No sex please ... it's Wimbledon

The repressed social mores of English amateur tennis are infecting the game at its highest level
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WIMBLEDON, WHICH starts today, may be the apex of the British game. But until now its rituals have seemed alien to those of us who play tennis at club level. At Wimbledon all the players seem to talk to each other; there are no dramatic resignations from the committee; mixed doubles are played without a single husband and wife team finalising their divorce on court. This is not tennis as we know it.

The English tennis club has its own rituals. They are unchanging and of interest to anthropologists everywhere. A male player complimenting a female player on her backhand topspin lob is the first stage of a complex courtship ritual. If this is followed by a suggestion to play together in the club tournament it is tantamount to a request to sleep together and should normally be followed by a proposal of marriage at the Christmas dance.

Such rituals have been absent at Wimbledon over the years, but suddenly there is discernible and significant evidence that the repressed but explosive social mores of the English amateur game are infecting tennis at its highest level.

The estimable Jana Novotna has taken on the weekend tennis club ethos with a vengeance, making wounding criticisms of her leading colleagues. In true tennis-club style she has concentrated on their appearance and sexuality rather than their tennis ability, for that is the surest way to put an adolescent genius off her game. The teenage phenomenon Martina Hingis has in turn said that she is no longer playing doubles with Novotna because she is too old and too slow. That, of course, is the surest way to put the older woman off her game. This behaviour shows a subtle understanding by the international stars of how the top tennis players interact at club level.

But most pleasing and most authentic of all was the scene at the end of the French final when Hingis left the court in tears after the crowd booed her in her match against Steffi Graf, a match in which she committed the ultimate club transgression of an underarm serve. Significantly, Hingis was marched back on to receive her runner-up trophy by her weary looking mother. With millionaire teenagers surrounded by entourages the bored, non-playing mum, that staple of tennis club life who has to make the sandwiches and deal with the sulks, has rarely figured on the grand prix circuit.

The emergence of the tennis mum at this high level will, I hope, be accompanied by the sine qua non of club tennis - the committee member. It is the committee member's duty to find a reason, usually deeply embedded in a subsection of the club rules, why good players should be asked politely to leave the court. We are told that the kit the women wear at this Wimbledon could be the sexiest ever. Maybe. But to emulate the club game, the All England Club committee members will need to spend inordinate amounts of time staring long and hard at the chests and groins of the players - to satisfy themselves, of course, that they are wearing the regulation white clothing.

This is one of many ways that on-court displays of latent sexuality are stamped upon quickly by a committee member. And Wimbledon may well look to the Lawn Tennis Association for advice on how to deal with the latest phenomenon: screaming. This has replaced the Seles grunt as a key characteristic of the top women players.

In the Eastbourne final at the weekend, both the Belarussian Natasha Zvereva and her French opponent Nathalie Tauziat opened their lungs to give vent to their frustration. At an English tennis club such behaviour would have led to one or both girls being threatened with the ultimate humiliation and ostracism - having their names deleted from the catering rota.

However, there was a rather wonderful moment in the television coverage which epitomised the essential difference between French passion and English efficiency, and the corresponding approaches to tennis. When Tauziat let rip with a particularly emotion filled scream, Virginia Wade, commentating for the BBC, opined: "A scream may make you feel good. But it raises the blood pressure and quickens the heartbeat, so is not particularly useful at this stage of the set." The phraseology - that of the scolding no-nonsense aunt - will be immediately recognisable to readers of tennis club newsletters: short but devastating documents which destroy reputations and inhibit natural talent through public humiliation.

It is just such a sterling philosophy that dominates the committees of Britain's tennis clubs. We may produce few champions, but we do know how to keep the behaviour sanguine, the accounts in order and the cutlery clean.