Tennis: The good, the great and gold panties too

John Oakley has been reporting on Wimbledon for 50 years, half a century in which his love affair with the tennis championships has never waned
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The Independent Online
As I walked into the All England Club on 24 June, 1946, I could hardly imagine that 49 years later I would be reporting on my 50th Wimbledon, albeit from a very modest beginning.

The war was still a vivid memory when, as the 18-year-old sports editor of the Dagenham Post, a small Essex weekly, I received two rover passes for Wimbledon and my love affair with the Championships had begun.

Since then I have covered Wimbledon for the Nottingham Evening Post, the Yorkshire Evening News, the London Evening News and the Press Association, and my enthusiasm has never waned.

That first year, however, was very special, for in 1946 there was still a gaping hole in the Centre Court stand, made by a German bomb that had ripped into the club during the blitz of 1940.

Yvon Petra, a giant Frenchman, was the first post-war singles champion and the last man to win the title wearing long, white flannels. That was unforgettable, because Petra proudly told me later: "For six matches I played in shorts because I was playing for Yvon Petra. But in the final I wore long trousers because I was playing for La Belle France."

Other memories from those early post-war years was the brilliant play of Jack Kramer, the 1947 champion, and the stalling tactics of Bob Falkenburg, who saved three match points before beating John Bromwich in the 1948 final.

Big-hitting Falkenburg was so short of stamina that he frequently threw games and even sets and laid down on the court countless times for short rests. He was repeatedly told to "get on with it" by the umpires and would have been disqualified under the present code of conduct.

Then there was gorgeous Gussie Moran, who shocked staid Wimbledon spectators when she played in gold-laced panties, clearly visible as she swooped about court in 1949.

And no one could forget the Austrian Hans Redl, who played in 10 successive Wimbledons from 1947 to 1956 with only one arm. He had lost his left arm in combat during he war and was allowed to serve using his racket to throw up the ball.

This was during the playing era of Maureen "Little Mo" Connolly, for me the greatest woman player of the post-war era. Nine times champion Martina Navratilova is generally given that accolade but her record, in my book, does not compare.

"Little Mo" won Wimbledon three times as a teenager from 1952 to 1954 with an outstanding baseline game that destroyed great champions such as Louise Brough and Doris Hart and she achieved the Grand Slam on her only attempt in 1953. Connolly was never beaten at Wimbledon and had it not been for a horse-riding accident which ended her career before she was 20 she might have won the title a dozen times.

Martina never passed the semi-final in her first five Wimbledons before taking the title in 1978 and, superb though she was, "Little Mo", a far better baseliner than Chris Evert, would, I'm sure, have had the edge.

During the Connolly era I also saw the longest, non-stop match in Wimbledon history, in 1953, when Jaroslav Drobny and Budge Patty played for four hours and 20 minutes before, with dusk descending, Drobny won 12-10 in the fifth.

Remember there were no chairs on court in those days and play was continuous. True, Pancho Gonzales and Charlie Pasarell played for five hours 12 minutes in 1969 but that was staged over two days. Today there are no marathon matches at Wimbledon because the players sit down almost as long as they stand up. Under conditions now, the Drobny- Patty battle would have been nearer 10 hours.

Then there was the Australian Jan Lehane becoming the first woman to hit a double-handed backhand at the 1960 Wimbledon, Jean Borotra playing in the men's and mixed doubles at the age of 65 years 10 months in 1964, 40 years after winning the first of his two singles titles, and the first Open Wimbledon in 1968. Then the men's champion, Rod Laver, won pounds 2,000 and the women's champion, Billie Jean King, pounds 750, a shade different to this year's pounds 365,000 and pounds 328,000.

The best final I ever saw was Stan Smith beating Ilie Nastase in the first Sunday final in 1972, and the most forgettable the following year when some 80 of the world's men boycotted the Championships, following the suspension of the Yugoslav Nikki Pilic, and Jan Kodes defeated Alex Metreveli.

As a traditionalist I opposed the tie-break brought in at 8-8 in 1971 and the use of chairs for the first time in 1975, though I was more sympathetic by 1979 when the tie-break came in at 6-6.

The most exciting win? When Roger Taylor beat the four-times champion Rod Laver, for me the best player of all time, in four sets in the fourth round in 1970 though it was heart-warming when Angela Mortimer (1961), Ann Jones (1969) and Virginia Wade (1977) won the women's singles title for Britain.

Nastase playing a point with an umbrella in his left hand was another vivid memory but not so great as the wonderful tie-break game between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe in the 1980 final. McEnroe won the fourth set tie-breaker 18-16 but it was Borg who won the final set for a fifth successive victory, a feat not achieved since Britain's Laurie Doherty in 1906.

No one could forget McEnroe, a bad-tempered genius. His behaviour was so appalling at the 1981 Wimbledon that the club officials did not give him honourary membership when he won the title for the first time. He was a real Jekyll and Hyde character, for Supermac also gave the greatest exhibition of grass court play I have ever seen in 50 years when he beat Jimmy Connors in the 1984 final.

But Johnnie Mac does not get into my top four men: I rate Laver, Borg, Lew Hoad and Kramer all before him.

My top women? Connolly, Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Margaret Court in that order with apologies to Billie Jean King, who is only fifth despite her record 20 Wimbledon singles and doubles titles.

Roll on the next 50 years.