Books: A Point of View: Wimbledon Wisdom |
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Wimbledon Wisdom : on sports commentators

(S02E04, broadcast 13th and 15th July 2007)

"The champion talkers"
— talking champs

As yet another Wimbledon fortnight drains away into history, let us contemplate the receding waters and try to draw some useful lessons. I leave aside such questions as: why is either of Rafael Nadal’s upper arms thicker than Tim Henman’s neck? I’m being positive in this series and I want to look on the bright side, which was briefly visible on the final Sunday when Nadal and Federer miraculously encountered no moisture except their own perspiration for the length of an entire match.

But it’s the invisible bright side that I want to look at now. I mean the commentary. Once again, the Wimbledon television commentary hit its peak on those days when there was no tennis at all and you were regaled with long stretches of American ex-champions talking. John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova are so interesting when they talk about tennis that they scarcely need to be accompanied by an actual match.

Admittedly things on the commentary front were rather spoiled on the last day when the mind-bending struggle between Nadal and Federer was accompanied by the voices of John Lloyd and Jimmy Connors. Jimmy Connors is another American ex-champion and like the rest of them he is full of real information, but he also suffers from an excess of good manners by which he feels it incumbent upon him to ask John Lloyd for an expert opinion. John Lloyd is indeed an expert. Like the other high-profile British commentator Sue Barker he is no stranger to Centre Court. But also like her, he is a stranger to actually winning the championship, which Connors did twice. As I remember it, Connors was thoroughly obnoxious in his behaviour while doing so, but nowadays, as an elder statesman, he has acquired humility.

It isn’t humility that we want in a commentator. We want the confidence of distilled wisdom, and from the other American commentating ex-champs we get it. Even Tracey Austin, still a slip of a thing, can dish out her fund of knowledge like Aristotle. And there lies my theme: the wisdom of the great sportsmen, and how, if they can express what they know, they can tell us about life in general as well as their sport in particular. The Wisdom of Wimbledon, by Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe. It could be a book. It wouldn’t even have to be a picture book, which is lucky, because a lot of the pictures would be of the covers getting dragged on only minutes after they had been dragged off.

Let’s begin in brief with McEnroe, so we can finish by praising Navratilova at length. McEnroe is so far and away the supreme male Wimbledon commentator that the TV camera snatches pictures of him when we aren’t allowed to hear his voice. On the final day, as always, he was commentating for American television, but a British camera snuck shots of him through the front window of the commentary box, so that we could see his mouth move. Almost certainly it was saying something fascinating. When Federer had that uncharacteristic mental excursion in the fourth set and tried to convince himself that the Hawkeye replay must be wrong, was McEnroe saying, as Federer mopped his boiling head with a towel, that Federer would be better off if he let all his anger out in one go? That’s exactly what we heard Connors say, and it’s exactly what Connors used to do, but not even Connors did it on the Krakatoa scale of McEnroe. It would have been valuable to have McEnroe’s opinion.

As things were, we got his opinion mainly on days when there was no tennis at all, owing to that intermittent Wimbledon drizzle which would be put down to climate change if it was ever any different. But his comments, as always, were nearly as good as watching him play used to be, and a lot quieter. He has become a philosopher. You can put inverted commas around the word if you like, but so many of the phrases we now use when we talk about tennis were invented by him. McEnroe was the first commentator ever to say that a certain champion would soon be a step slow. It was his way of saying that the champion, although he could still hit everything, was a tenth of a second slower at getting into position to hit it. Ever since I heard McEnroe first use that phrase in a Wimbledon commentary, I have used it myself to describe the erosion of my own faculties and capacities, although ‘a step slow’ often demands to be modified. Ten yards slow? A mile slow?

However you phrase it, the idea enshrines a central and sad truth about physical achievement at high level. It depends on the body. When McEnroe, his stomach still flat and his formidable mouth only at the beginning of its development curve, found that he was moving a step slow, he transferred to the seniors. There’s a lesson there. Be the first to decide that you’ve been up there too long. Which brings us to Martina, who was up there for a generation, still collecting doubles titles after she grew a step too slow for the singles. But she knew how to quit when the day came, because there’s nothing she doesn’t know about the sport she dominated. Billie-Jean King dominated it before her, and Billie-Jean is another inspiring case of what brains can do for a sportsman. On one drenched day of the tournament just past, Billie-Jean and Martina were both giving us their opinions to fill up the time until the All England Club gets its roof built, and to hear them talk was a reminder of what Virginia Wade was once up against, because Virginia had nothing to back her up except the British press, whereas the American women had the whole American culture of unblushing self-belief to drive them forward.

