People: Not a name to be trifled with
Sunday 29 June 1997
Actually I've never really minded being called "Timmy". What I really can't stand is the middle-class twits who insist on calling me "Timbo". Anyway, I obviously couldn't take this lying down, so I rang Amis to ask him what the hell he thought he was playing at. What about Timothy McVeigh, I said, the Oklahoma bomber? How many Martins have recently been convicted of mass murder? "Well, indeed," said Amis, showing no hint of contrition. "But that's a kind of negative achievement. I think that's a cry of rage from a Tim."
Sadly, Amis had not been besieged with phone calls from angry Tims. "But I've had some complaints at the tennis club," he said. "People mentioned Tim Mayotte and Tim Gullickson."
Amis's passion for tennis is well documented, and I wondered which he would rather be, given the choice: Wimbledon men's champion or the literary giant that he has become? "I think it would have been a very nice life to have been a sportsman, but I'll stick with what I've got," replied the novelist whose first name, I feel obliged to point out, rhymes with "farting".
In a great British tradition
Court 13 at Wimbledon, Tuesday afternoon. Amazingly it wasn't raining, and even more amazingly the sun was shining as we awaited the arrival of Jonas Bjorkman, the number 17 seed from Sweden, and Chris Wilkinson, Britain's number four player, which equates to 11,567,218th in the world rankings, or something like that. It looked like a mismatch, but in this summer of British sporting triumphs a nation has come to expect the unexpected. The game was carrying on from the previous evening, when, in a typically British kind of way, Wilkinson had won the first set 7-6 and then somehow contrived to lose the second to love. Truly anything might happen.
It was my first visit to Wimbledon and in a gesture towards Tony's new egalitarian society I'd decided to forgo the privileges of a press pass and queue up like everyone else. I think I began to regret this after the first couple of hours, by which time I'd read the Guardian from cover to cover (including the incredibly boring Education bit), completed the crossword, made a paper hat, a paper dragon with flapping wings and a pile of firelighters, and generally marvelled at the awesome speed of the occasional passing snail.
I'd arrived at 8am and just before noon I was finally admitted through the hallowed portals of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Naturally all the best tickets had gone to the people who'd started queuing several years ago, so I paid eight quid for what is known as a "ground ticket", which basically entitles you to stand craning your neck behind a lot of other people on the outside courts - now and then you can even catch sight of the ball when one of the players launches a particularly high lob shot. But I discovered that my ticket also entitled me to queue up for a seat at one of the smaller stands, so after a quick queue for a sandwich and another 20 minutes of queuing at the back of Court 13, I settled down for the forthcoming David and Goliath contest.
I have to admit I wasn't familiar with either Bjorkman or Wilkinson, but when the two players arrived it wasn't difficult to tell who was who. One was tanned and athletic and exuded sporting professionalism. The other was deathly pale and thin as a rake, his matchstick legs protruding comically beneath the marquee of his shorts, which were possibly the baggiest pair I've ever seen.
It was time for battle to commence. Bjorkman versus the Stickman. It was the Stickman to serve first and naturally he dropped his serve immediately. Things were looking grim, but not, apparently, to the Stickman, who was grinning rather a lot. Clearly he'd taken the attitude that he was going to lose, so he might as well enjoy himself in the process, which is a very British kind of attitude. I don't remember Ivan Lendl approaching a game in this way. Things looked up briefly as the Stickman broke back at 1-2, but the stern Swede broke back a few games later and found himself with a two sets to one lead.
As the fourth set progressed, things began to improve. It became clear that The Incredible Stickman possessed telescopic arms and extending legs, which enabled him to reach balls a normal human being wouldn't even get close to. Obviously, being British, he felt obliged to follow each incredible winner with a dolly straight into the net, but he was enjoying himself and the Swede was beginning to get rattled. Fourth set to the Stickman! The crowd cheered loudly.
During the changeover before the final set, our attention turned to the scoreboard high above Centre Court. Greg Creepski was serving for the match against Mark Philippoussis. As the winning point was indicated, a massive roar erupted from the home fans all around me. The patriotic fire had now been well and truly lit. As the Stickman walked out to face his destiny, the cheers that greeted him were deafening. England was expecting a victory.
The Stickman's grin had gone now and he even seemed to have mysteriously acquired a tan. Suddenly he was Bjorkman's equal. The sixth game was the crucial one - for nearly a quarter of an hour the Stickman valiantly defended his serve, fighting off eight break points, before finally taking it. The seeded Swede was looking sterner by the minute. In the next game the Stickman broke serve and when he held it in the following game the crowd went wild. It was 5-3 to the Stickman and suddenly there were a dozen press photographers at the side of the court, where before there had been only a couple.
Two games later, the Stickman served for the match and when Bjorkman hit the final ball long, the crowd rose as one. The Brit Stick had done it! He punched the air, then slumped down on his seat exhausted. His grin had returned. The applause went on for quite a while and I have to say it was quite a moving moment.
A quarter of an hour later, the stand was two-thirds empty for a first- round ladies singles match between a grim-faced Romanian and a blonde- haired German who was wearing grey knickers (which I mention simply for the benefit of BBC viewers, who are deprived of such details). The Stickman was due to play Mark Woodforde of Australia in the next round, but at the time of writing, the match has yet to take place. My money's on Woody in straight sets.
Enough to make you over-excited
This August sees the 50th anniversary of Indian independence and in due course I shall naturally be flying over to interview the entire population of the subcontinent in order to mark this momentous occasion. In the meantime on Thursday I went to a very swish lunch at the Tamarind restaurant in Mayfair thrown by the film-makers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory to mark the impending re-release of their three Indian films, Shakespeare Wallah, Autobiography of a Princess and Heat and Dust.
One of the starters had been prepared according to Ismail Merchant's own recipe. I'm not a food expert but I think I can fairly describe it as aubergine in curry sauce and very nice it was too. "I'm a cook, but I dabble in it, I'm not a professional," said Ismail, who was looking very dapper in a Nehru suit with a polka-dot handkerchief flapping from the breast pocket. He's a tennis fanatic and goes to Wimbledon every year. "I get so excited, sometimes over-excited," he said. "I play tennis, but I'm not very good."
Sundays with Andy are safe
THERE were huge sighs of relief at Hulse Mansions last week when Andy Gray announced that he wouldn't be taking up the vacant manager's job at Everton. Gray is the football pundit who puts all the others in the shade and Sunday afternoon football on Sky just wouldn't have been the same without him. He had talks with the Everton chairman but made his decision to stay after a meeting with the fearsome boss of BSkyB, Sam Chisholm (who, as it happens, recently announced his own impending departure from the station).
"It was an experience I wouldn't like to go through too often. He's a very tough, uncompromising character," says Andy of Chisholm, although he could be describing himself during his playing days. "He made it clear that I would only be going over his dead body."
Andy's an enthusiastic tennis player. "I'm still fairly nimble across the court and still fairly competitive, so I give a good game," he says. So maybe if Sky manage to bag the rights to Wimbledon one day, we'll be treated to Gray on tennis. I can almost hear it now: "And just look at that Sampras serve! The big man just launched himself into it. Ab-so-lutely awesome."
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