Essays: Last British Hope |
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Last British Hope

THE second week of Wimbledon (BBC1 and 2), known to Harry Carpenter as Wmbldn, had most of its climaxes early, if you will excuse the phrase.

‘Well, there’s a little sensation for you out there,’ gritted Harry, as the brave but dejected McEnroe headed ‘back to the loneliness of the locker-room.’ There was another little sensation for us in Virginia Wade’s defeat at the hands of Evonne Cawley. Virginia was the Last British Hope. In recent years she has learned to think in terms of representing herself rather than Britain, with the result that she has done better for herself and better for Britain, but this year marked a return to her old status as the Girl on whom British Hopes are Pinned. Nobody in the commentary box — not even Ann Jones, who has been through the same ordeal herself — seemed to realise that having British Hopes pinned on you slows you down.

The crowd sighed resignedly. ‘All the years’, Ann intoned, ‘they’ve had to struggle through with Virginia’s hopes and fears.’ Dan Maskell had the statistics ready. ‘Eighteen years of it, Ann.’ As Virginia swiped and hacked, a certain weariness crept into Dan’s normally ebullient cries of ‘Ooh I say!’ Dan was disappointed. ‘I have a feeling Virginia Wade hasn’t been practising her lobbing.’ Nobody contemplated the alternative possibility, which is that Evonne Cawley is the supreme technician in women’s tennis and wins when she feels like it. What confuses the issue is that she hardly ever feels like it.

The match between Dupre of America and Panatta of Italy was the thriller of the tournament. Panatta is an extremely good-looking man if you like your ice-cream runny. Dupre, on the other hand, is no oil-painting. But the two men would have been evenly matched if Panatta had not been given a whopping initial advantage by the presence in the stands of a sizeable part of the population of Italy. From every Italian eating establishment in London the cooks and waiters had converged on Wmbldn in order to help their boy by hindering his opponent.

Dupre found his every error being cheered to the echo. Imprecations were hurled at him as he stood poised to smash. They did everything but sling spaghetti. The umpire was terrifically British about it all. Sitting with a stiff upper lip in his stiff upper chair, he seemed to be working on the principle that if you go on ignoring people long enough they will behave like gentlemen.This was a big mistake. The Italian contingent spend most of their lives under the pavements of Soho breathing steam. This was their day of glory and they had no intention of letting a little thing like fair play cramp their style.

In the commentary box there was wit to match the tension. ‘Dupre ... having to contend, as you can hear, with not only the accuracy of Panatta’s racket, but also with the racket in the stands.’ After, but not before, Panatta’s claque had helped him win the third set, the umpire finally gave voice. ‘Will you please be quiet when the rallies are on?’ The right idea, but the wrong language. The uproar continued unabated. Finally it started putting Panatta off, too, a fact that Dan was quick to spot. ‘Yes, disturbing their own man, now, the Italians, I think.’ Yes, but not as much as they had previously been disturbing his opponent. In the end the better man won, and Panatta headed back to the loneliness of the locker-room.

According to the smart money, McEnroe’s exit meant that Thursday’s men’s semi-final between Borg and Connors would be, in effect, the final. Alas, it was a dud match. Connors has run out of answers to what Dan calls ‘the immaculate length of Borg.’ Connors likes the ball to come at him in a straight line so that he can hit it back in another straight line. When it comes at him in a curve he uses up half his energy straightening it out again. Borg hits nothing but curves. Connors was left with little in the armoury except his new weapon, the Early Grunt.

As I revealed exclusively last week, Connors now grunts at the same time as he serves, instead of just afterwards. Since the grunt travels at the speed of sound, it arrives in the opponent’s court marginally before the ball does. Ordinary opponents try to hit the grunt. Borg was not fooled. Indeed he quickly developed a Swedish counter-grunt. ‘Hworf!’ grunted Connors. ‘Hwörjf!’ grunted Borg. ‘Game to Connors. Borg, rather,’ cried the umpire helpfully. There they were, the two best: Connors with the long feet and the shoulders growing out of his ears, Borg looking like a hunch-backed, jut-bottomed version of Lizabeth Scott impersonating a bearded Apache princess. Back went Jimbo to the loneliness of the locker-room.

If Wmbldn was too much for your blood pressure there was always the punishing boredom of International Athletics (BBC1), piped to your living room from Malmö, Sweden. Obviously Borg has more reasons than tax avoidance for living in Monte Carlo. If Malmö is a typical Swedish metropolis, then it’s a wonder the country has produced competitors in any events other than the 1,500 metres sleep-walk and the triple yawn. Could Britain qualify for the Europa Cup Final later in the year? To do so they would have to beat the Bulgarians.

Pattering around in front of the empty stands came a pack of runners, temporarily led by our man Coates. ‘And Coates testing out the field,’ said David Coleman. From that moment you knew Coates was doomed. ‘The British team might have hoped that Coates might have put one or two more between himself and the Bulgarian.’ Translated into English, this meant that Coates, on whom British Hopes had been Pinned, was on his way back to the loneliness of the locker-room. Nevertheless Britain qualified for the final.

The French Grand Prix (BBC2) featured a nail-biting tussle for second place between Villeneuve (Ferrari) and Arnoux (twin-turbo Renault). The French television service knows how to shoot a Grand Prix. (The Spanish just point all their cameras at the leading car and forget the rest.) Good direction makes a lot of difference. If the cameras are parked at the end of the straight and confined to shooting with long lenses then the action slows to a crawl. If the cameras are off to one side, or up in the air, and pan with the cars as they go by, then you get some idea of why men should want to risk their lives at such a sport. It is simply a thrilling thing to do.

Fighting bulls is probably quite thrilling, but the moral picture is complicated by the fact that the bulls suffer. One of the several good things about the first episode of The Wooldridge View (BBC2) was that the bulls stood a better chance than the men of getting home alive. The event was the bull-run in Pamplona, where Wooldridge goes every year to test his courage and his capacity for wine.

Apart from anything else, the programme gave you some useful hints about how to run before the bulls. Clearly the best technique is to book your flight for the week after the event takes place, or else just not turn up at all.

The Observer, 8th July 1979

[ An edited version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]