Unblushing and articulate. Martina wasn’t even born American, but she realized that mastering the local language would be part of the job, and she did it the way she did everything else, thoroughly. In fact she did it to the point where you could take the inverted commas off the word ‘philosopher’ and simply admit that any analytical statement she made was worth writing down. After one of her countless Wimbledon victories, she once answered a not very interesting question with a very interesting answer. ‘What matters,’ she said, ‘isn’t how well you play when you’re playing well. What matters is how well you play when you’re playing badly.’

I wrote that down at the time and still haven’t seen a neater way of expressing the truth that a high average is what counts. At this Wimbledon she was easily the sanest voice in the perpetual discussion about whether Maria Sharapova should be allowed to grunt so loudly. In case you haven’t heard her in action, Sharapova, when she hits the ball, makes the same sort of sound as young adolescent males make when they first see her stretching up to serve. Some journalists describe the noise she makes as orgasmic but they must be very lucky in their love lives. The noise has an element of agony, and often there is a matching reaction on the face of her opponent. Should Maria be allowed to do it? Martina settled the matter in a way that you and I couldn’t, because we haven’t played in a grand slam final. When one player grunts, she said, the other player can’t hear the racket hit the ball, and is thus deprived of a vital item of information about how the ball will behave next. In other words, the grunter is taking an unfair advantage. When it was put to her that some people might not be able to help grunting, Martina pointed out that if Federer didn’t have to grunt, then nobody did.

And indeed Federer doesn’t grunt. I hadn’t noticed, so common has grunting become. For too long I have been buying the notion that some players have to. Connors certainly grunted, to the point that Bjorn Borg started to grunt back. And Monica Seles, cruelly deprived by a madman of her good chance to be up there in the all-time rankings with Billie-Jean and Martina, was the first big grunter in the women’s game. But Federer doesn’t grunt, so nobody needs to. The case is closed.

Finally, as Martina said, it’s a matter of fairness. For years now we have lived in an era when fairness needs to be explained, and indeed there was something stuffy about the time when everybody took it for granted. You could just about say that men’s tennis took a step up when McEnroe first yelled at a Wimbledon umpire, although it isn’t only the Aussies who think that there was never such a thing as a step up from Rod Laver, who would have rather died than yell at anybody.

But sport without sportsmanship is indeed a dreary prospect. Perhaps sick of losing, the rest of us tend to call such ruthlessness the American approach. But it isn’t fair to say so. Martina Navratilova is all American except for her birth, and even McEnroe, in the heyday of his apoplexy, knew that the rules of behaviour were there, even when he was testing them to the limit. The champions give it everything, and if they are gifted as well with the ability to speak, they can tell us a lot about life. Or else they can be like Borg, who was there on the last day and said nothing. Which tells you something too.


Probably I was too nice about Jimmy Connors. From Andre Agassi’s excellently ghosted autobiography, Jimbo emerges as an ogre. But even if he had the personality of John Dillinger, he would still rank high among the American ex-champions who grace Wimbledon with their presence in the role of commentator, or even, as in the case of Connors, just as a guest who occasionally says a few words. Back in the 1970s, I can proudly say, I laid the foundations for the academic discipline which went on to establish that the Wimbledon commentators could be clearly ranked by national origin, with the Americans at the top, the Europeans (Boris Becker, for example) coming next, and the British at the bottom. Partly it was a matter of whether they could speak the English language. It was always an axiom that any American sportsman spoke better English than the English. With time it also became clear that the same applied to sportsmen from continental Europe. Any tennis veteran from Romania, even if he never left his country except to play on the tour, will speak English with more fluency than John Lloyd.

But here one strays dangerously into the minefield of possible insult. For the truth’s sake as well as for gallantry, it might be wise to say that the British commentators are inhibited by diplomacy as much as by their native inarticulacy. Not just in the technical sense, there is a limit to what Virginia Wade can say, because she is speaking for the All England Club, whereas the wonderful Tracey Austin is speaking for herself. When praising the pattycake serve of the newly emergent Czech teenager, and remarking how it will have to land in the correct court a bit more often if she is to ‘go through’ to the next round, Virginia can’t tell you that the delicate young creature, if she ‘goes through’, will find Serena Williams waiting like a Tiger tank in the middle of the road, traversing her turret and calibrating her sights in preparation for the upcoming thirty minutes of horrendous violence. Tracey Austin, on the other hand, can tell you that Maria Sharapova, while developing her service action, endlessly watched a video of Pete Sampras. But the main criterion dividing the tennis commentators into two clear groups isn’t so much national as philosophical. There is a difference between informed opinion and polite flannel. The first occupies your mind, and the second merely occupies air-time.