Rackets: Boone pushes back the frontiers

Stephen Brenkley discovers that age is proving no barrier for a six-time champion
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The Independent Online
WILLIE BOONE is 47 years old and has become the British Open rackets champion for the sixth time. It was a victory which defied the odds and the years. To say that it would be equivalent to Jimmy Connors, who is a mere 45, returning to win Wimbledon, might be stretching the point but not by much.

There are obvious differences. Tennis is a global game played and watched by millions of people while rackets can number its players, if not quite its spectators, in hundreds. Moreover, the Wimbledon champion trousers a cheque for rather more than pounds 400,000 and the rackets Open winner receives nothing.

Boone's achievement is still only a little short of miraculous. He is one of the last great amateurs. He won his first Open title at Queen's Club 19 years ago and while aficionados mentioned him in dispatches this time, his being dispatched, certainly no later than the semi- finals, is what they expected.

Boone was the defending champion but this year's field was the strongest in years. It included the world champion, James Male, who had been unbeaten for a decade and several much younger pretenders prepared to give Boone a run for his money, as it were. Male was sensationally beaten in the quarter-finals, Boone sensed the draw had opened up and last Sunday he prevailed 4-0 in the final.

His sophisticated serve was the chief weapon in his armoury. He has become the master of the rapid hammer serve which he combines with several other mysterious deliveries. The combination of this sorcery, powerful hitting and the greying hair must befuddle the opposition.

It was suggested that if his opponent, Toby Sawrey-Cookson, had managed to win the fourth game from 14-14 the old boy might have run out of breath in a sport renowned for its sheer speed. "Not at all," said the victor last week as he reflected on his longevity while some younger players wandered through Queen's and gently chanted "we are not worthy" on spotting him. "I felt I had the better of him all the way through and I wasn't concerned."

In those remarks may lie the reason for Boone's unconscionably long period at the peak of the sport. He was, is and will always be fiercely competitive. On court the opponent is his enemy. He gives no quarter, expects none. He fights for every point. In his younger days he might have been willing to fight the referee for every point as well (given a higher public profile he might have been the John McEnroe of rackets) but he insists he has mellowed. It conserves energy. If Boone's desire to win is huge, his enthusiasm is boundless. He loves playing.

"Rackets could never be professional like tennis, say, or even squash," he said. "The courts cost too much to build. But it would spoil it if it was. I certainly wouldn't be able to compete for long against players training and playing all the time. And money would spoil things."

Not that the Old Etonian would have been averse to making money from sport (he is a wonderful all-rounder being a former Norfolk champion at squash, a county tennis player, a batsman who wants to bat all day and a single handicap golfer) but he is aware of its pitfalls. Rackets, he calculated, costs him easily more than pounds 5,000 a year. There is some hope that in this regard the Boone family may be in for some payback. Ned Boone, aged 10, is one of Britain's leading tennis players for his age.

"He is keen, strong-willed and knows how dedicated he must be," said his father. "He is aware that it almost has to be tennis at the expense of other sports. It's a one in 100 possibility I suppose, but it exists." For this reason it is likely that Ned will not follow his father to Eton but to a specialist tennis academy.

There are still playing assignments for Boone senior to undertake. Most significantly, the Open victory gives him the right to challenge for Male's world title. But Boone, himself world champion for two years in the mid-Eighties, may not be alone and he knows that involvement in a play-off could debilitate him.

"I'd like them to accept my challenge by itself," Boone said. "I'd make a big effort in terms of training and practice. James would start favourite but I wouldn't make a twit of myself." He will be much older before he does that.