A lost world of characters and charm

Tennis, and writers on the game, may have been most memorable just before and after the war
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The Independent Online

Forget, for the moment at least, any anxieties for the disappearing rain forests, and the dwindling numbers of North Sea cod; and ignore the fact that soon a sparrow will be as scarce a visitor to our bird tables as a golden eagle; and consider me: for I am one of the world's most endangered species -- a tennis reporter who feels more at home in the WimbledonMuseum than I am in the dotty dot.com environment of theMillennium Championships.

Forget, for the moment at least, any anxieties for the disappearing rain forests, and the dwindling numbers of North Sea cod; and ignore the fact that soon a sparrow will be as scarce a visitor to our bird tables as a golden eagle; and consider me: for I am one of the world's most endangered species -- a tennis reporter who feels more at home in the WimbledonMuseum than I am in the dotty dot.com environment of theMillennium Championships.

It is a sobering thought: now I am almost extinct, yet back in the days when the game was played with white balls and wooden rackets, by men in long flannels, and girls in sexy dresses with just the odd peep of frilly knickers, I used to be modern.

So modern that when I first carried my portable typewriter into the tiny press room at Wimbledon with its half-dozen blue Lloyd Loom tables and chairs, I was given the lookof incredulity that usually greeted Henry Moore's latest masterpiece.

I was classified as one of the "what's-the-world-coming-to" new boys, and while, with two fingers I tap, tap, tapped my machine the gentlemen from Fleet Street settled down with their pens and pencils, with a glass of this or that, and a packet of 20 Gold Flake close at hand.

This traditional way of producing copy, so familiar to Paul when writing his letters to the Corinthians, was still being used in the 1960s by Geoffrey Green, a poet of a man who daily supplied the Times with his purple prose in purple ink. From the day he was born Green was an endangered species. He would dine with princes, invite roadsweepers in for breakfast, and before he died decreed that his ashes be put in a whisky bottle and thrown into the Thames.

The typewriter, now as obsolete in newspaper offices as hot metal, the spike, and the blue pencils, produced other great characters in the ever-growing Wimbledon Press Room. S N Doust, for example, who in his Australian youth was a doubles player of such renown that they named a racket after him.

Doust reported tennis for the Daily Mail from 1918 until after the second War. He knew everybody in the game and went out of his way to help young reporters. He was a fountain of information and even carried a little black book which included dates when some lady players might be sluggish, or at their aggressive best. He refused to carry a typewriter, and taxied back to Fleet Street to write his Wimbledon report.

Peter Wilson of the Daily Mirror, a classical scholar with a Harrovian background who voted Labour but lived like a Tory (Blair would have loved him), had a portable typewriter that was almost as famed as he: a silent Underwood festooned with exotic labels, which became so heavy that his American wife carried it for him.

Unlike most reporters Wilson could touch type; so too could Lance Tingay of the Daily Telegraph. He had been in the RAF, and spent his war in a bunker deep below Whitehall as a teleprinter operator. Every day he would start his copy by typing: "by L T Daily Telegraph." It wasn't because he was suffering from amnesia, but just to get his fingers and his mind working. And for those suffering from writer's block as the deadline approached Lance had this advice: begin with the name you want to write about, add a comma, and carry on from there. Simple, but it works.

David Gray of the Guardian had no trouble in starting. His problem was starting too often. David, a great eater, would attack his typewriter as he would a gourmet meal, then after a few lines would rip out the paper and hurl it to the floor. This ritual was repeated several times and usually ended with his scavenging around before resurrecting one of the discarded introductions. The result was one of the day's most considered pieces.

Tennis is the most demanding of all sports to report, for there is no telling how long a match will last, and newspaper deadlines are intractable. Weak men were not the only ones driven to strong drink, but the monocled Gerry Walter, who was sent down from Cambridge, had the answer. He believed as long as you were a gentleman there was nothing wrong in living beyond your means, and such mundane things as typewriters were only for the populace. His Wimbledon reports were all ad-libbed musings, and when asked why he did this he would say that the peasants who read the News Chronicle wouldn't understand good English if they saw it. Despite this his copy made good reading.

In those days the press telephones were adjacent to our lavatories under the Centre Court. This may have been a convenient convenience, but it did have its problems: once when all urinals flushed in unison while I was dictating my story, the bemused copy taker said: "Hold on a minute I can't hear a bloody word. I thought you were at Wimbledon not the Niagara Falls."

The first time I went to work at Wimbledon was 1938, the year that Helen Wills won her eighth Championship, and Don Budge his second, before turning professional.

I had taken time off from the Middlesex Chronicle to freelance for a small sports reporting agency for five shillings a day and no expenses. Dodging the tramlines which entrapped the wheels I drove across London in my £12 Austin Seven (1926) two-seater, which needed a daily raw egg in itsradiator to stop the leaks. I was on my way.

These were the days when everyone dressed up for Wimbledon Ascot style, even junior reporters. I was in a green pork-pie hat with a red feather, a "Fifty Shillings Tailors" double breasted pin-stripe suit and yellow pigskin gloves (a Christmas present), and was the proud owner of a blue ticket which said: "Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships -- Press Messenger." This did not entitle me to any seat, but having modelled my journalistic career on American films in which the hero would shout "City desk... hold the front page" I managed to see most of the matches.

