Tennis: Vintage players serve up fine fare: Nastase rolls back the years to provide food for thought at Hurlingham Club - Mike Rowbottom samples truffles and tie-breaks in a genteel setting

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The Independent Online
FOR the specially invited tennis spectators, yesterday's lunch at the Hurlingham Club - Soupe de Tomates a la Provencale, followed by Saumon a l'Aneth au Beurre Blanc, followed by Truffe au Chocolat, followed by Cafe and Truffalines et Muscadines - took longer than expected. So the tennis had to wait. After all, it was lunch prepared by Albert Roux.

At 2.45, three quarters of an hour behind schedule, the 600 or so diners removed to the sun-drenched courts within the 40-acre grounds. And so it was that Ilie Nastase and Chris Lewis got the first ATP Seniors' Tournament to be held in Britain under way.

The public are not invited to this four-day party in SW6. Even the members of the Club received modest allocations of tickets. This event is all about corporate guests.

BZW Futures had invited the majority of those present yesterday at a cost of pounds 195 a head. NatWest have bought up the whole lot for tomorrow, when 32 clients will have the thrill of competing in a pro-am match with Nastase, Peter McNamara, Roger Taylor, Rod Laver, Tom Okker and all.

If this venture flourishes, the ATP plans to expand it. Slightly. And perhaps to allow in 100 or so of the public. Such a prospect did not provoke widespread enthusiasm. 'I think it would be a pity,' said Jonathan Russell, who had invited a party of six on behalf of his company.

'Once you start to involve more people and more sponsors you are on the treadmill to a mini-Wimbledon. You don't have a feeling of overpopulation here. You haven't got all the commercial things going on.'

Looking around, as the children of club members chased around the fountain by the terrace, and the Haffner Quartet sawed melodiously in the shade of an ancient sycamore, you took his point. But commercialism was hardly absent from the proceedings. It was merely understood to be the centre of everything.

'Exclusivity is something that clients look for,' Helen Walsh, the marketing director for NatWest Ventures, said. 'Our work is primarily about building relationships. Then if people realise they do want to buy something, they know where to come.'

Laver, 55, felt easy with the setting. 'You could call us the old legends - old farts perhaps - but this place is ideal for what we do,' he said. 'Most of the audience are between 40 and 60 and they remember us playing.'

Loretta Murphy, the corporate communications manager at Societe Generale, unfolds another point. 'These events are a quid pro quo. If broker Pete comes along year after year and is brilliant company but doesn't provide business, you have to take that into consideration.'

(Photograph omitted)

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