At the beginning of MFW’s summer series concerning the scribing team’s personal recollections of sports other than football, I went from the sublime [the 1995 West Indies tourists at Trent Bridge] to the utterly ridiculous where I ascribed blame for my lack of prowess as a cricketer to being a relatively poor batsman who could not bowl.
I also stated that later in the series I would turn to my experiences of tennis, little realising at the time how much the sport of Wimbledon and Roland Garros contributed to my poor cricketing standards 🙂
The answer hit me as hard as one of Mike Ward‘s Uruguayan defenders from 1966: Summer is too short a season to play both cricket and tennis if you want to reach a serious level of proficiency at either.
In 1962, Dad took out a mortgage against the majestic sum of £4,000 for a newbuild house on the Cooper Estate in Chadwell Heath. Mr Cooper was related to the great British Heavyweight Champion Henry Cooper and named two of the streets after his sons, Brian and Donald. I got to live my formative years on Donald Drive, where a similar house sold for £450k this January. Go figure.
When I was about eight, Dad inveigled one of the Coopers’ team to build a primitive conservatory… and a two-car, one behind the other garage. Around the same time, I was at my grandma’s in Forest Gate one day when my uncle Joe walked in with a brown paper parcel under his arm.
Joey was a painter and decorator in the City banking halls who outside work lived half his life in the notorious Green Street’s Duke of Edinburgh and the other half in The Albion on Stukeley Road – it was family legend that he had acquired enough unofficial shares to be appointed to the board of Bass Charrington.
Uncle Joe gave me my first tennis racquets – under slightly unusual circumstances!
He chucked the parcel at me and said, “You can have a bit of fun with them, son” before switching on the TV and falling fast asleep in his chair by the cozy coal fire in the front room of Grandma’s tiny two-up, two-down in Belton Road.
Apparently, Joe had forged an unlikely friendship with a solicitor at one of the banks. The legal eagle’s son had flown the family nest to live with his new wife and no longer wanted his tennis racquets so, knowing Joey had a young nephew, bestowed them to him as a gift.
One came with a medieval instrument of torture imprisoning its face and upper body. Okay so it wasn’t an Iron Maiden***, but I’d never seen a racquet press before and it took ages to remove as one of the wing nuts was rusted up.
When it rained heavily or if my little mates weren’t around I’d spend literally hours in Dad’s garage, playing boy versus wall with some nervous attempts at overarm serving thrown in for good measure. My mate Baz was brave enough one day to suggest we paid a couple of bob to play on a proper court for an hour at Goodmayes Park, so we did. And then all summer when our last year at Barley Lane Junior School had ended.
Moving on up to Chigwell I didn’t know a single one of my fellow pupils beforehand, so when asked in class whether any of us boys could play tennis I shot my hand up, as you would. School teams began at the age of 13 for tennis, so future coach and maths master Barrie Sydenham wanted a brief look at us the summer before.
The only picture in existence of me with a racquet in my hand c1970.
There were only about six or seven of us and luckily for me, I was put on a hard court. Luckily because I had never played on grass in my life and watching from the sidelines I could immediately sense the extra speed and variety in height of bounce. Some of these kids’ parents’ had tennis courts at the bottom of their gardens while we had an old dustbin where my dad would burn the garden rubbish.
Very little was said at the time but Sir did pull me aside to ask where I had learned to play.
The garage wall didn’t seem like something to own up to so I said something like erm, I’d never had lessons.
He grinned and replied something like, “I can see that. You don’t put your right foot across to play a backhand, some of your groundshots are awful and [la coup de grace] you don’t even hold the racquet properly.”
I either nodded or acted dumb. Probably both, knowing me.
El Syd as we called him [he quite liked the dashing heroic nature of his soubriquet] also said I had a heck of a serve for a boy my age, pretty good hand-to-ball co-ordination and that I should join a proper club where he was sure I would considerably improve.
This wasn’t a world I lived in. Tennis hadn’t yet quite shed its upper-class image and although I paid lip service to El Cid I dismissed the idea until I told Dad how I had got on.
Dad wasn’t a copper for nothing and a few days later I had joined a club – it turned out that Selwyn Jones in the year above me was a top young tennis player [how was I supposed to know?] and his father was on the committee of Theydon Bois LTC. Selwyn himself was a little piqued that his fame hadn’t filtered down to the oiks in the school year below him, but all was cool.
I didn’t go there that often but enough to take part in a range of Essex age-group LTA tournaments across the county, from Westcliffe to Broxbourne, from Loughton to Southend. If you wanted to cut the downtime you could enter the doubles and if you didn’t have a regular partner you gave your name on arrival and were soon allocated somebody you’d never met before and would doubtless never meet again.
