Tuesday 21 February 2017

Wimbledon, blasphemy and the dulcet tones of the BBC

Fionnuala Ward remembers long hours glued to the tournament in her tennis-mad house

Fionnuala Ward

Published 01/07/2015 | 02:30

Arthur Ashe raises his hands in victory after beating Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final.
Arthur Ashe raises his hands in victory after beating Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final.
Maria Bueno in action at Wimbledon in 1963.

We didn't get fed during Wimbledon. Well, nothing hot anyway. The card table, used for neighbourhood bouts of bridge and poker, was brought down, parked in the sitting room and, at appropriate breaks in play, plied with salad and rolls, ham and cheese.

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We could help ourselves but swift, dart-like movements were the order of the day if break points, crucial second-serves or long, punishing rallies emanated from the flickering TV set.

And it was flickering.

Although we were definitely the favoured few. This was the 1970s and living in Navan, shrewdly ensconced on the east coast, we got the BBC.

We had access to an exotic universe where double-sided sticky tape reigned supreme and everyone knew all the words to all the hymns.

And Dan Maskell, the BBC's stalwart tennis commentator, never, simply never, raised his voice. "Ooh, I say" he would declare as Borg let a backhand rip past his opponent at the net or, "What a peach of a shot" as Billie Jean King pulled off a lob from the base-line.

Dan and his cohorts switched channels to BBC2, a channel we didn't actually have, around 6pm, although this proved but a minor inconvenience to my mother

Our equally tennis-obsessed neighbours did and my father arrived in on regular occasions, to find a note on the kitchen table announcing the decampment of his wife and four young off-spring to No 19.

My mother and father met in a tennis club so, no doubt, he would have just shrugged as he headed towards the fridge.

For some reason, however, Dundalk proved quite reticent about announcing the existence of such an establishment within its boundaries.

This could well have been down to a 1950s fear of having notions, but as it was officially known at the time and for years afterwards as 'The Rowing Club', such may not have been the case.

No, as we were regularly informed whenever the query came up, of course no rowing took place there. 'The Rowing Club' was for tennis and tennis only, where tennis was played and tennis was analysed and tennis opinions were voiced and affirmed.

And I know now, as I have always known, that the best player never to have won Wimbledon was Ken Rosewall.

Rosewall made it to the final twice, beaten, if not wiped off the court, the second time round by Jimmy Connors.

Jimmy Connors was a young, brash, cocky American. Everything that Wimbledon wasn't - a forerunner to McEnroe, with whom he shared a not-so-friendly rivalry for quite some time. Dislike of Connors became one of the mainstays of our Wimbledon viewing. My mother had it in for him for what he'd inflicted on Rosewall and watched and waited for natural justice to take its turn.

And as it happened, she didn't have to wait that long. The following year Connors found himself once more in the final, pitted against the first African-American to have made it that far and a firm favourite in our house, Arthur Ashe.

For some reason a trip to Dundalk had been scheduled on the day and so we settled down to witness the encounter in my grandmother's front room. The reception was even worse than that afforded to Meath residents and curtains were drawn to cut out extraneous light and glare.

My grandmother's regular Saturday visitor, who cycled seven miles from Louth village to do her weekly shopping in Dundalk, arrived as usual to the door.

Kitty glanced towards the curtains and tentatively inquired if anyone in the family had died. Granny reassured her that all was well and went to fetch a cup of tea.In fact, all was even better than well. Ashe was winning and winning easily.

It was all too much for Connors, though, who was becoming more and more rattled. The spectators, on the other hand, continued to be as polite and restrained as befitted a 1970s Wimbledon crowd. Until suddenly a voice from the rafters pierced a particularly potent silence with a loud, cajoling "Come on, Connors!"

And Connors wailed in reply, "I'm trying, for Christ's sake."

Nobody moved. It was hard to know where to look. Certainly not at Granny or Kitty or the offending television. My mother promptly disappeared into the kitchen as if to distance herself from that blaspheming presence which she and she alone had insisted on introducing to the house.

Even the BBC somehow froze. Seconds slumped by until with, palpable disapproval, Dan Maskell announced that never before had he heard such an utterance at Wimbledon.

And we all sighed in relief. Dan's succinct analysis had put voice to our discomfort and we hated Connors all the more. It was only right that he should lose. And, happily, he did.

Mind you, he won again a few years later. And then, salad rolls in hand, we witnessed the era of Borg and McEnroe, Navratilova and Graf.

And somewhere in between, in a London coffee shop, my mother paused momentarily before nodding in the direction of a table by the window. Two women sat chatting over a pot of tea.

"Maria Bueno", my mother whispered and stole another glance.

Maria Bueno was before my time. I had never seen her play but I knew who she was. That impeccably dressed woman, quietly sipping tea, was a Wimbledon champion and I, too, stole a second look.

Irish Independent

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