Mike Rowbottom: Wimbledon, up close and personal - there's no getting away from it

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The Independent Online

I wished I had a camera with me earlier this week. I was sitting in Wimbledon's No 2 court, awaiting Roger Federer's match with the spookily similar Spaniard Feliciano Lopez when the onset of rain brought a hundred umbrellas into hasty bloom in the stand opposite.

When play eventually got under way I wished my wish again. The faces on the other side of the court turned, turned back, turned, turned back, in time-honoured fashion. All except one.

A lady of, as the French would say, a certain age, appeared to be concentrating on something. Her face was a fixed point, an errant fish in the shifting shoal. And I'm sure she was clocking Lopez, whose honey tan, perky ponytail and white headband matched that of his opponent, but whose face lacked the beetle-browed intensity of the Swiss player.

Who knows? Perhaps she was admiring his backhand.

After the match, the players made their exit through the little side door alongside the press seats. As they lingered, signing autographs with automatic flourishes, a group of middle-aged women gathered to witness the scene. When Lopez finally loped out, one of the group - bleach-blonde highlights, gold chain necklace - admitted to her companions: "I couldn't help looking at him. I always notice bums.''

Wimbledon hums with sex. It's two weeks of barely sublimated desire.

Personally, I find the routine ogle-meistering of the press depressing. She's blonde, she's got legs, she makes a noise! Nataliana Legova - and wouldn'cha just love to?! But that was last year. This year - she's blonde, she's got legs, she makes a noise! Mariana Bendova - and wouldn'cha just love to?! As for attempting to yoke the troubled Daniela Hantuchova with that loving-it celebrity Anna Kournikova, it's worse than ludicrous; it's not nice.

At Eastbourne three weeks ago Hantuchova drew more photographers as she practised than were present in either of the two show courts where play was going on. After her hitting session, she performed some stretching exercises at the side of the court, her long legs extending almost beyond credibility. Clickety-Clickety Click.

There is something too vulnerable about the girl from the Czech Republic - too vulnerable to make her acceptable wouldn'cha-just-love-to fodder.

But there is no getting away from the physical fact of all those perfect athletic specimens stretching and straining and hoping and tumbling under the intermittent summer sun of SW19. And there is no getting away from the physical fact of all those artfully dressed women - "tightly undone, knows what she's showing'' as Pete Townsend once sang - passing and preening and watching and wishing.

Another rain break, but the downpour has eased off and the activities of the green-shirted minions with brooms has moved down a level from frantic to functional. Past the ivy-clumped facade of the All-England club's main entrance, two blondes in what resemble logo-strewn Formula One body suits walk arm in arm and step by step, sharing an umbrella. They are a walking invitation to something. Photography.

On the minor courts, you can get close enough to the players almost to believe you are part of their experience. You can see and hear them as they fret and fuss and solve and resolve themselves. It's - well, it's intimate.

Even on television, tennis is more of an intimate sport than any other I can call to mind, saving perhaps snooker, where the individual internal drama comes across in the same way.

In our household, the internal dramas have been keenly observed over the last fortnight, and certain irreducible facts have been established.

Firstly, Justine Henin-Hardenne is a fugitive from The Lord of the Rings. She is clearly one of the elves of Rivendell, and she plays like Legolas, firing her arrows with a flourish against mighty foes.

Secondly, all the people with Union flags on their faces, screaming for Timmy, are sad acts. I'm sorry, but there it is. Just imagine what they would be like if he ever actually won the thing. God. Never mind about sliding roofs - the All England Club would be better advised installing the Centre Court seats with gutters.

Thirdly, the sexiest male player at Wimbledon is Younis El-Aynoui. His emotionally stimulating defeat at the hands of Andre Agassi - whose own intelligence, maturity and evident connubiality, incidentally, made him a strong contender for El-Aynoui's unofficial title - offered abundant evidence of the "mmm" factor. According to my other half, the Moroccan, with his wild hair, gorgeous touch and darkly humorous good looks, is a taller, tennis-playing version of Eagle Eye Cherry. Which, given my other half's partiality to Eagle Eye Cherry, is saying something.

I felt I accepted this information with sporting equanimity. Hey, it's a big world, full of attractive men.

Once, I let it be known that I thought Eagle Eye's sister, Neneh, was, as the French wouldn't say, a petite pur de tout droite. Mistake. "Oh look. Here's Dad's favourite.'' I won't fall into that one again.

That said, when the utterly intent Henin-Hardenne looks up in to the stand at her husband and her elfin face softens into radiance, I could find that... in fact I do find that...

No. Let's not go down that tramline.

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