Etiquette dictated that the winner always had to treat the vanquished to a coke or whatever afterwards. I didn’t spend as much money as I would like to have on my opponents over the course of about three or four years.
The Theatre of the Absurd opened its curtains immediately prior to a school match when I was asked to play, but only because our bestest of the best had failed to show and I was the only lad available with kit and racquets to hand [a spare set of everything never left my school gym locker] and it came to pass that I “earned” my colours tie as a direct result.
Now long lost, I was really rather proud of that tie at the time. But none of this helped me with my cricket. Possibly quite the reverse.
Wimbledon played a big part in my teenage life as well. I only went once, and that was to see the lovely Chris Evert [as she was then] beat Aussie ace Kerry Melville in the semi-final. Most of my mates admired Miss Evert for reasons not strictly 100 percent related to her tennis skills, but I like to think I was more than capable of appreciating all her attributes equally.
My favourite male players are pretty easy to choose as everybody loves a rebel, don’t they?
Mild in extremis compared to many sportsmen since the turn of the millennium, John McEnroe followed on from Ilie Nastase as naturally as night follows day. Nastase was a brilliant, gifted individual who was World Number One in 1974 and should have won many more ATP tournaments than the seven he did.
When it came to winding up an opponent or an official, he certainly put forward the blueprint for McEnroe. I particularly enjoyed the few occasions he pretended not to understand the umpire – his heavily-accented English was superb and the several books he wrote after his retirement were nearly all written in French.
McEnroe is probably the only tennis professional to have coined a phrase that remains in common usage across the tennis-playing world to this day. You cannot be serious remains synonymous with him and it always will. His on-court rivalry with Bjorn Borg was a joy to watch and I would catch that particular “fixture” on TV whenever I could as I knew it was going to be tasty!
He plays a mean guitar too does our John. Married to musician Patti Smyth, he could count upon both David Bowie and Eddie Van Halen as friends and collaborators over the years.
It has to be said that I played socially until the age of 60, games with my son Josh always being great fun and it was surprisingly easy to make up a four from the pub. Mention the word “tennis” and in my experience, the level of positive response can be very high indeed.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my racquet-wielding years. If I had to choose watching a Test Match or Wimbledon, the cricket would win by a country mile. But playing? That would be an insolvable conundrum as I couldn’t begin to choose between the two of them.
Uncle Joe knew what he was doing when he kindled my interest, albeit in the unorthodox fashion that was typical of him.
Towards the end of his career, one of his decorating gigs was at David Sullivan’s Theydon super-mansion. His tales from that job will remain unwritten as MFW does not wish to receive threats of litigation from Sioux, Grabbit & Runne of Private Eye infamy.
I’ll end with a brief nod to the only tournament I can ever remember winning, the all-Isle of Wight, held at what was then Pontins Holiday Camp in 1980. To be more honest and accurate it was supposed to be for holidaymakers like my good self on this occasion but some of the local lads had a habit of gatecrashing it to see if they could win what I vaguely recall being the then princely sum of a fiver.
Needless to say, the entrance fees collected ensured that the descendants of Fred didn’t miss out on much of their inheritance. I won the Men’s’ and somehow my partner Jude and I won the Mixed, which was miraculous as I am sure we must both have been suffering from sleep deprivation, dehydration, and delirium tremens before, during, and after the match.
Obviously nervous while awaiting the presentations at Pontins.
Jude claimed to be more nervous of the presentation than the match, although she did pretty well considering she hadn’t played at all for over five years. And the opposing couple being pretty pi$$-poor helped as well I should think.
In fact, my enjoyment of the entire vacation was only temporarily spoiled when I failed to make the final of the knockout Pool competition!
Hi De Hi.
These medals survived a dozen house moves – but the tie didn’t.
***Okay it’s a tenuous link but just about strong enough for me to feature one of my favourite bands. The only song I know with the sport in the title is Anyone for Tennis by Cream and although they were usually an awesome power trio I refuse to be associated with what was a poor attempt to create a commercial single. So there.
When Maiden bass player and lyricist Steve Harris wrote this song he claimed it was all about the Crimean War.
We know better than that Steve. We know it’s really about Sheffield United [Warnock incarnation] v Millwall [Hurlock vintage].
You’ll take my life, but I’ll take yours too,
You’ll fire your musket, but I’ll run you through,
So when you’re waiting for the next attack,
You’d better stand, there’s no turning back.
And congrats to Steve and Bruce Dickinson [the WHU supporters in the band] on the Hammers becoming Europa Conference League Champions with Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Fiorentina in Prague: