle with a handful of reporters – soggy or otherwise – would be, understandably, due the complex organisation of the event, unlikely realities without the necessary permissions.
Fans have been able to feel more a part of these tournaments. For those unable to get into Wimbledon and lacking the financial muscle to following the tennis circus around the globe, these events are a God-send.
The non-All England grasscourt tournaments act as a ‘nursery’ for promising talent as well as a place for the established to shake out the rust collected from 12 months away from the natural surface to prepare for the Famous Fortnight.
Kevin Jeffery’s book gives you an insight into the often-more-relaxed atmosphere off court in those events, even though competition is always intense on it. Eastbourne, Beckenham, Surbiton, Edgbaston, Nottingham, Liverpool and London’s Queen’s Club have all been among the support acts to The Championships. As have many others around the regions.
There are and have been events on other surfaces on other surfaces at other times of the year. Low and high profile. In fact, Jeffery’s takes us around England to highlight these as well as now-defunct events in Brighton, always a favourite with Steffi Graf, Bristol, Torquay and Scarborough.
The book is a ‘record and a celebration of England’s tennis heritage’, which also includes the hosting of Davis Cup ties. Tales of the players and matches and ‘quirky’ incidents are told. With stats thrown in a wide-ranging, ambitious tome.