What first made me watch the Wimbledon tennis championships as a child was almost certainly the fact that it was on TV just at the start of the summer holidays and effectively formed a banner signalling the start of eight weeks off school. Another factor would have been that, like one or two other sports events, it always seemed to get allocated star billing by the BBC’s Grandstand. “Grand National Grandstand”, “Boat Race Grandstand”, “Wimbledon Grandstand…”
Although I do have some memories of the 1960s dominance of the Australian men like Rod Laver and John Newcombe and of Billie-Jean King in the women’s event, I seemed to gain greater interest during the 1970s era of Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Bjorn Borg and Martina Navratilova. It probably had a lot to do with free time at the end of school or university terms, live coverage encroaching into normal TV schedules and the fact that my great hero, Clive James, covered the tournament in his TV reviews in The Observer.
John McEnroe was, of course, part of that era. I wasn’t a great fan of McEnroe: I found his (in)famous on-court tantrums annoying rather than understandable , admiring more the quiet concentration of such as Bjorn Borg.
Gradually during the 1980s, my attention in the championships as a whole waned. They became something out of the corner of my eye during June, subordinated by other interests. Then I noticed, around the turn of the century, that the older, retired McEnroe, shorter haired, greying at the temples, had become a commentator and pundit for the BBC at Wimbledon.
This was counter-intuitive to more people than just me. In his playing prime, McEnroe’s persona was aggressive, argumentative, self-regarding. Yet, now he was knowledgeable, articulate, confident, but also gracious and co-operative.
I particularly loved the BBC trailer in 2004 for the upcoming Wimbledon with McEnroe selling the drama of the event to a film producer. Annoyingly, no copy of the video appears to survive online.
Wimbledon has something for every audience, McEnroe exhorted. He specified four or five movie themes or elements although I remember only two: the small town boy made good – Roger Federer; the romantic couple – Kim Clijsters and Lleyton Hewitt. But I clearly remember the punch-line: and what about a cliffhanger? McEnroe smiled. “Have you ever been to a Tim Henman semi-final?”
Ironically, that was probably the last year of the Tim Henman Era before we moved towards the (equally hysterical or totally different? – you decide) Andy Murray Era.
I will be watching just enough of Wimbledon this year to hear as much of McEnroe as possible.