In search of Britain's true tennis soul: Pimms, cream teas and dangerous liaisons

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The Independent Online
Wimbledon is here again, prompting much dusting-off of aged rackets, squeezing into school whites and a short-lived surge in court bookings. But what of the year-round amateurs who play summer and winter alike, suffering broken bones and tennis elbow, yearning to perfect their technique and fill the yawning gaps in their social lives? Rosie Millard investigates the game's true diehards

A sign is pinned up inside Alderley Edge Cricket Club's half-timbered pavilion. 'I am a student making a TV documentary,' it reads, 'about the 'Golden Triangle' around Alderley Edge. There are more Rolls-Royces here per square mile than anywhere else on earth. If you own a Rolls-Royce . . .'

There were no Rolls-Royces in the car park, but the lawn tennis section of the cricket club has the impeccably clipped grass courts, ambient bird-song and perfect pavilion of the ultimate British tennis club. 'It is very beautiful,' agrees Marianne I'Anson. A fifty-something woman with a burnished blonde bob, seamless tan and perfectly groomed tennis kit, Mrs I'Anson is the sort of woman who spends her time organising charity dos with Princess Margaret in tow; she is also the honorary secretary of the tennis club.

Mrs I'Anson, born and bred in Cape Town, looks out over the wooded Cheshire hills of the Edge. 'Come and sit with me on this rustic bench.'

We sit on the rustic bench and Mrs I'Anson gestures to the five grass, three Astroturf and six hard courts. 'If you want to play team stuff, that's fine, but we have so much else. A fantastic setting, fantastic people, and a fantastic range of things to do.'

She is not exaggerating. In addition to 'serious tennis', which basically means local tournaments, and 'rusty corner', where hopeless cases are coached, there are the Christmas party, the Whites Night at the beginning of the season, where everyone turns up in white evening wear, Pimms nights and tournament barbecues, not forgetting the cream teas every Saturday at four, after which, according to Mrs I'Anson, 'everyone just wanders back on court'.

Indeed, it would seem that matches at Alderley Edge's tennis club, founded in 1885 and charging pounds 150 a year for adult membership, take something of a second billing; but who's complaining, as long as the weather holds?

'It has revolutionised my social life,' says the social secretary, Caroline Petch, a 30-year-old accountant who joins us on the bench. 'Joining this club means you get loads of boyfriends, particularly when you consider the hockey and cricket clubs which we're allied to.'

She gestures toward the perfect cricket pitch in the middle of the club grounds. It is looked after, as are the grass courts, by a groundsman who went to a special grass seminar at none other than the All England itself. 'That made a big difference,' says Mrs I'Anson. 'He's very highly trained.'

'We're going to have a marquee here at the beginning of July,' interrupts the social secretary, 'with an evening ball and a whist drive and then a sports day. You know, egg and spoon, three-legged races and sack races. I think it's what it's all about. If the club wasn't here, there would simply be a huge hole in my life.'

Ms Petch concedes that club members can get up to some fairly riotous behaviour. 'On our social nights the older, more well-established members do get pissed as farts,' she confesses. 'One even threw a brick through one of the neighbouring house's windows at a recent party.

'I think he had a gripe about them, or something. And there have been a couple of divorces caused by husbands or wives meeting other people through the club,' she continues, darkly. 'You know, liaisons over the mixed doubles draw, and so on.'

(Photograph omitted)