The Brian Viner Interview: Cash crusades against convention

Tennis: Former Wimbledon champion struggles to bring breath of fresh air to a sport spoiled by stuffy tradition
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WHEN PAT Cash won Wimbledon in 1987 there was speculation in his native Australia that he might be a descendant of Martin Cash, an Aussie Robin Hood celebrated for tales of derring-do. Martin Cash is said to have escaped from a brutal prison by swimming two miles across a shark- infested bay, a tame 18th century version of beating Ivan Lendl in straight sets and then clambering over the crowd to embrace dad and coach, almost putting a foot through the commentary box roof in the process.

Cash did not know at the time that he would end up with only one Grand Slam title, but if he had he could hardly have made the occasion more memorable. "I was so focused on the match," he recalls. "I used to play almost as if I was surrounded by glass, in a cocoon, which was something I developed in the Davis Cup. But when I won and saw my dad and coach up there, I just wanted to be with them. I started getting up there and then realised that it wasn't going to be easy, but I thought: `Holy shit! I can't go back now.' I've watched it a few times, and I still get very emotional."

That episode was typical of Cash. Honest, single-minded, brazen, with a cavalier disregard for convention. He used to play tennis like that, and he is like that in conversation, too. We meet in his scruffy office near his west London home, where he pursues a bewildering variety of business and charitable interests. Beneath the Aussie bluster, the industrial adjectives, the dangly earring that must rather horrify All-England Club worthies, there lurks a good and considerate man.

He started an environmental group back home called Planet Ark, now one of the southern hemisphere's biggest recyclers. He is UK president of Goal, a disaster relief foundation. He is developing a Pat Cash tennis academy, to sit alongside a Greg Norman golf academy, on Australia's Gold Coast. He represents a sporting goods company,, which trades over the internet. He also writes, broadcasts, and somehow finds time to coach his compatriot Mark Philippoussis. "I had always wanted to coach a top player, although Philippoussis asked me earlier than I expected to do it. I travel with him for about 20 weeks of the year, even though I always swore I'd never go back on the circuit."

Cash has mixed feelings about tennis. He loves the game, but feels the sport spat him out before he was ready. He is only 34, after all, not much older than Boris Becker and much younger than his idol John McEnroe, who still wields a racket in anger. It is true that Cash had terrible injury problems, yet he remains bitter that the tennis establishment did not offer him more support.

"The ATP [Association of Tennis Professionals] didn't look after me," he says. "I'm a draw, an exciting player, people wanted to see me. But I couldn't get wild cards. I wasn't asking for Grand Slam wild cards, just for second-rung tournaments to give me an opportunity to make a comeback. And it wasn't just me. [Johann] Kriek won two Australian Opens, then couldn't get into a tournament. It's crazy. Tennis should support its ex-champions, so I kicked up a stink and tried to get rules brought in, and all the players backed me. Becker, Ivanisevic, McEnroe, Borg, the lot. But nothing changed. I call tennis the McDonald's of sport - you go in, they make a quick buck out of you, and you're out. The music industry is the same."

Even at his peak - especially at his peak - Cash had problems with tennis officialdom. Not to put too fine a point on it, he reckons that some umpires cheated. "Some of them would know that a ball was in but stuck with the line call just to piss you off. Then you'd complain and end up with a point penalty. I remember writing a letter appealing against a $1,000 fine. I bounced my racket and it bounced back into my hands and they fined me, so I wrote: `Do you want us all to be like Borg? It would be a pretty damn boring circuit if we were.'

"There was one official who really had it in for me. I was playing my arse off in the Australian Open and there was someone in the crowd yelling at me so I told them to f*** off. The lineswoman thought I was talking to her, so I got a point penalty, and then I was upset after the match, so this guy gave me a $10,000 fine. I actually owed the tournament money. For me, that was the beginning of the end."

All this sounds suspiciously like paranoia, but Cash strikes me as too honest to manufacture a grievance. Of course, there are those who believe that he, McEnroe and other temperamental players deserved to pay every cent of every fine for so rudely shattering the gentility of tennis. Cash sees it differently. He thinks that he and his ilk are greatly missed in today's game.

"There is no gamesmanship now, and that's a shame. I never cheated. I despise cheating. There are one or two on the circuit now who cheat, arguing that a ball was in when they know it was out. But by gamesmanship I mean stalling for time, doing the old Jimmy Connors thing and tying the shoelaces, arguing a bit longer than you should. There's not much of that any more. At Queen's I saw a player whack the net and the crowd went `ooooooh.' Ten years ago McEnroe would have ripped the net down and wrapped it round the umpire's neck."

While Cash never quite matched McEnroe's on-court histrionics, the American was very much his role model. "He was my big hero. I copied his attacking attitude." Did they play each other much? "I played him at his peak but not at my peak. He beat me in the 1984 semi-final at Wimbledon, and playing him you always knew that something was going to happen, that he'd throw his racket or whatever. And while he was doing that you'd be at the back of the court muttering: `Don't lose concentration.' But that was like saying: `Don't think of the colour blue.' You know he's trying to break your concentration, and meanwhile he's done it.

"By the time you started again, he was all fiery and pumped up, while you were cold and stiff. It was a damn good tactic and I copied that too. If a guy's running hot, slow him down. Connors and Nastase were masters of it. Thomas Muster and Becker do it now. That's what makes Becker such a great competitor - he hates to lose. You know, they say tennis is 60 per cent mental. I reckon it's more than that. Everyone hits the ball well but some have better... what I call emotional management. I'm trying to teach it to Philippoussis. You see it in all the great players. Look at Rafter. They say he copied my style. Well, I copied McEnroe and I don't know who he copied. But Rafter does play almost identically to me. He doesn't hit the ball as well as half the guys on tour, but he has determination, fire, and a bit of cunning."

Of all the players he has watched and played against, Cash reckons the finest are McEnroe and Sampras. "I think McEnroe at his best would edge it against Sampras but it would be pretty damn close. You can't get more complete players than that. Then there was Edberg, probably one of the five greatest volleyers of all time and maybe the best athlete ever." Cash first encountered the Swede in 1981, when he beat him in the final of the world under-16 championships in Milan. "He had a double-handed backhand and didn't come near the net. A couple of years later, my mate Wally Masur told me he had to play this guy Edberg. I said: `I know him,' and told Wally what to expect. But by then he had a single backhand and serve-volleyed first and second serve. He beat Wally up. And Wally came to me afterwards and said: `thanks a lot'."

When Cash won the world junior championship, which he followed a year later by winning Junior Wimbledon and the Junior US Open, he had been playing serious tennis for barely five years. He was also a fine cricketer, a formidable Australian Rules footballer, and the fastest sprinter of his age group in Melbourne, then the state. "I can't remember losing anything," he says, matter-of-factly. At 19, he reached the semi-finals both of Wimbledon and the US Open, but then came a serious disc problem, the first of a series of debilitating injuries without which he would almost certainly have many more Grand Slam titles to his name.

In 1987, though, he was fit and raring to win Wimbledon. "I thought only Becker would give me trouble, and he went out early to Peter Doohan. Wilander in the quarter-final was good for me, because I'd beaten him on grass before. Connors in the semi was tough, but I thought I could beat Lendl in the final. I had a psychologist working with me and did a lot of visualisation. I played the match in my mind the day before, so when I got out there it was like deja vu, and I played very calmly."

Twelve years on, it wouldn't be true to say that Cash has no complaints. He has plenty, but he doesn't moan about his injuries. "I was so quick and powerful at a young age, but my technique wasn't perfect, and that put strain on my knees and back," he says. That was just the way it was. And when his Achilles tendon snapped in 1989, his career at the top was more or less finished. "But it was actually a relief to get off the circuit," he says. "The media attention after I won Wimbledon was unbearable at times. I shoved a few photographers and I had a hate-hate relationship with the Australian media. So it was like taking the lid off a pressure cooker."

Like McEnroe, he is now a part of the media that once tormented him, bringing a breath of fresh air to the same BBC commentary box to which he once nearly brought a different kind of fresh air, by sticking his foot through the roof. When Mark Philippoussis wins Wimbledon and clambers up to embrace his coach, then the circle will be complete.