Game, set and matchless

Nothing compares with Morocco in spring - especially for improving your backhand, says William Scammell
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THE SKY is a solid slab of rock. Wind lifts up the Atlantic and dumps the greater part of it down on Cumbria. Everyone retreats indoors, except for the mad mountaineers and the stoic sheep. When the phone rings it's my pal Jim, reviewing our chances. We usually reckon to play tennis together once or twice a week, all the year round, outdoors. He puts the balls through his washing-machine afterwards so we can see them again next time. We've played in every kind of weather known to man, from the sublime to the ridiculous. But our chances right now are minimal. This is the pits.

So we decide to give ourselves a break. Jim takes off for Majorca and winter climbing, with the sun on his back. I sign up with Roger Taylor Tennis Holidays for a week in Morocco. Four-star hotel. Clay courts. Guaranteed sun, blue sky, new player friends keen to improve their game. Remedial coaching for my backhand and pitiful smash, including video, which will show why it was I never got to play Kenny Rosewall and John McEnroe, except in my dreams.

There's a choice of venues: the late, great Lew Hoad's Campo de Tenis in Spain; the Algarve in Portugal; or the Anezi Hotel in Agadir, which happens to fit in with my available dates. I splash out on a new pair of Nikes, muttering about the horrendous cost (£50) since the War of the Trainers set in and footwear turned glam, but telling myself it was money well spent on the long-term prospects of these old knees and ankles.

No wonder someone is keen to privatise the Gatwick Express. It's a cool £16 return nowadays from Victoria. We flew out early in the morning on Royal Moroccan Airlines. The plane was only half full so there was plenty of room to sprawl, even for ghettoised smokers like me, the service friendly and relaxed - so relaxed that we were halfway there before we got coffee and breakfast. Spectacular approach over the Atlas mountains and then a half-hour ride into town.

The Anezi Hotel was ten floors of imposing but not too pompous comfort. My spacious apartment on the fourth had a large double bed, bathroom, TV, radio, and the dimmest bedside lights I've ever encountered. It also had a workman touching up the spotless white walls with a paintbrush and two chambermaids racing to clean up the room before my arrival. In the event, it was a dead heat. I took myself off to the balcony, which had a fine view of the town and the great sweep of the beach.

I can't vouch for it, but someone said later that this is the best beach in Morocco. It's certainly large, clean, sandy, and - best of all - nobody has built anything on it or at the back of it, not even a snack bar. Wind and waves made the only sounds, which contrasted blissfully with the hellish pop music blasted out over every square inch of the Turkish resort I visited on a quick package holiday last year.

There were eight of us to begin with, rising to nine when the last member of the party flew out with Roger Taylor on day three: a businessman and his wife, Graham and Pat; Iris and her seventysomething Scottish mother, who played a mean game of tennis (and golf) and swam every day in the cold pool; engagingly manic Tim, a young sub-editor from London with a two-fisted backhand and a rocket serve. He was one of the best players among us but got so wound-up on important points, so convinced that all his skills were about to run off and commit hara-kiri, that he invariably fulfilled his own worst fears and fluffed the shot. I thought I was pretty good at racquet abuse, but Tim pushed me well down the computer rankings, launching his clear across four courts and into the bougainvillaea.

Cathy looked like a quiet first-year student but turned out to be a long- serving army captain who had travelled the world. When she wasn't running or swimming, she whiled away her spare time in the biathlon. Jane was a freelance writer. Sarah was a doctor from Guy's Hospital whose natural ability deserted her when we did boring things like playing proper games and keeping the score.

I was the patriarch of the group, long on cunning and short on technique, wondering whether to rise nonchalantly above Graham's hyper-competitive instincts or to engage him in battle. That's the trouble with games - and the fun. They turn serious, and you decide how much of yourself you want to harness up to the matter in hand.

Most groups are a little larger than ours. Don't be put off if you're a beginner, or a veteran. All standards are catered for, and you get plenty of individual attention, as well as games with equals and good local players. Our tall, fit young coach was Alison, as knowledgeable as she was keen, and a one-time skier for Canada. She took us through all the basics - groundstrokes and volleys, serves and smashes, grips and steps, up-on- the-toes and eye-on-the-ball. She videod, encouraged, exhorted, running my poor old knees from side to side and even playing me at singles in her spare time. We did our best, trying to modify the habits of a lifetime in accordance with her perfectionism.

Roger Taylor joined us a little later and took charge of the group, looking almost as trim as in his glory days at Wimbledon and the US open, where he notched up three semi-finals and two doubles titles respectively. He was as affable, funny and informative as you could wish. Over a beer or two, I got the story of a young Cumbrian tiger I used to play with when he was a lad, who almost made it to the top. I also learnt how most of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) rule-book had been invented to combat the uncontrollable Nastase.

Agadir itself is smallish, newish (most of it was razed in the freak earthquake of 1961) and friendly, just the right size to explore with what little energy was left over from the daily schedule. It has a fine, non-touristy souk which sells everything under the sun, and a small selection of friendly bars and shops. Pat had a suede coat made to measure. Tim came away with exotic herbs and spices from a stall that looked like Van Gogh's palette. I settled for cheap and cheerful pottery and an amber necklace.

An excellent meal of fresh fish at the Restaurant du Port, plus wine and pudding, came to a mere £10 a head. The hotel food wasn't quite in this class, but good nonetheless - and plenty of it. For half-board we got breakfast and evening meal. (You can have lunch if you prefer, or any two of three.) We mostly settled for a midday snack of generously filled chicken rolls, plus a few frites, and a beer or coffee out by the pool, for £2.50 or so. There's not a lot of choice as far as wine is concerned, and Flag beer comes at about £l.20 for a small bottle, but that's standard in dryish Islamic countries.

Our trip coincided with Ramadan, when the faithful go without even a glass of water for 12 hours every day, and have to carry on cheerfully serving us our food and drink, which they did with great good grace. At 6.30pm the amplified mullah wails, sirens sound the reprieve, and presumably everyone races for the kitchen.

Among we tennis players, nobody leapt to county standard and we all fell about at the sight of our mistakes on the video screen. But it was an enjoyable and useful week. As in philosophy, the basics are indistinguishable from the most advanced moves, so however well you know the theory it's always good to re-rehearse fundamentals under the benevolent eye of an expert. You can play as little or as much as suits your fancy, and I found it best to pace myself by shortening one of the twice-daily sessions.

On the last day the frame of my techno-marvel of a racquet cracked and I had to dump it mournfully in the bin. Perhaps providence, a more severe critic than Roger or Alison, was trying to tell me something? Was it time to invest in a set of golf clubs? Not yet awhile. Just wait until I get on court with my new magic, and the balls start flying!

! Roger Taylor Tennis Holidays, PO Box 3555, Wimbledon, London SW19 5XT (0181-947 9727). Prices for a week, inclusive of travel, range from £499 in December to £599 in March/April. Tennis weekends at Basingstoke are also available, with prices starting at £179.