Park Life

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"I'M GREG Rusedski," one of the boys announces as we step on to the court. "I'm Tim Henman," the other counters, demonstrating their mastery of the current rankings.

After a five-day tennis course at half-term, the boys reckon they know everything about the game. My tentative attempts at coaching tips: "Why don't you try swinging the racket back earlier?" are dealt with summarily. "Shut up, Dad, I know how to do it."

Tom, 10, is convinced the forehand volley is a curriculum item, like the pentagon. Your teacher tells you it is a five-sided polygon, and that's it; you know it for ever. No need to practise; let's get on with the game. I explained that tennis doesn't work like that. Even Pete Sampras, the best player in the world, has a coach who tells him what to do. "He can't be much good then," says Tom.

When they miss the ball, which is most of the time, it's my fault: "You hit it too hard," they say. "It bounced too high." "It was too fast." I try to keep the ball in play by hitting it back when it has landed beyond the base line. "Out, out," they chorus. "My point, my serve."

Seven-year-old Darcy may call himself Tim Henman, but his conduct is modelled with uncanny accuracy on that of John McEnroe, whom he never saw in action; one long, teetering tantrum punctuated by the occasional good shot. When I congratulate him on one of these, he glares at me as if to say, "You cannot be serious." I wonder: did McEnroe grow up with an older brother who was always trying to put him in his place?

If I had been a bit quicker when we arrived at the court, I would have bagged the first name. It was Greg Rusedski who, a couple of months ago, presented me with my "Tennis Moment of the Year". The top-ranked Brit, the world number four, admitted in a newspaper article that he had lost a crucial match because he could not do a top-spin backhand. Couldn't do it? It worked well enough in practice, he explained, but under pressure, when he really needed to win the point, the shot had deserted him.

My heart soared. Thanks Greg; the first Briton (by birth or adoption) to be a genuine contender for a grand slam title in my lifetime, and he admits his inability to perform one of the basic strokes of tennis. Imagine Alan Shearer saying he can't pass the ball; Tiger Woods saying he's no good with a five iron; Nigel Mansell saying he can't change gear. My mind scrolled back over 30 years of attempting the top-spin backhand, usually with humiliating results; the fact that I could recall one particular shot, executed to perfection, shows how rare success has been for me in this area. More often the ball has landed yards behind my opponent's baseline, sometimes taking off in a great arc to clear the high wire fence at the back of the court.

Beyond the knowledge that we shared the humiliation of the failed backhand, Rusedski's admission has reminded me of something that I had forgotten; despite its strawberries-and-cream, tea-party-at-the-vicarage image, tennis is a fiendishly difficult game. Hitting a fast-moving ball hard and high enough to clear the net, but not so hard and high that it lands out, is no easy matter, even for a highly trained professional. No wonder I struggled to get a decent game with the boys.

But I have made an accidental discovery that may revolutionise the way we play tennis in my family. During the annual mini-boom that accompanies Wimbledon and collapses three weeks later, it is impossible to get a court at our local park. So, this week we played at the side of the cricket pitch; no net, no markings, just a wide expanse of grass. And it was wonderful; we enjoyed rally after free-form rally with no sign of Nastase or McEnroe. Next month, when everyone has drifted away on holiday and the courts are empty once again, if I have my way, we'll still be playing on the cricket pitch. If Greg Rusedski has any more trouble with that pesky top-spin backhand, he's welcome to join us.

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