High life

Why I won’t be watching Wimbledon

Modern tennis has become a soulless game thanks to technology and big money

4 June 2016

9:00 AM

4 June 2016

9:00 AM

Write about things you really know was the advice Papa Hemingway offered wannabe writers, so here goes: the French Open is still on, Wimbledon is coming up, and I’ve just read a lament by some French woman about how professional tennis and big-time sports have become ever more ubiquitous and ever more out of reach. Duh!

A former model by the name of Géraldine Maillet has made a documentary about the 2015 French Open, not exactly a stop- the-presses kind of story. It was released on DVD just as the 2016 Open began. The French Championships, as they were called before the Open era began in 1967, was my favourite tournament — Paris being Paris and the Parisian girls being, well, beautiful and easier than most. And then there was the laissez-faire attitude among tennis officials.

Needless to say, the French Open is now a very different affair. Top players are multinational corporations, marketing is a sine qua non, and if one wants to speak to a player one goes to his agent’s agent and negotiates an appointment. Everything is machine-like: the play, the way players act, their training, even the umpiring, with Cyclops overruling human error. Players are protected from prying eyes inside the locker room, and they are prevented from getting into each other’s heads by being kept apart as much as possible. Coaches, trainers, gurus and dieticians make sure of it.

Tennis is a soulless game thanks to technology and the hucksters who sell it to advertisers, who in turn sell it for big corporation dollars. Hype reigns supreme and debases the game. Everyone, with very few exceptions, looks and plays the same. The most banal questions precede and follow the matches put by hacks who are basically cheerleaders. Welcome to the modern game of pro tennis. And we also have the elephants on court — doping and betting. The last two were Greek to the old-timers. No longer.

Maillet regrets she didn’t have the access one William Klein had back in 1982, when he made a documentary about that year’s French Open. It was still tennis back then, with Borg, McEnroe and Connors, and their wooden rackets and the tantrums on court. But even then players were becoming more out of reach. Sure, he filmed Nastase smoking in the locker room and coaches openly discussing the strengths and weaknesses of their players in the competitors’ section just above the centre court. And one sees a much slower game with guile and touch being as important, if not more so, than sheer power. But it was already a professional game played by pros.

My story begins back in 1956, when I first hit the circuit, when money was paid to the stars under the table, players had no chairs between games, no umbrellas to shield them from the fierce sun, no bathroom breaks, no injury time, no masseurs, no tie-breaks, and no ball boys to hand them a towel between points. The big names were Rosewall, Hoad, Laver, Emerson, Newcombe, Drobny, Patty, Fraser, Krishnan, Washer, Pietrangeli, Santana, Osuna, I could go on. The atmosphere was one of youth, athleticism, good sportsmanship, fun and long lazy hours waiting to play a match in country clubs (except for the four Grand Slams that were played in stadiums).

The South African Gordon Forbes wrote a wonderful book some 20 years ago calledA Handful of Summers, and every time I open it I can hear Nicola Pietrangeli, a great player who won the French twice in a row and had a game that looked remarkably like that of Roger Federer, singing in the shower. Roy Emerson, another great — 12 Grand Slams — was also a shower singer, driving us crazy with his rock-and-roll tunes as opposed to Nicola’s Neapolitan canzone. There was a long-standing poker game that began in the South of France tournaments in the spring, and ended after Wimbledon, when payment was due. The main players were Pietrangeli, the Mexican Pancho Contreras, the Yugoslav Ivo Plesevic and yours truly.

We were all friends, travelled together and only the Australian team had a coach, Harry Hopman, who was there to keep the boys out of trouble. Here’s an example of how raw things were back then: my doubles partner Nico Kalogeropoulos and I faced the top American team, Richey–Froehling, in the first round of the French. We won the first two sets and were into a long third one when Richey decided to break into the drinks container that no one had bothered to unlock before the match. While doing it, he sprained his hand. Nicky and I decided that if he defaulted we would be robbed of a victory, so we gave him 20 minutes to fix his hand. They went on to win 6–4 in the fifth set. Rafael Osuna, who had won the US championship in Forrest Hills the year before, beating Frank Froehling in the final, loathed Richey, a Texan with no manners but a great fighter on court and almost as great a whiner. Rafe was very upset that I had lost and when he saw Richey not even thanking us for the break we’d given him, he took out a knife and advanced towards him. I threw myself between them, telling Rafe that ‘a piece of shit like Richey wasn’t worth jail time’. Richey apologised and we all shook hands. Rafael Osuna died soon after in a plane crash.

Yes, they were innocent, beautiful days — an Eden as far as I’m concerned. But now let’s see the replay and listen to a message from our sponsor.

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Show comments
  • Mary Ann

    You don’t have to watch it if you don’t want to, I don’t watch football, nothing but fouls. Bad example to set the children.

  • SunnyD

    Taki makes no sense when he’s sober – I’ve read the article twice and still don’t understand why he won’t be watching Wimbledon. Does he forgo everything that doesn’t resemble what it did yesteryear?

  • HJ777

    Most people who do watch Wimbledon watch principally the highlights programme in the evening as they are at work during the day.

    However, last year it was spectacularly awful – Clare Balding and whoever she was talking to standing around in what looked like a bar (but with no drinks) with fake grass on the ground and an audience standing in the background. Few highlights were actually shown.

