No balls, please

It’s that time of year again. Just as we’re planning our August holidays and getting used to the sun shining reasonably regularly again, up comes the usual ritual, with grown adults who are proud to be British making fools of themselves in public, and seeking to justify toe-curling silliness on the ground that ‘It’s our tradition.’ I am of course referring to the top brass of the All-England Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon, London SW19.

The organisers of the world’s biggest and oldest tennis tournament doubtless have a lot to be proud about, but this year even non-tennis fans can take note, as Wimbledon is making one of its rare and belated forays into the realms of Difference and Trying Something New. The custodians at SW19, finally paying heed to the players who – together with the fans – really make the tournament (and have their health to think about, having just played at Roland Garros in Paris barely a fortnight before), have agreed to let Wimbledon start a week later than it usually does. Whereas previously the action would all start round about now, it’s now getting underway next Monday instead.

This means that organisers of the Twelfth in Northern Ireland could now have some competition on their hands in attracting TV viewers, as many at home in East Belfast and the Waterside may hereon decide to forgo the parades in favour of catching some Centre Court action. Maybe the Lodges could have the walkers carry, instead of banners, huge battery-powered plasma screens showing the latest live scores on Teletext, or auction tennis balls signed by Drew Nelson and Tom Elliott. (Just a few frivolous suggestions there – no political agenda intended…)

Tony Benn used to say of Parliament in Westminster that ‘It’s the last place to get the message.’ The same could be said about the cultural and sporting institution that is Wimbledon, when it comes to the message of how properly and professionally to run an international sports event in the 21st Century. There, the word “tradition” has over the years been used to explain why, for example, yes, the players still had to bow to the Royal Box (Did anyone ever think to ask, what would have been the consequence of them not doing that? Would transgressing players have been packed off to the Tower?), but no, they could not play on the Middle Sunday (even though the players do so in every other major tournament).

Things have developed so much that this invoking of “tradition” to underline why certain things must or must not happen has in itself turned into a tradition – which must naturally be protected at all costs, or until public embarrassment makes a rethink all but unstoppable. To cite just one example, despite the annual rainy headaches disrupting the tennis and annoying players and fans both at the tournament and at home, Wimbledon’s head honchos annually resisted calls to put a roof over Centre Court, until the third Federer-Nadal final of 2008, starting as it did at 2:00pm and ending just after 9:00pm (owing to countless rain delays), left the organisers with a seven-hour omelette on their face. Construction of the long-overdue roof duly got underway not long after Nadal had walked off with his prize.

The great thing about ancient traditions, of course, is that they eventually go by the wayside – sometimes to be replaced by new ancient traditions. At least one embarrassing one has disappeared at SW19 – that of a desperate nation in need of a home-grown tennis hero having the words “Come On, Tim!” inflicted on their ears, in the hope that it’s sufficiently loud enough to drown out the more numerous groans of collective embarrassment over Tim Henman being, while good, not good enough, actually, to win tennis’s top trophies, yet still being hyped by the media as if he were. Occasionally, however, you do hear the words during an Andy Murray match – something that visibly (and understandably) annoys the Scot. Writing after Henman’s defeat by Pete Sampras in the semis in 1999 (after the Briton had taken a strong lead), John Sweeney of the Observer brilliantly summed up the general head-in-hands hopelessness about British tennis:

The look in Henman’s eyes spoke volumes: not “I am the Conqueror” but “Would you mind, awfully, if I beat you?” Henman is a true heir to the English tradition, enshrined in the fact that it took longer for the Ministry of Transport to build a ring road around London than it did for the Spanish to conquer Latin America.

Remember when this guy was the future of British tennis?
Remember when this guy was the future of British tennis?

In the wake of Henman’s departure from the game, and Murray’s success since, you do get the unavoidable sense of the establishment at SW19 feeling that the natural order has somehow been upset, and that that other annoying British (or should that be English?) tradition of class-ridden snobbery is too long a-dying. It’s a tradition still left over from the 1930s, when Wimbledon officials were heard publicly bemoaning having to award the Challenge Cup to Britain’s then top tennis star Fred Perry, on account of his working-class background. Yes, Andy Murray is now a member of the All-England Club, but only because every other champion there is automatically granted membership (apparently it’s a tradition, so the chaps in blazers and ties can hardly be churlish about that now, can they?). Barely a year after Henman’s retirement, a commentator in the Daily Telegraph wrote that Murray ‘will never make us swoon’ because ‘we [sic] liked Tim Henman’s Home Counties stiffness far more than the cursing aggression of this young man’. Mark Steel of the Independent spoke for many with this sarcastic retort:

Because that’s what makes great champions – Home Counties stiffness. This is what links Tiger Woods, Pele, Brian Lara and Billie Jean King – they were all brought up within five miles of Guildford. And Muhammad Ali was from Hemel Hempstead, where he would boast: “Float like an accountant, sting like a sales director for fitted kitchen units.”

Things need to change. They always do, anyway. Eventually, the grass at the SW19 stadia will go – it’s much more expensive to maintain than clay or hard courts, and besides, nobody trains on it any more. Eventually, the final set will be concluded with a tiebreak – hardly any other tournament maintains the two-game-lead rule now. Eventually, there will be more British champions at Wimbledon – the message is slowly filtering through that more cash is needed for tennis clubs and coaches in the UK to attract more interested kids, most of whom are not lucky enough to have been born to stockbrokers or lawyers who can afford to pay for them. Eventually, the rights to broadcast the tournament will go to another channel – the 90-second break after every other game can easily be filled with two or three ads (Seriously, who wants to watch the players sipping Coke or nibbling bananas?).

Sooner or later, there will be improvements coming about, but honestly, why not bring them about Sooner rather than Later? The world’s biggest tennis tournament is supposed to be a trailblazer and pioneer of innovation and new thinking, not a follower of it. We, the long-suffering fans – to say nothing of the players who turn up from all over the world every year – deserve nothing less.