Emotional farewell to home of the tantrum

Sport on TV
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The Independent Online
Decades of plucky ineptitude have established support for the underdog on a tennis court as a fundamental part of the British national character. So much so that we are quite capable of becoming dewy-eyed about an underdog that is a tennis court. Hence the nostalgic outpourings about No1 court at Wimbledon, which meets a new ball - the wrecker's ball - after this year's championship.

The fact that the place is an ugly, ill-proportioned after-thought, open to the elements and in every way inferior to its snooty neighbour, Centre Court, only adds to its attractions for the sentimental Brit. It has a grisly record as the killing field of our annual aspirants to Wimbledon glory. But will there be tennis fans camped outside the gates on the evening of the finals day this year, waiting to be first in line with a pickaxe on the Monday morning? Will there heck.

The title of BBC2's history of No1 Court, Chalk Flew Up, is a phrase much beloved of John McEnroe. This means that the documentary could just as well have been called Pits Of The World or You Cannot Be Serious. McEnroe seemed to save his snittiest behaviour for No1: perhaps he found the acoustics more effective there than on Centre Court.

It says something about the anodyne nature of contemporary tennis that the sight of McEnroe in full flood tugs so at the heart-strings. There he stood, hands raised, wooden racket poised as if about to belabour any ball boy who encroached upon his personal space, blue sweatband taut around his pulsing temple. The referee, Fred Hoyles, advanced anxiously on to the court where McEnroe had been loudly questioning the mental competence of the umpire. "We're not going to have a point taken away because this guy is an incompetent fool," he began. Hoyles put on his best soothing expression.

The modern-day McEnroe, sporting one of those devilishly fashionable goatee beards was unrepentant. "Listen, they made thousands of bad calls," he said. "That's not the point. The point is that they should have just simply admitted the mistakes . . . If they had just said: 'Look, John, I just gotta tell ya I'm embarrassed, and if this happens again I'm going to do something about it . . .'" Look, John, I just gotta tell you, we were embarrassed. Why weren't you?

More nostalgia in Clash of the Titans (BBC2) - naff title, nifty programme. The series examines great sporting match-ups of the past, but unlike Channel 4's late but unlamented The Greatest, it sticks to real battles, not theoretical ones, and it does not attempt to reach crass conclusions.

Last Monday's opening programme dealt with James Hunt v Niki Lauda, the scrap for the world motor racing title in 1976. Just as Chalk Flew Up recalled a time when tennis players had personalities, so this documentary harked back to the days before an aspiring racing driver required a degree in public relations.

The real tussle was between Hunt and Ferrari's crack team of high-octane lawyers. Every time the Englishman did something controversial, like winning a race, out would come the writs. He won in Spain: Ferrari said his car was too wide. He won in Great Britain: Ferrari said he should not have been allowed to restart the race after a crash (caused by one Ferrari driving into another). In Italy, they were worried that he might win again, so they trumped up some nonsense about illegal fuel and made him start from last place on the grid. As Daniel Audetto, Ferrari's team manager at the time, recalled: "It was my job to protest." It was his job to do little else, it seems.

Ferrari were not above scheming behind their own driver's back. As Lauda lay in hospital fighting the terrible injuries he received at the Nurburgring, emissaries from the Italian team were sneakily approaching other drivers to take his place. "That is ruthless," Audetto admitted, with a shrug. "Our job." They don't come with much less ruth than that.

Lauda lost the championship when he decided that the soaking conditions at the final race of the season, in Japan, were too dangerous. Hunt later retired from the sport when he found himself in an uncompetitive car, unwilling to risk his life when he couldn't win races. It takes a lot of bravery to drive a grand prix car; a lot more to admit that you don't want to any more.

Back to the present, and with Euro 96 bubbling, a Test series on the go and Wimbledon looming, the BBC have to whet appetites for the Olympics. They have chosen to do so with The Olympic Game (BBC1), a quiz show so soporific it ought to be sponsored by Horlicks.

The concepts are swiped from other quizzes, the set is tacky (the "Olympic flame" looks like a chip fire in a wok), and the compere is Steve Rider, who would struggle to be exciting hosting a firework display in a live volcano. They should have adapted the name from another quiz, too: You Can't Wait Until It's All Over.

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