By 1946, having spent five very long years in a Nazi slave-labour camp digging coal in a Silesian mine, I was a Fleet Street man in a blue demob suit. The Press Room was a joyous place to be. Together with 1939 these were the two most emotional Championships ever staged.

In one we all knew there was going to be a war and we did a lot of Pimm's and champagne living before the killings began; in the second we were celebrating our survival. A few friends were sadly missing, and we were delighted that the German players had been barred. This was just as well, for with a bomb hole in the roof of the Centre Court someone might have forgotten that the war was over.

By this time stars such as Suzanne Lenglen, Helen Wills, Bill Tilden, Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry and Don Budge had already made Wimbledon not only the highlight of London's summer social scene, but a world-wide event. Tennis correspondents could no longer handle it alone, and were backed up by fashion writers, feature writers, gossip columnists and hard news men to give the event blanket coverage.

The overseas contingent has grown from the few who made the slow journey by ship and train to the 400 who will now jet in for this year's Championships. There will be 350 British journalists, and double that total of men and women working for radio and television.

They will be accommodated in the new Media Centre where the old No 1 Court used to be. Each writer with his laptop has a desk with a television set which can be switched on to every court as well as the interviewing room. Such information as players' CVs, head-to-head records, stroke analysis and results are on tap.

It's all a long way from my old Olivetti and Geoffrey Green's purple ink, and half a century since the newly formed Lawn Tennis Writers' Association persuaded the Championship Committee to modernise press facilities by installing a drainpipe down from the floor of the Centre Court press box into the telephone room. This was where the Australian reporters could drop their copy, and save cable company messengers having to wait until a change of ends to collect it.

This gravity system worked well until some wag poured a pint of beer down it when a Frenchman was at the other end. Now they have even moved the press seats to the other end of the court and I can no longer make a sentimental journey to seat number eight row C in which I spent so many summers and experienced so many emotions, and which on one occasion was the scene of Royal disapproval.

The cause of it all was Lainson Wood, a large rotund man from the Daily Telegraph who had a liking for a good lunch and what he called a reasonable claret all followed by an irrepressible desire to sleep. This he did, but unfortunately he had a snore which sounded like an Aberdeen Angus in the rutting season, and his seat was very adjacent to that of Queen Mary who hated her tennis being interrupted by anything, even strawberries and cream for tea. Frantic signals were given to wake Wood up, and to make sure that in future he had another seat.

Coincidentally, Wood's wife, Christina, who wrote tennis for the Glasgow Herald had the same propensity to nod off. She did so once and set her hair alight with a cigarette, fortunately not at Wimbledon, but in a press tent at another tournament. Someone put her out with a gin-and-tonic.

These characters, like Fleet Street, are gone for ever, but the biggest difference in reporting tennis today is not all the electronic paraphernalia about the place, but the contact -- or rather the lack of it -- between the press and the players. Now players arrive in chauffeur driven cars, play their matches, give mandatory press conferences and are driven away again. Gone are the golden days and swinging nights when together we used to celebrate hard won victories, or soften the bitterness of defeat with a shoulder to cry on. In some cases players became our lifetime friends.

In the quiet hours when the music is soft and the scent of an old whisky lingers on the lips my mind often wanders back to those times when matches had been played and the stories filed, and little parties of us and them, used to wander intothe night and forget that it all had to be done again in themorning.

Memories of singing suppers at Da Meo Patacca in Rome's never-sleeping Trastevere; aperitifs at the Deux Magots and bistros on the left bank. Climbing the steps at Sacre Coeur and dinner with Sue Barker in Puccini-land the night before she won the French Championships. "Your Father's Moustache" and O'Henry's in Greenwich Village. Visiting Capri and the Blue Grotto with Evonne Goolagong and the matey Australians. Eating wild boar by candlelight with Virginia Wade and the British team in the wooded hills outside Bad Homburg. And so much more.

Happily, some of those good old friends will be playing in the senior events at Wimbledon, and I'll be on the sidelines indulging in a little nostalgia, a pleasure reserved only for those whose memories outnumber their expectations. Unlike me they have not passed their sell-by date. But it was on 24 April 1991 that I knew I had reached mine.

Six years earlier both Bjorn Borg and I were out of work. The Daily Mail said I was too old, and blundering hierarchy had told the five-times champion that he would have to qualify if he wanted to play Wimbledon. He quit and started to live like a 26-year-old. I grew roses.

Then in 1991 Borg was back out of retirement and the Daily Mail thought I ought to forget the roses and cover it. We were both back at our happy hunting ground at the Monte Carlo Country Club. Borg was beaten in 72 humiliating minutes. I was looked upon with weird curiosity as I produced a typewriter that I had first used in the 1960 Olympics, poured myself a large Scotch, lit my pipe and settled down to work.

I was surrounded by computers and the ghostly finger tapping noises from reporters in jeans, drinking free Coke in plastic cups from machines. Worse still, it was a no-smoking zone.