Essays: Dan's winning lob |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Dan’s winning lob

A traditional feature of Wimbledon (BBC1 and 2) is the way the commentary box fills up with British players eliminated in the early rounds. Mark Cox was first aboard, but was almost instantly joined by Virginia Wade, keen to launch her new career as a commentator.

She didn’t make a bad start, when you consider that Ann Jones was already in the box and well established, with an armchair and an electric kettle. Ann had commented very politely during Virginia’s only match. ‘Ann Jones, how do you sum up the significance of this victory?’ she was asked. The straight answer would have been that it was about to become very crowded in the commentary box, but she did not say so. Virginia was equally polite about Wendy Turnbull’s match against Hana Mandlíková. She told us what Wendy was doing wrong, without mentioning that it wouldn’t have made much difference if she had done everything right. Virginia stressed the word Mandlíková on the second syllable. The umpire stressed it on the first. Dan Maskell stressed it on the third and eventually wore his opponents down.

Dan’s all-court commentating technique has by now reached such perfection that you would expect he had run out of surprises, but this year he unveiled a new trick of saying the wrong name just before saying the right one. ‘Ann Jones, Anne Hobbs rather...’ The effect was to wrong-foot the listener. Down at the receiving end against Mandlíková, Ann Jones, Anne Hobbs rather, did her version of the baseline bossa nova, a dance performed by British female players when they are about to receive service. It is designed to waste as much energy as possible. Sue Barker remains the most spectacular exponent, often bouncing up and down more than thirty times before lunging sideways to intercept the service and hit it out.

Ann Jones, Anne Hobbs rather, bounced almost as much as Sue, but Mandlíková was not impressed. Anne Hobbs, Ann Jones rather, sympathised with her compatriot. ‘When she was in trouble against Virginia Wade she pulled out some real big ones when it really mattered.’ Mandlíková went up against Navratilova for an all-Czech semi-final, with Dan Maskell as the chief voiceova, although everybody else was in the commentary box with him, including Virginia. ‘She’s very relaxed,’ piped Virginia, referring to Martina, ‘she knows she’s won the title twice ...’ Martina went on to prove herself about as relaxed as it is possible to be when the new girl is wiping the court with you. Dan, meanwhile, was busily employing one of his favourite strokes, the one about the cold balls from the refrigerator. ‘When the balls come cold like this from the refrigerator they really do skid away.’ Nobody had anything to counter that.

David Vine doomily interviewed the defeated Navvy. ‘I’ve never seen you so disappointed.’ ‘You’re gonna make me cry if you keep talking like that.’ Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, Mandlíková’s eventual conqueror marched steadily towards the final, peppered with some brilliantly disguised backhands from Dan. ‘Mrs Evert ... Mrs Lloyd, I beg your pardon.’ But by now the men’s competition was boiling up. It had gone into a lull while McEnroe carved his way through the unseeded players left in his half of the draw and Borg revealed that he had hit form early, no cliff-hangers. In the commentary box there was a lot of speculation about how long McEnroe could contain his feelings or even whether it was good for him to do so.

As McEnroe squared up to Rod Frawley, Mark Cox was in the box for a lot of man-talk about the alleged necessity for the bad boy to uncork the boiling lava of his personality, lest his genius suffer inhibition. Some of this sounded more like vulcanology than wisdom. ‘He’s obviously not content with his form, and he has to find a way of getting rid of that pent-up emotion.’ ‘Yes, he has all this pent-up emotion ... that pent-up emotion ... his biggest problem is going to be to find out how to release it.’ Nobody counselled the advisability of keeping the emotions pent up, although McEnroe had won his two previous matches with scarcely a murmur.

Frawley proving a tough nut to crack, there were early signs that the rift would soon spout lava. ‘Wargh, wharn whim glam heng,’ whined McEnroe sotto livello microfonico, ‘narf glahng shtum?’ ‘Will you please play on?’ snapped the umpire. But something seismic was about to happen below that trembling crust. ‘Ah chringh! Theeg ump glurgh! GLARGH!’ ‘It’s all pouring out now,’ said Box and Cox. ‘Unsportsmanlike conduct,’ said the umpire. ‘Warning, Mr McEnroe.’

‘He needs these outbursts to get the negative tension out of his system,’ explained Mark Cox. What was never explained was why Frawley should sympathise, especially when the negative tension happened to explode at the precise moment when he might otherwise have expected to be winning a set. ‘Advantage Frawley,’ said the umpire. ‘Waagh fahgn blahg!’ shouted McEnroe, holding things up. In the third set Frawley was robbed of a crucial point by a clearly bad line-call. In a civilised tone he made his only protest of the day. Shortly afterwards McEnroe suffered a call no worse and did his complete Krakatoa number.

Whether he called himself or the umpire ‘a disgrace to mankind’ remains problematical, but since he delivered the accusation while pointing in the direction of the umpire, whom he had been arguing with for an hour, he could scarcely complain about being misconstrued. ‘I wasn’t talking to you, umpire. Do you hear me? What did I say? Please tell me!’

McEnroe shouted all this a few hundred times, as a child having a tantrum hopes to wear you down. The analogy is exact, because just as a child gets over the tantrum instantly but leaves the surrounding adults white-lipped, so McEnroe is all set to go within seconds of his latest eruption, while everybody else present, especially his opponent, feels like a participant in the last act of a Greek tragedy. ‘Frawley bore up so well under the most difficult circumstances.’ Yes, and he lost. Whether or not McEnroe plans it that way, that’s the way it comes out.

McEnroe went off to be reminded by the trash Press that the more he gives them what they want, the less they will respect him. Thus they get it both ways and leave him with nothing. Realising which people he appeals to might in the end be enough to help McEnroe clean up his act. The point was made academic when Borg and Connors (regularly referred to by Dan as Connors and Borg respectively) set about reminding you what tennis can be.

A physical throwback who crouches even when standing up, Borg examined his racket as if wondering what it was: some kind of club? Connors fired rifle-shots that left even the Swede standing. Two sets blew away while Borg played himself in. If you didn’t know him, you would have said he had no chance. Connors, who did know him, knew that he had to be nailed quickly, since he gets stronger as he goes on longer. He went on longer.

At two sets all, even the McEnroe groupies must have been waking up to the fact that great sport, like great art, is more than just self-expression. Connors (‘Borg, I beg your pardon’) faltered and Borg (‘Connors, rather’) went through. As this column goes to press, the final is about to commence. McEnroe has the choice between playing tennis or the mad scene from ‘Lucia.’ All those who admire his gifts hope it is the first.

The Observer, 5th July 1981
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]