Television: Wimbledon and on and on

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS the match of the week. Two veteran ladies slugging it out on Court No 1. American Pam Shriver versus Britain's own Virginia Wade. Out on the grass, Jana Novotna was giving Jo Durie a tough time, but it was patacake compared to what Pam was lobbing at Virginia down in the commentary bunker. Wimbledon '95 (BBC1, BBC2) marks Pam's first full championship at the microphone, and so far it's been a real shock. Here is someone who knows what she's talking about and has the wit to express it - a hitherto undreamt-of combination in the women's game. No one had told Pam that it's considered bad form to talk ruthless tactics or to mention that the Brits can't exactly play tennis. "A lot of Durie's first serves are not hit with a great deal of power," she observed, "Novotna treats them like second serves." "Jo's actually hitting the ball very well today," replied Virginia with a furious cross-court pass. A tremendous server in her own day, Virginia was clearly delighted to see that Jo was following in her footfaults: "She's got such a huge toss! It seems to be higher than ever!"

As Jo bounded and beamed to the end of her last appearance on a singles court, Pam asked Virginia what she remembered about her final match at Wimbledon. There was a silence. A long silence: it sounded like Remembrance Sunday. Had we lost the volume? Out of the void came Virginia's peevish baritone: "Well, I played you on the Centre Court, Pam ... I wanted to lose ... not that I had any chance of winning." "Oh," said Pam, hastily conceding the point, "I think you did. It was a tough three-set match." As temperatures soared, so did tempers. Jim Courier did to the grass what Tutsis do to Hutus and Edberg raised half a hand at a dodgy call - the Swedish equivalent of braining the umpire. Back in the studio, Des Lynam somehow kept his cool: "Jo Durie, the only British woman to have got this far - if far's the word."

With the female British Hope extinguished, all eyes were on the home boys. Back at the start of the week, a commentator had let slip an unusually revealing fact: Wimbledon has two men's locker rooms - one for the seeds and the Brits, and one for everyone else. The same shameless favouritism operates in the allocation of courts. "Young Tim Henman" found himself on Number 1 against Pete Sampras. The champion is only three years older than Young Tim, but nobody mentioned that: it would mean taking on board the possibility that our lad had already passed from wannabe to has-been. "So much hope lies on his shoulders today for British tennis," noted Chris Bailey, who carried the burden of British Hope last year and sustained a career-wrecking injury. "Even Pete Sampras will be feeling the butterflies in his tummy at the moment," confided John Barrett in the pre-war prep- school English that likes to alert us to "a pretty gel" in the stand or a chap's "most unattractive" attire. Both commentators were agreed on Henman's secret weapon: "The crowd could easily become a factor today - if Tim can keep in the match long enough." Quite a big if. The limber Sampras, who is two evolutionary steps away from being a handsome man, let rip with his atomic banana serve. "This is a great experience for Tim Henman," purred John. The same could not be said for the viewer, or indeed Sampras. Between love games, the champion took urgent glugs of a lilac liquid designed to combat drowsiness. I turned over around the time that Chris and John started discussing Young Tim's physique: "He needs to fill out." And what he needs to fill out is an application form for another job.

Over on BBC2, there was a thrilling triples match. Nathalie Tauziat was playing Mary Pierce and Mary Pierce was playing her temperament. It was no contest. From a distance the young blonde's bearing is that of a Medici princess; close up she looks haggard with fear, past and present. Some nervous competitors make you want to stick close to the set, as if only your devout attention can keep their demons at bay. Mary Pierce's anguish is unwatchable. It's like an opening sequence of Casualty in which a small child tries to jump start a rotivator. "Oh, now she's all confused again!" wailed Virginia as Mary gnawed her knuckle and started baying into a pink towel. The sadness is that between breakdowns Pierce looked unbeatable. The great forehand slicks to the far corners like the bubble- gum bazooka of a chameleon's tongue. Just as she was hitting form, though, the camera cut away. There was a news break on the other channel, so naturally we had to leave the gripping girls' game (only French girls at that!) and return to the Sampras-Henman massacre. In the closing minutes, Young Tim was finding some shock winners. "Showing us what he is really capable of," enthused Chris, "John, you have to ask why didn't we see that in the first two sets?" "You could probably put that down to his opponent," came the sad reply.

No matter. British Hope still burned bright in the person of Greg Rusedski. The Tennis Player Formerly Known As Canadian had switched passports. It looked like a gesture of noble self-sacrifice - here was a guy who would join the Dutch ski team - but by the end of the week you saw its simple cunning. How else could a middle-ranking serve-jock find himself contesting every game on the show courts? And, hey, you get to use the nice locker room too! Rusedski's status caused some mis-hits in the studio. "Chris Wilkinson - one definitely British player through," said Des, who had obviously not made up his mind about the indefinite one. And you could hear the inverted commas Sue Barker put round "British" whenever Greg came up. Out on court, though, Rusedski soon blasted away all reservations. "What a mighty weapon that serve is!" exclaimed Mark Cox. Previously rather sniffy about the wham-bam stuff, the boys in the box were suddenly alive to its heroic vigour. "Rusedski with that very big weapon," moaned John.

Greg's other big weapon is that he doesn't look British. Bronzed, horse jaw, goofy smile, he is the spit of Michael in thirtysomething. A Mexican orgasm rippled round the stands as the home crowd finally got a chance to root for a player over nine stone. Opponents like Guy Forget were left in solitary silence. The jingoism leaked everywhere, drowning all reason. On the Six O'Clock News, we were assured that "Rusedski is looking increasingly likely to avenge the Frenchman's defeat of Jeremy Bates two years ago". Rusedski sniffed the atmosphere and saw that it was good. For his match on Friday against Delaitre, he came on wearing a low-key Union Jack bandana. "Well, you couldn't get more patriotic than that," approved Mark Cox. "There's no doubt that the crowd are goingto be very influential," said John Barrett. You can say that again - and he did. "Rusedski needs to achieve something significant to get them really worked up!"

As Delaitre stood like Sydney Carton among the mob, composing himself for a serve, the Cyclops beeper went off - even the technology was dying to find fault. You missed Dan Maskell more than ever. Dan would never have borne such unsporting conduct, let alone encouraged mass intimidation as a respectable tactic. "I think the crowd may start to take a part in this match," thundered John at 5-3 in the second set. "They've been given something to get their teeth into!" At the end of the match, one jubilant ex-Canadian unfurled his flag and threw it into the crowd. When he plays Sampras in the next round, watch out for the Winston Churchill Y-fronts and the bag of fish 'n' chips. Later that day, Sue Barker asked Greg where he got the idea for the patriotic headgear. Smiling bashfully, he confessed that "a British newspaper" had sent it in and asked him to unfurl it if he won. Another player brought low by the Sun, perhaps?

It was the last NYPD Blue (C4) in the current knockout series. Women readers have written in asking if my life too seems a futile barren desert since the departure of John Kelly. It does, girls, it does. But I find some small relief is to be had lying on the sofa contemplating the Latin cheekbones and panther slink of Bobby Simone. This week, Sipowicz (the truly irreplaceable Denis Franz) married Sylvia. He received the news that they were to vacation in a "Lawrentian wilderness" with characteristic good humour: "Now I gotta honeymoon like some beaver-pelt trader?" Sylvia looked radiant. Everything looks set for a great match. Love all.