I'm not what you'd call a tennis fanatic but during my childhood the sport was an inescapable fact of life. I was brought up in the 1970s in Wimbledon. And to us, the residents of London SW19, the annual circus felt very different from the glamorous sporting festival broadcast by the BBC. Wimbledon was an industrial project. And it was our project. The ball-boys came from my school. The bag carriers were plucked from local dole queues. Gardeners deserted their day-jobs and spent the fortnight knocking in tent-pegs or rolling the grass. Droves of pretty girls were hired to serve champagne and Pimm's to visiting stars.
But there was a contradiction at the heart of all this toil and sweat. We were the slaves, the dogsbodies of international tennis. We put Wimbledon on but we never won the damn thing. Ever. Our job was to cheer sportingly as some nut-brown hunk flew in from abroad, smashed the ball around south London for a few days and soared away with the prize money. Aside from Virginia Wade's victory in 1977, we Brits barely got a hit of the ball. We scraped into the first round where we flailed around like elderly lobsters before being sent packing in straight sets. Tim Henman has brought us a little closer to a singles victory at Wimbledon and yet his doomed heroics have merely tantalised us further and reminded us how valuable the prize would be if only we could grasp it.
So my first aim with writing my new play, Grand Slam, was to create a wish-fulfilment fantasy for success-starved British sports fans. What if a British player overcame the jinx and mounted a serious bid for the Wimbledon title? All kinds of dramatic questions would open up, not least about the correlation between sport and the national consciousness.
Next I had to determine the main character's sex. I've always found female roles fascinating to write and a sportswoman has a more interesting web of relationships with her coach, her family, her stalker (yes, I gave her one of those too), and her bodyguard. I called her Madeleine, after a friend.
The toughest question of all was how to put sport on stage. Sport and theatre make uneasy bed-fellows not because they're alien idioms but because they're virtually identical. Both are metaphors. And both offer spectators a complete and self-contained account of the human condition. At its best, sport is pure theatre. It intensifies life to an almost unbearable degree. Think of Jonny Wilkinson braced for a match-winning kick, or of Michael Vaughan poised on the brink of a century. Or think of John Terry approaching that penalty spot at the Champions League final in Moscow. At such moments, sport has everything that theatre strives for: drama, heroism, uncertainty, knife-edge tension and the compelling spectacle of an individual ready to submit to an unknown fate. And by choosing tennis I got something extra because tennis is one of those sports in which fans place a very heavy emotional investment. The star becomes more than a player in a game and is elevated to the status of national representative, a tribal champion who carries the hopes of the country on his or her shoulders. Success will bring individual glory. It will also heal and strengthen the collective psyche. Defeat will bring pain and will leave the tribe humiliated and wounded.
I wanted to see how all this pressure would affect a character like Madeleine whom I'd drawn as a troubled soul, riddled with neuroses and superstitions, and with a pathological fear of failure. A snag emerged during the early drafts. Representing tennis on stage felt physically cumbersome so I shifted the tournament into the background and focused on Madeleine's life in the changing-room, the warm-up area and in the hotel before and after each match. This seemed more revealing and intimate but it made the play's texture rather choppy. Here my Wimbledon upbringing helped me out. Friends of ours owned a large house on the Common which they leased to visiting tennis stars each year. By locating the play in a rented mansion I achieved a simpler setting.
Madeleine is played by Rachel Pickup who appeared as Helen of Troy in the RSC's Troilus and Cressida and has recently finished a stint starring in the West End's runaway hit, The 39 Steps. She's an instinctive comic actor and she "found" Madeleine almost immediately. Perhaps that's no surprise. Sportswomen are first and foremost performers. Her bodyguard, Cedric, is played by Sam Spruell, an up-and-coming film star who has the ravaged good looks of the young Willem Dafoe.
Cedric has just arrived in Madeleine's life as a last-minute replacement for her full-time bodyguard. He's a blunt-speaking East End bouncer who derides her hang-ups and superstitions. He attacks her absurdly over-specialised diet (which is based on the nutritional intake of dolphins) and he questions her dependence on shrinks and therapists. "They don't want to heal you," he says. "They want to keep you like you are. Rich and sad." She finds this shocking and yet it strikes home.
In the course of the play he gradually unpicks the psychological threads of her life. And if you're thinking that this sounds like a predictable romantic comedy, then I agree. At least I did agree. To spice things up I threw in a macabre final twist which creates an insuperable barrier between the characters and which at the same time carries Madeleine a step closer to the Wimbledon title.
You certainly don't have to be a tennis fan, or a follower of any sport, to enjoy the play. But if you are and you hanker for the Wimbledon atmosphere, pre-theatre matches will be screened in the King's Head pub in Islington, north London, and there will be Pimm's on sale behind the bar and punnets of ripe strawberries topped off with sugar and cream. Still not convinced? Here's a final thought: Grand Slam is a unique chance to watch a sporting drama whose outcome hasn't been decided by a Chinese betting syndicate.
'Grand Slam', 24 June to 27 July, King's Head Theatre, London N1 (0870 890 0149; www.kingsheadtheatre.org); Lloyd Evans is the theatre critic of 'The Spectator'
Smash hits: plays about sport
* The Changing Room
This hyper-real 1971 play by David Storey is a "backstage" look at a semi-pro Northern rugby league team. After premiering at the Royal Court, the show transferred to the West End and then to Broadway where it won a pack of Tonys.
* Professional Foul
Tom Stoppard's play follows a Cambridge don who is attending a philosophical colloquium in Prague, but is more interested in watching England's World Cup qualifying match against Czechoslovakia.
* On Tour
Three England hooligans are locked up in a foreign cell, in a Pinteresque drama of rapid power shifts and simmering violence. The play, by Gregory Burke, premiered at the Royal Court in 2005.
* An Evening with Gary Lineker
Perhaps the best known sports play, thanks to a 1994 television adaptation starring Paul Merton, Martin Clunes and Clive Owen, Arthur Smith and Chris England's play started life at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1991. Against the backdrop of the 1990 World Cup semi-final between England and West Germany, the marriage of Bill and Monica is unravelling.
* The English Game
Richard Bean's latest work premiered in May. It uses the genteel and typically English setting of an amateur cricket match to take a wry look at the state of the nation.Reuse content