Net profit with the executive set

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"TENNIS in an English garden" is the key visionary concept of the organisers of the Wimbledon Championships. The reality is tennis in an English garden that has been partially asphalted over and filled with pink people. For that genuine garden-party atmosphere you have to go to the Hurlingham Club in south-west London the week before Wimbledon, where the veterans of the ATP Tour contest the Hurlingham Seniors.

The sun shone, glasses tinkled, a string quartet played and Fred Stolle prepared to serve. "First ball in?" he asked. Tennis fans would have been forgiven for thinking that they had died and gone to heaven. Even non- tennis fans would have been forgiven for thinking that this was a pretty spiffing party.

But before you scuttle off to your diaries and scrawl "Hurlingham" all over the last week of June '96, we should tell you that there is a pretty sizeable catch. The only people who get to attend this stupendously chi- chi event are members of the Hurlingham Club and their chums (for pounds 15 each) and corporate entertainees (for pounds 199 each).

The Hurlingham Seniors is the absolute epitome of sport as an adjunct to business. Epsom, Smith's Lawn, Henley, Wimbledon, all play host to executives and their guests. But the Hurlingham event is entirely constructed to cater for such people. It is the jolly to end all jollies. And, to judge by the size of the crowd there last week, it is doing very well.

For their pounds 199 the guests get a champagne reception, an Albert Roux lunch ("Terrine de Canard et Foie Gras aux Pistaches, Roulade de Sole a la Mousseline de Saumon Sauce Nantua", etc etc), tea with all the trimmings, and a string quartet. Oh, and a lot of tennis. In fact, for an extra pounds 250 they can even play with the greats of yesteryear in pro-am sessions.

The City of London must have been a pretty deserted place this week, what with Ascot and Lords and the 500 desk-jockeys a day descending on the Hurlingham Club. But they were working: we eavesdropped on the after- lunch speaker addressing a group of bankers in the club's restaurant. And where you might have expected Ilie Nastase or Rod Laver telling a few fruity ones, what you actually got was a chap in a suit talking about economic prospects for 1996 and "Anyone for Portillo?"

Patrick Carr, a Hurlingham member and one of the guiding lights behind the event, explained the particular attraction of the Seniors for executives. "This is geared towards them," he said, "because the age-group of the players is close to the age-group of the decision makers." Right. But it's still quite lot of dosh. "An event like this cements business relationships," Carr told us. "If you spend X hundred pounds on two tickets for Wimbledon, you sit Mr and Mrs Whoever down on Centre Court and that's the last you see of them. Here you sit with them, drink with them, laugh with them. For pounds 200, you get to spend good quality time with your people."

The tennis? We nearly forgot. It was very good, very competitive and very entertaining - there's that word again. Fred Stolle, with a remarkable nimbleness around the court and an extremely marketable line in banter, teamed up with Peter Fleming to defeat Tom Okker and Sandy Meyer. The crowd were delighted - and so they should have been.

On the next-door court, Greg Rusedski was booming his titanic serves at David Wheaton in the final of the Quintus Cup, a no-prize- money event hastily and cannily organised by the Hurlingham people to give a few contemporary players a little extra grass court practice before Wimbledon.

At first we thought it was odd that very few of the corporate guests had sneaked away from the veterans' game to watch. But after 20 minutes or so of two- or three-shot points, the elegant, extended rallies the old guys were putting together exerted an irresistible pull. Rusedski, by the way, seems to be an extremely likeable bloke, with a fine line in patter with the ball-girls. But Wheaton beat him on a tie-break in the third set, and his British status seemed more convincing than ever.

If you are a tennis fan with a large expense account, you should be booking for next year's Hurlingham Seniors right now. If you are a tennis fan without such a facility, revolutionary socialism will never have seemed so attractive.

COMING to a shop near you soon: "Fever Pitch Soccer". No, it's not the sequel to Nick Hornby's Arsenal book, it's a video game calculated to give Graham Kelly the collywobbles. Subtitled "Bringing the Game into Disrepute", the cynical pastime involves players fouling each other as often as possible. The background features advertising billboards showing a Cantona look-alike jumping over a barrier and threatening a fan with the words: "Parlez-vous kung-fu?" The game's slogan is "You're going home in an ambulance", but Howard Glover, whose company produce the thing, ingenuously claims: "It is supposed to be satirical, a bit of a laugh. I don't see it encouraging violence." Sure. How about glorifying, then?

SPONSOR of the week: the Ueno Clinic of Tokyo, main backers of the McLaren driven to victory in the Le Mans 24-Hour race last weekend by Yannick Dalmas, JJ Lehto and Masanori Sekiya. The clinic specialises in circumcisions.