"Yours," cried my tennis partner. Now, I can think of several five-letter words more likely, in the general scheme of things, to excite me. "Lunch" always gets me going, for instance, to say nothing of "Kylie". And yet that one exclamation – "yours!" – marked perhaps the most thrilling moment of my modest sporting career, for it was uttered by none other than John Patrick McEnroe.
Moreover, when I not only made contact, but propelled the ball over the net with the velocity of a bullet, albeit not necessarily a moving one, he added: "That's beautiful!" Pride welled up in me so powerfully that it has yet to well down.
We were at Queen's Club last Wednesday, the occasion a tennis masterclass intended as a curtain-raiser to the Honda Challenge veterans' event at the Royal Albert Hall, which concluded yesterday.
Many of those who played in the Honda Challenge also turned up at Queen's to knock around with assorted media types – out of contractual obligation rather than a particular urge to improve our backhands, I suspect – and to offer us tips like "try to volley a little further away from your body" even if the tip they were thinking of was "you might find that gardening is a more fruitful form of exercise".
As well as McEnroe, there was Boris Becker, Pat Cash, Henri Leconte, Peter Fleming, Mikael Pernfors, Jeremy Bates and Chris Wilkinson, which is to list them – with no disrespect to Wilkinson who is a very nice chap indeed – in descending order of thrillingness. The luck of the draw paired me with McEnroe and then Cash.
First up, McEnroe and Viner (how that rolls off the tongue... at any rate, it's been merrily rolling off mine these last few days) played a four-game match against the BBC sports presenter John Inverdale and the ITV motor-racing commentator James Allen.
McEnroe did not hold back, either. He hit the ball as if he meant business, and as I peeked over my shoulder I was reminded of some marvellous lines written in July 1980 by Clive James. "Nor did his service take more than a quarter of an hour each time," wrote James, of McEnroe's performance at Wimbledon. "You have to realise that McEnroe is serving around the corner of an imaginary building and that his wind-up must perforce be extra careful."
Last Wednesday, while McEnroe wound up, I crouched at the net trying very hard to look like Fleming – his former doubles partner rather than Fleming the man who invented penicillin. He ripped some serves, particularly at Inverdale who is a mightily impressive player and somehow managed to return most of them, and we won 3-1. I did not high-five him as I did Cash in the following match against the man from the Daily Telegraph and his partner.
Even when he is smiling there is something about McEnroe that discourages intimacy. But he is a god, all the same. Maybe that's it. You can't get too fraternal with gods.
So I didn't ask him what he thinks of Queen's, the club from which he was banned in 1985 for allegedly being abusive to the chairman's wife. It's hard to assess the right and wrongs of that affair. McEnroe, as we all know, could be sensationally rude to people. On the other hand, there are some over-privileged members of Queen's who fully deserve to have their arrogance punctured every so often.
At lunch last Wednesday I sat next to Henri Leconte, who incidentally is as entertaining eating as he is playing. "Soup, soup, soup... you're ze man!" he exclaimed, to a startled waiter delivering him what was indeed a bowl of soup.
But Leconte himself had been startled by an encounter with a Queen's member that very morning. He told me that he and Pernfors had arrived early, and had started knocking up on a court alongside two middle-aged women, one of whom took considerable umbrage and ordered them to leave. "You are putting me off," she barked. "You are not members and you are not entitled to be here. You are six minutes early." Leconte looked at her open-mouthed. "Are you 'aving fun playing tennis?" he asked, which apparently enraged her even more.
This story reminded Jeremy Bates of the days when, as one of Britain's most promising young players, he was permitted to train at Queen's for two hours every morning, but was once reprimanded by members on an adjacent court for making too much noise with his feet.
Bates then told me that in Britain last year only 5,000 youngsters played more than 12 tennis matches, as opposed to 250,000 youngsters in France. Of course, not all clubs are as snotty as Queen's, nor are all Queen's members snotty. None the less, I reckon I might have hit on an element of cause and effect. And as John McEnroe's doubles partner, I think my views are worth considering.Reuse content