Perusing the morning paper today, I caught myself doing something I rarely do at this point in my life: reading the tennis results—known in newspaper terms as, ‘the agate,’ because that’s the type-face used for results. Years ago, when I covered tennis on a regular basis, I read the agate daily. Not only did I know just about every name I came across, I had a pretty good sense of what a win or a loss meant to that player.
These days I read the golf agate carefully—not just the results from The PGA Tour but also The Champions Tour and The Nationwide Tour. I may not know all the names, but I know a lot of them on all three of those tours. I can tell you most of the time where the guys I know stand on The PGA Tour money list and I usually have a pretty good idea about The Nationwide list too, especially as it relates to the top 25—the magic number of make the big tour—but also the top 60 because that gives you a spot in The Nationwide Tour Championship and also exempt status on The Nationwide next year if you don’t make it through Q-School.
Most of the tennis names fly by me un-recognized now. Oh sure, I know the big names, even the semi-big names, but in the old days I could give you name, rank and serial number on anyone in the top 100 and a lot of players not in the top 100. I used to take great pleasure in wandering the back courts at tournaments in the early rounds to watch a match between two qualifiers, knowing that a first round win was huge for the winner.
Those days are gone. I still get nostalgic watching The French Open or when I notice that The Italian Open is going on and I have fond memories of traveling to Australia, especially the month I spent down there researching ‘Hard Courts.’ That said, if I ever did go back to do a tennis book it would be during this month—the next four weeks. The time of year is the reason I found myself checking out the agate this morning.
The French Open is over. The grass court season has begun. It lasts exactly five weeks (including Newport, the week after Wimbledon) and is played almost exclusively in Great Britain. The men are at Queen’s this week—note it is The Queen’s Club NOT Queens Club—and the women are in Birmingham. The men also have an event in Germany that will draw some good players but it almost doesn’t count. Queen’s has almost as much tradition as Wimbledon and is one of the best tennis venues I’ve ever been to in my life.
Next week the men and women BOTH go to Eastbourne. This is a radical change in tradition. Until last year, Eastbourne had always been strictly a women’s site, a wonderful event in an old English seaside town at another tennis ground—as they are called in Britain—that just reeks of tradition. Last year the men’s event that had been played in Nottingham was moved to Eastbourne to coincide with the women’s tournament. I can’t imagine that made the women happy but if I was still covering tennis it would be a dream come true to have the men and the women in the same place the week before Wimbledon.
Of course a lot of players don’t play the week before Wimbledon although Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert almost always played Eastbourne. It was a great place to go the week before Wimbledon to get time with top players in a relatively relaxed atmosphere.
One year at Eastbourne I was sitting with the great Ted Tinling watching a match in the front row, so close to the players you could just about touch them. Ted was one of the most remarkable, can’t-make-him-up figures I’ve ever met in sports. He had become famous for designing Gussie Moran’s famous lace panties at Wimbledon in the 40s and had been very close to the great Suzanne Lenglen. He was also a spy for The British during World War II and one of the great storytellers ever born. There was NOTHING Ted wouldn’t say to anyone or about anyone.
Ted was about 6-foot-4, completely bald, wore a diamond stud in his ear long before men did that and was always open about the fact that he was gay. He was as good a source I ever had because he knew everything and everyone and never considered anything a secret. It was Ted, as an advisor to The Wimbledon media committee, who convinced the gentleman of the club that they needed to allow a member of the American media into their daily planning meetings—not just a member of The British media.
One morning when I was the American rep, the committee chairman, a very nice guy named Barry Wetherill, made the mistake of asking the innocent question, “everything alright with your group John?”
Well, he asked. I told Barry—and the others—that I thought the lack of access we had to the players was ridiculous. We couldn’t even get into the tea room (Wimbledon for player lounge) without someone sneaking us through the entrance and the fact that we couldn’t even walk over to the practice courts to find a player was a joke. Barry turned to my English counterpart to ask if he saw any of this as a problem: “No not at all,” he said. “We’re very happy to have players brought to the interview room.”
Thanks for your support. I explained that the reporting we (Americans) did was a bit different than the Brits since it involved, well, reporting. Wetherill looked at Ted. “What do you think about all this Ted?” he asked.
Ted had been lying in wait. “Well OF COURSE John’s right,” he said. “It’s OUTRAGEOUS. Who do these players and their bloody agents think they are prancing around like royalty. The Royals sit in the Royal Box. The rest of the people in this place should TALK to people for more than the nine minutes when they come into the interview room. It’s HORRIBLE.”
I drank the sherry in front of me in one swallow at that point to keep from falling down laughing. The committee members were not nearly as amused.
So, on this day at Eastbourne, I’m sitting with Ted watching what was a pretty bad match when suddenly a fan a few yards away from us stands up during a changeover and points a shaky, drunken finger at Ted. “That’s it, that’s it!” he says. “I’m not watching another minute of this. Nothing but lesbians playing here. (The two women playing were, in fact, gay). And you Tinling, you f----- homosexual, you shouldn’t be watching this either!”
With that he sat down, apparently having forgotten that he was leaving.
Ted was very calm. “You know,” he said. “If I was a PRACTICING f---- homosexual I wouldn’t mind. But, given that I’m not, I think I’ll have him removed.”
Which he did.
The other cool place to go that week was Roehampton, in suburban London, which is where the Wimbledon qualifying tournament has always been held. Very intense, competitive tennis on dicey grass courts with very few fans around. There are always a couple of up-and-coming names or down-and-fading names at the qualifier. Most of the time if you wanted to talk to a player after he or she had played, you’d just plop down on a grassy bank near one of the courts and talk.
Queen’s has the same type of atmosphere. It is right in downtown London, best reached by subway and the stands, put up each year just for the tournament week, sit right on top of the court. Unlike at Wimbledon, there is (or at least used to be) ample access to the players since their dining area is (was?) open to the media. It was a perfect place to get time with players and watch very good tennis from very close up.
For me, the two weeks between the end of The French and the start of Wimbledon were always the best two weeks of the tennis season. Then came Wimbledon, which was always difficult to cover because of the lack of access (believe it or not the committee did NOT rewrite the rules based on my semi-tirade, although they did make a few changes eventually) but always great fun with great drama.
Someday I’d like to go back. Especially to Queen’s and Eastbourne—even though Eastbourne would never be the same without Ted.
John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases
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