Tennis: Queen's - a right royal event

ASK SOME Scotch whisky enthusiasts to name their favourite malt and they won't pick Glenfiddich or Glenmorangie, because that's what everybody says. They will refer you to a peaty Hebridean malt, usually called something like Old Sheep Dropping. Well, the Stella Artois tournament at Queen's Club is in some ways the Old Sheep Dropping of tennis.

Not that it's the slightest bit obscure. But if someone tells you that they prefer Queen's to Wimbledon - that the grass courts there are harder and truer, the spectators less effusive but more knowing, the event not so tainted by commercialism - then you can be sure you are talking to a real cognoscento.

For the rest of us the Stella Artois owes its significance principally to its place in the calendar. The top players use it to hone their grass- court game for Wimbledon, for which it serves as a useful form guide. A successful run at Queen's often prefaces a good Wimbledon, never more so than in 1985 when the unknown 17-year-old Boris Becker beat Johann Kriek in the final. Kriek said afterwards that Becker might go on to greater glory in SW19. The wiseacres scoffed. Queen's was one thing, Wimbledon quite another. But three weeks later they were served up their words with knobs on, to go with the strawberries and cream.

I was at Queen's on Friday watching Greg Rusedski lose his quarter-final to Sargis Sargsian, the world No 74 from Armenia. Sargsian, the press were informed, is capable of solving the Rubik's Cube in three minutes - suggesting, if nothing else, that Armenia is the only place on earth where people still have Rubik's Cubes. More significantly, he played tennis like an angel, making a mockery of his world ranking. Even though he was well-beaten by Tim Henman in yesterday's rain-delayed semi-final he might be worth an each-way punt for Wimbledon.

There is some ambiguous documentation, incidentally, to suggest that in 1895 the Queen's Club was offered the chance to buy the All-England Club at Wimbledon for pounds 30,000. Even now venerable All-England Club types dismiss this as tommyrot verging on poppycock, as if the very notion somehow diminishes the sanctity of the place. Nevertheless, it is a fact that Queen's was thriving at the turn of the century whereas Wimbledon was in decline. I know this because, to my wife's bewilderment, I took the trouble over the weekend to read much of a 300-page official club history, and very fascinating it was, too.

Queen's was built on the former estate of the Palliser family, who made their fortune, according to the book, from the manufacture of "armour- piercing projectiles to be used against the navies of Her Majesty's enemies". They'd have liked Rusedski. "Oooh I say, that armour-piercing projectile went like an absolute bullet," as 19th century military commentators used to say.

Which brings me to the late Dan Maskell. For although Queen Victoria, in whose honour the club was named, was not noted for her backhand slice, my colleague John Roberts tells me that Maskell coached Victoria's great- great-great-grand-daughter, Princess Anne, and often remarked that if she hadn't been so horsey she would have made a first-rate tennis player.

Anyway, one of the founding fathers of Queen's was W H Grenfell, later Lord Besborough, who left Balliol College, Oxford, with a first, and was also a classy cricketer and athlete. Moreover, he twice swam Niagara, caught giant tarpon off Florida, rowed a skiff across the Channel, climbed the Matterhorn and, adds the book, "was once chased by a mad elephant and then by dervishes in the Sudan". He also won punting and fencing titles, and was president of both the LTA and the MCC. To think that we used to call Ian Botham an all-rounder.

Besborough died in the mid-1950s, some years short of his beloved club's finest hour. In 1984, John McEnroe won at Queen's and returned a week or so later to practice for Wimbledon, which he subsequently won. Unfortunately the imperious wife of the then-chairman had booked the same court. "I'm frightfully sorry, young man, but this court is taken," said the chairman's wife, or words to that effect. "Sod off," said McEnroe - or words to that effect.

He was banned from Queen's forthwith, but a few years later there was a reconciliation and after his first match back, McEnroe consented to be interviewed. The interview room was one of the club's squash courts. "There were 125 journalists, seven TV crews and two rows of photographers in that squash court, the atmosphere was absolutely electric," recalls the tournament"s media director, Jolyon Armstrong. But then along came the chairman's wife again. "So sorry everyone, I'm afraid this court is booked," she said. Actually, I'm making that last bit up. But it would have been frightfully apt. Frightfully Queen's.

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