    Contrast with the Henley Royal Regatta highlights on YouTube at the end of each day’s racing. Introduced by someone who actually knows about the sport (Matthew Pinsent) there were some cracking races shown with spectacular filming (some from a drone). It was the first year for very many that HRR races have been shown (both live and highlights on YouTube) and they wiped the floor with the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage. And nobody has every accused rowers of being overpaid prima donnas…

    • starfish

      Tennis is an Establishment game, largely watched by the Establishment and covered by the Establishment media (the BBC suddenly getting interested in tennis before lapsing into a large sulk between Wimbledons)

      • HJ777

        If that is the case ( and I don’t know that it is) I don’t think it applies internationally.

        My sport (rowing) has a similar public image but it is a completely erroneous one. In fact, it is open to all and is a traditional working men’s sport which was then adopted by public schools. Most people think that it is primarily a public school/Oxford/Cambridge sport whereas the reality is quite different, as all rowers know.

      • Ron Todd

        Working men in the olden days only had Saturday afternoon off work. Games for the working class had to be games that could carry on even if the weather was bad. The upper class could play or watch their games ant time so they had the likes of tennis if they had to stop for rain they could just come back the next day no worry about work. Or worse cricket all day for five days only the leisured class could watch a game for five days.

      • sparrow-hawk

        Class warfare is it? I’m not part of the establishment, nor are any of the hundreds of tennis partners I’ve played with in the clubs I’ve belonged to since I was a teenager.

        I think what you’re really saying is that tennis is MIDDLE CLASS and you sound like someone who finds that objectionable. I don’t.

  • Faulkner Orkney

    Used to watch it for the beautiful ladies, now they are too shouty so I don’t bother. I’m shallow, but honest.

  • sparrow-hawk

    Jimmy Connors, & John McEnroe. Great days for tennis. It’s a shame we don’t get Jimbo over into the studio more often; it’s amusing when he’s here with Mac together talking to Sue Barker. They’ve both mellowed of course, and have tremendous mutual respect.

  • Stephen

    The French Open doesn’t use Cyclops and suffers because of it. I’m surprised
    you haven’t noticed.

    • boomslang74

      They don’t need it because the ball marks the clay.

  • boomslang74

    It’s silly to criticise professionalism and single minded dedication to winning, but who doesn’t miss the artistry and personalities of the Borgs, McEnroes and Beckers?

    If you like racket sports and are disillusioned with modern tennis though, check out some squash (if you can find it); top level squash makes the tennis look pedestrian. There’s more personality, sportsmanship and informality on show too.

    • sparrow-hawk

      But where is it televised? I played a lot of squash when my knees & pelvis were up to it(!)

      • boomslang74

        BT Sport.

    • Zalacain

      Borg’s personality, what personality? McEnroe was thoroughly unpleasant and Becker war boring.

      • boomslang74

        That’s why I used the words “artistry” AND “personalities”. I didn’t say that both applied to all three. See?
        And Becker was not boring.

  • ARJ_Turgot

    No, tennis has always been boring – even more so than golf.

  • vdorta

    Tennis is a shadow of what it used to be. Oversize racquets made of synthetic materials give an extra advantage to those strong players who already had a physical advantage. Compare it to baseball, where traditions and balance are the key: relatively unchanged wood bats, balls and regulations. The domination of the Western grip in modern tennis is not coincidental, because all you need to do is to hit the ball as hard as you can while keeping it within the court. Great artists like Rosewall, Laver and McEnroe, all of whom used the Continental grip, are unheard of now. Power is now the master that conquers all surfaces. The chisel is no more, a bludgeon has replaced it.

    • boomslang74

      Over-simplification. Djokovic is the best player in the world today but he is not the most powerful. The same is true of his predecessor, Federer. Power without huge skill, accuracy and tactics is worthless. And if you don’t think Federer’s passing backhand is a thing of beauty then tennis is not for you.
      Anyway, I get so tired of this complaint about this sport or that sport not being as entertaining as it used to be. Professional sportsmen and women are not out there to entertain you (except when playing exhibitions/charity events), they are out there to do one thing and one thing only; to win.

      • vdorta

        My point is not about entertainment. One more hint: tennis was a perfect sport because court and net dimensions, specific ball and racquet size and materials were made for each other as a system. And having different court surfaces made it even more of an equalizer because no player could dominate. When you radically change one part of it without compensating for the rest, you have a different game although it’s still called tennis. Think about baseball, an artificial game with, necessarily, many rules in which a star like Ted Williams would still be able to play and excel in. Why? Because of respect for history and traditions.

  • Zalacain

    This is just a rehash of the “it was better in my day…” comment, which is a thinly veiled “I wish I were younger” comment. All old men seem to fall for this.

    In 30 years time people will be missing ‘personalities’ and the ‘artistry’ of players such as Nadal, Federer or Djockovic.

    • AdrianM

      Are you sure?

    • Fritz123

      Godard comes to mind. Why he doesnt go to Wimbedon in his movie “Soigne ta droit”.

  • AdrianM

    Everyone respected, but never really liked Björn Borg… wanna know why?

  • Norton Folgate

    Try the artistry and unpredictability of local grass-roots football. Lots of personalities here… http://bit.ly/1ZlQTXr

  • Maureen Fisher

    I used to live near Wimbledon as a youngster and in those days we went after school when you could get in with ease and even queue up to get on Centre court or court no 1. Not a chance of anything like that now. Some of these players even have bodyguards to keep the scum away from them.