I was a great disappointment to my father in one particuar way. I did not like sport. I could not catch a ball, or throw it, or run, or jump, or aim, or swim, or ride. Nothing. He did manage to teach me to skate – how? I can’t now, but I did learn to ride a tricycle and later a scooter.
But that’s not the point. Tennis was my father’s passion, and he did his best to enthuse me.
When I was a little girl, he would sometimes take me out of school to watch some matches in Wimbledon. I remember watching or rather seeing, Billie Jean King, (I asked for her autograph, where can it be?) Virginia Wade, Evonne Goolagong when she was just starting and the beautiful Maria Bueno.
Many years later, when I was working at my first teaching job in Esher College, one of the teachers there, David Shaw, was a coach I think at Wimbledon Tennis Club, and he had somehow bought at auction one of Maria Bueno’s tennis dresses. I’ll never forget it, it was such a beautiful garment. Made of very thick, possibly padded or quilted cotton, it was pure white (it had to be then) and a very simple high necked shift shape. Very short, of course, and probably had padded knickeers to match. I don’t remember. What I do recall is that very cheekily I asked to try it on, and to my surprise he let me. A perfect fit. I had to return it, however, when he immediately and lovingly replaced in its fine tissue paper and a sturdy cardboard box.
Talking of David, who was an extremely kind and generous man, he used to arrange for some of the staff to attend Wimbledon matches during the summer term. I went to see Buster Mottram – remember him? The name was memorable if nothing else. It was a nice day out from school. Very civilised way to play official truant. That must have been 1980 or thereabouts. I’ve just realised I saw him play agains McEnroe in 1979
But to go back to my dad. He played tennis himself every week, until his hips gave way when he was 64. He had had to stop a little before then because all his partners were slowly dropping out, too lame, too old, or even gone to the eternal court in the sky. His Saturdays were empty, unfortunately. and he stopped all his sports. But when I was a child he used to take me with him to the Wimbledon practice courts and I would watch him play. I absolutely refused to try myself, though I believe there were some other young people there. But they were older, and louder, and sporty. After he’d finished his game he would take me to the putting pitch which I quite enjoyed. But these stories of my misspent youth are not going to become best sellers.
When I was eleven he sent me to boarding school. Ha ha. I though it was going to be like Mallory Towers or even Third Form at St Claires. How wrong I was. I knew it wasn’t going to be like the Chalet School as the school was a quarter of a mile up the hill from where he lived and nowhere near Switzerland.
Yet the school had – and has, beautiful grounds including tennis courts, one grass, two hard. Daddy was very excited for me and quickly bought me a tennis racket – Slazenger of course- wooden handle, catgut, and very small. And a hockey stick – ugh – the tiniest he could find, and to put in all my gear he bought me the most enormous Slazenger sports bag. Just like the one you can see in the photograph. I carried this bag to and from school for seven years. I can’t remember ever opening it but I suppose I must have done.
We had to play hockey almaost every day in the winter and spring terms. I hated it and couldn’t hit the ball. It hit me more.
Tennis was a summer term activity, and somehow there was less pressure. We were taught the basics and then allowed to play. I managed not to most of the lesson times – there were too many girls who actually wanted to and could, but in the evenings, after supper, the boarders were allowed to play on the courts.
That was my salvation. I had a very good friend, Jackie Muller, who was incredibly patient with me as I tried, over and over again, to get the ball over the net. Many years later, in fact, not so very long ago, I discovered I was actually dyspraxic, which explains a lot, but at the time everyone just thought I was clumsy or lazy or both.
But Jackie was brilliant. She stood at the other side of the net making encouraging noises and picking up the ball if it ever landed on her side and even lobbing it to me once I sort of got the hang of things. I can even say I enjoyed myself.
Fast forward to university. My father was still taking me to Wimbledon ocasionally-he never missed a year, and then in my first year in Sheffield I met a nice group of people who out of the blue asked me if I would make up a fourth in a doubles game. Well, obviously my reputation had not gone before me and I seized the day. I agreed, dimly remembering how to serve and get the ball over the net, and went to buy a pair of plimsolls and some white socks. At least I would look the part.
Unfortunately I cannot remember who these people were, but they came to collect me, socks and tennis shoes on, racquet in hand (note the spelling). I had by this time jettisoned the Slazenger bag, but I was eager.
And then the moment of truth. We played. One set. Two sets. They were beginning to understand that I wasn’t really very good. In fact a lot worse than anyone could have imagined. My lovely partner swapped with his friend. We won our set. Elated, we went for a drink. They were kind. I was mortified. They never asked me again.
Herewith the end of my tennis career.
But I kept the racquet, and am hoping I still have it somewhenre depite many moves and declutterings.
And then in 1980 my aunt won tickets to Court no I and invited me. We had such a lovely time as she had brought a picnic. (It was always a very hungry and dry affair with my father. He went for the tennis, and only the tennis.)
We had a lovely day and the match we were watching was over, so we were making for home, when we heard quite a hubbub coming from the Centre Court. People were leaving, yet the match was still on. Finals Day. We edged closer and somebody just handed us their tickets. We went in. and there were McEnroe and Bjorn Borg strutting their stuff, just getting into the swing of things. What a performance. We had perfect seats, and could hear all their mutterings, nay shoutings, perfectly. McEnroe was a bad-tempered angry young man, and Borg wasn’t much better. Not very polite but very entertaining.
I have to admit I have not watched any live tennis since then – but today I was persuaded to watchon TV with Iga Swiątek, Poland’s great hope for 2022. Well, I don’t know what she was up to, but sadly she gave the game away to her excellent opponent, Alize Cornet. What a shame. But as you can see, it set me off reminiscing.
Anyone for tennis?