View from the sofa: Are these golden oldies playing tennis for real? You cannot be serious!

Statoil Masters / International Tennis Premier League ITV4 / Sky Sports 3

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The Independent Online

Tennis is riddled with mystery. Like why Rafael Nadal can’t find shorts that don’t give him a wedgie after every point. Or when is the exact moment players transform from elite sportsmen to “characters”.

You know the sort. Pat Cash with his wacky chequered headband, false grumpiness and ancient attitudes. John McEnroe with his bad temper, baggy shorts and catch phrase. Henri Leconte and his … Frenchness.

Or perhaps the biggest question. What, pray, is the continued fascination of watching these “characters” pretend to be competitive against each other on a tennis court? They descend annually on the Royal Albert Hall in London as some kind of sporting pantomime and every year people pay to watch them make the same jokes as last year as they display without question that tennis is a young person’s game.

McEnroe and Leconte are stalwarts of the oldies circuit – the former reckoned he had played the latter “50 times in the last 20 years” before they faced each other on Friday night. The pretence of the crowd being there for a tennis match was blown out of the water barely a minute after McEnroe walked on court. Once Annabel Croft had asked him how he maintains his competitive instinct, “even at your age”, he delivered the line everyone had paid to hear.

McEnroe raised his eyebrows, paused for effect then replied, half-addressing the crowd: “How do I respond to that? ‘You cannot be serious’?” Cue polite laughter from the crowd – who, it must be said, did little to dispel the stereotype of patrons at veteran tennis events. Lots of cardigans for the women, sensible jumpers for the men.

The laughter got a little nervous at one point, when McEnroe called an audience member a “son of a bitch” for failing to give the ball back. He looked genuinely riled; more so when he lost the subsequent point.

It was just like old times. Almost. In fact it was like going to watch the two surviving members of The Who attempt to sing without irony “I hope I die before I get old”.

At least the Albert Hall shenanigans are unashamedly nostalgic. McEnroe, who everyone from Croft to Leconte agreed on Friday is the main draw at these events, moans “Oh God” when he mis-hits a shot. Leconte, remarkably mobile for someone so plump, feigns outrage at every drop-shot from his opponent. The crowd laughs.

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Andy Roddick during the International Tennis Premier League at the Royal Albert Hall

The International Premier Tennis League, on the other hand, is full of exhibition matches masquerading as something more serious. Current stars play, as well as “legends” such as Andre Agassi, and there is a lot of razzmatazz, dry ice and pounding music.

But the timing of the competition, in the precious few weeks between the end of the season and the opening Grand Slam, means the likes of Caroline Wozniacki of the Musafir.com UAE Royals and Serena Williams of the DBS Singapore Slammers are unlikely to be extending themselves. And the high-fives between team members after games look a little too manufactured.

Perhaps participation in both the Statoil Masters and the Premier League can be explained in one word. Money.

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