Confusion reigns in the court of the royals

Sport on TV
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YESTERDAY morning, amid much squeaking of rubber sole on wooden floor, Channel 4 took us to a real tennis match. That's "real" tennis, as opposed to the "pale imitation" tennis you get at Wimbledon. Imagine a squash match in an abattoir with rules drawn up by Anthony Burgess. Entertaining viewing? "Trust me," said our host, Edward Windsor - Prince Edward to you.

This may look like novelty casting, but in fact His Royal Highness was the obvious choice for presenter. For one thing, he's a player himself and so can be relied upon to know his "grille" from his "tambour" (though we've yet to see him don the shorts and do his stuff). And when it comes to explaining obscure institutions, you'd be hard pressed to match a member of the royal family. Also, about as many people play real tennis as have a chance of ascending to the throne.

The programme decided, probably wisely, to skip lengthy explanations and elected to let us watch some games and pick it up as we go along. Our commentator courtside at Holyport was the Australian player Lachlan Deuchar, who himself sounds like one of the game's targets. ("He's gone for the tambour there, but he's just missed it and clipped the lachlan deuchar.") and first up was a mixed doubles - Jonathan Howell and Sue Haswell of England versus Frank Filippelli and Barbara "Barby" Baker from Australia. I was impressed to learn that Howell at present stands at No 9 in the world rankings - until it dawned on me that if I was to sign up today I would probably go direct into the lower twenties.

The game was fast and furious and all kinds of other things it was hard to put your finger on. "He's slipped it into the galleries behind Barby," Deuchar said. "No going soft on the girls there!" There was no answer to that. "The play now unrecognisable from the play earlier on," Deuchar said later. True, though, to be frank, I hadn't recognised the play earlier on either.

Anyway, true to form, England got thumped, but there's a chance for them, and us, to catch up next week. Normally a bell rings when the ball hits the winning gallery. And a puff of white smoke rises above the roof of the court whenever anyone inside who is new to the game finally understands what's going on. It's early in the series, I know, but I'm going to stick my neck out here and suggest that it'll never replace Wimbledon in the hearts of the nation.

"I'm at the stage where I could walk out of the sport any day," said Linford Christie during Sport in Question (ITV, Tuesday). Any day? What about right after the commercial break? We only popped out for a few adverts and by the time we got back, Linford had decided he wouldn't be going to the next Olympics. "I'm finished," he said. "I can't take any more."

And suddenly all hell was let loose. The discussion which followed was confused and confusing, to say the least. Christie said he despised the way "the media think they make you or they break you", when clearly it was Linford Christie, he said, who made Linford Christie. But then he announced he was giving up because the papers didn't back him sufficiently: in other words, he was granting the papers, in his own case, the absolute power of destruction. He said he ran for the British public, who had always supported him - "there's no better public out there," he said. Yet here he was denying that public the chance to see him. He said the press meant nothing to him, but it appeared the press meant everything.

In any case, the whole argument seemed to be wrapped up in an impenetrable coat of irony. This was the adored Saint Linford talking - he of the media- friendly track-side stunts with the Union Jack. Linford Christie moaning about his coverage in the British papers is a little like Sarah Ferguson claiming treacherous treatment at the hands of Hello! Asked to be more specific about what had upset him, Christie could only come up with the lunchbox controversy (a gag about the tightness of his shorts which is doubtless politically suspect and probably tedious from Christie's point of view, but hardly malicious in intention) and with the complaint that writers had been speculating about his retirement. He didn't add that many of these writers had done so in a tone of anxiousness and concern; nor that with this new revelation, he had promptly made them all dead right.

So, sporting martyr or touchy tantrum expert? This being Sport in Question, Jimmy Greaves was on hand to shine the bright torch of his wit into these obscure corners. The contributions of Greaves to these programmes should really be heralded by a passenger announcement: "We apologise for the delay to your argument. This is owing to a derailment at Greaves Junction." Greaves suggested to Christie that he change his shorts. "Why don't you wear something more suitable?" he asked. Expect widespread media speculation to follow about the contents of Jimmy Greaves's out-to-lunchbox.

Linford Christie, incidentally, is right now in the middle of complex financial negotiations with the British Athletics Federation and has an autobiography due out in a month's time. Altogether an inconvenient time to be achieving huge coverage in the papers, then.