BOOK OF THE WEEK: Days of wind and cavalier poses

Too Soon To Panic by Gordon Forbes (HarperCollins, pounds 5.99)
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John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors bemoan the lack of characters in the modern game. Well, a couple of generations before the advent of the terrible duo, McEnroe would have found a kindred spirit in the shape of Abe Segal, a South African Davis Cup player, who made the three-times Wimbledon champion seem positively angelic.

Segal features prominently in these memoirs and anecdotes of the last 40 or so years in amateur and professional tennis - a sequel to A Handful of Summers - by his doubles partner. The friendship of these two is the dominant theme as they make their way on the circuit in the 1950s and 60s, when there was little cash but lots of camaraderie among fellow competitors.

Later on, Forbes' observations come from his days as a writer and commentator, and he continually transports us back and forth in time. One moment he and Segal are preparing for a doubles match in Paris in 1950 and then a couple of pages later it's 1993 at Roland Garros and he's hanging out with the tennis glitterati at the court of Mark McCormack.

The comparisons with the modern game are numerous. Mainly, money is the issue, and the constant lack of it in the early days meant the search to find cheap restaurants and accommodation often took precedence over practice. However, while they struggled to make ends meet, they certainly had fun, and had novel ways of preparing for the next day's match: "biological coaching'' and "improving our short game,'' were euphemisms for nights down in the Pigalle area of Paris.

Another time, Segal unintentionally uses an unusual tactic during a doubles match. So afflicted by flatulence in Rome that the Italian crowd applauds the sound effects, one of his opponents asks the umpire if there is a rule against it. Segal interjects: "If a player farts 15 times in a game, he gets a win by default.''

The strength of the book is the author's appreciations of some of the all-time greats such as McEnroe and Lew Hoad. His piece on McEnroe at the height of his powers capitulating from two sets up to Ivan Lendl in the 1984 French Open final perfectly captures McEnroe's siege mentality as he clashes with officialdom.

Having failed to get a volley overruled in his favour after a long tirade, McEnroe is informed by the umpire that the linesman says "there are many marks [on the clay]. McEnroe's withering response is: "Tell him that for people with eyes there is only one mark.''

His tribute to Hoad is moving. The great Australian also comes out with a memorable quote on Jimmy Connors' service while watching him play Mikael Pernfors at Wimbledon in 1987. "A bloody great swing, a bloody great grunt and out pops a mouse.''

At Flushing Meadows five years later, Forbes unwittingly stumbles across the future of women's tennis. Nick Bollettieri is coaching a 10-year-old Russian girl. "Mister Forbes, you are watching a future champion,'' he says. Her name was Anna Kournikova.