The two faces of disgrace and flavour

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Biting is not an activity that occurs much between tennis players; not those of the same sex at any rate. There was once a player who used to bite his ball when angry but let us not discuss that because we don't want to give Mike Tyson any fresh ideas. Suffice to say that among the sights we have watched with agog fascination over the past week two sporting extremes were to be found in Las Vegas and Wimbledon.

One was brutal and repulsive and the other was redolent of all that people find to be gracious and acceptable about the games we play. Yet, deep beneath the surface of these obvious differences, it was possible to discern traces of similarity.

Once you accept that all sport is a form of organised combat, and in some cases a direct substitute for it, then you are better able to recognise manifestations of this basic premise, even when comparing two sports as diverse as boxing and tennis.

The need for Tyson's permanent removal from the ring as a result of his dental attack on Evander Holyfield can be confidently left to my colleague Harry Mullan's consideration below. There would be no complaint from this direction if he was never again to be seen scowling from a BSkyB pay-per- view advert, but you would think from some of the reaction that he had introduced a new method of inflicting pain on an opponent.

Biting might have gone out of fashion recently - due, no doubt, to the number of boxers continuing beyond the point when their teeth would be of any use to them - but errant mollars have left their mark on many a fighter and it is by no means a newcomer to the sport's black arts. In the earliest days of pugilism, biting took its place besides eye-gouging, hair-pulling, choking and crotch-crushing as a legitimate weapon. All such excesses were banned in the mid-1800s but at that time biting was tame stuff compared with other ways of discomfiting one's adversary.

Neither is boxing the only sport in which bites have been taken. Rugby has known several famous sets of illegal choppers but the advent of shoulder- padding has helped to discourage the practice of a quick nibble in the scrum.

There is, however, more than one way of being brutish and I've often thought that tennis is not dissimilar to boxing in one or two respects. For a start, the contest is one on one - I discount doubles as a frivolous adjunct - and features a blend of strength, speed and guile. You have to defend as competently as you attack and sense precisely when to turn from one to the other.

After every few minutes, you get a chance to sit down. Admittedly, there's a world of difference between being sloshed in the face with a wet sponge followed by having smelling salts stuffed up your nose and taking a genteel sip at the Robinson's Barley Water, but in tennis you do not get the urgent attention and the whispered words of advice and encouragement from your handlers. They don't even comb your hair.

At least tennis players are spared the inconvenience of bleeding. In their hearts, they may suffer all manner of pain and humiliation but eyebrows remain unsliced, noses unbroken and ears uncauliflowered. They also have the benefit of their exploits being described in much the same heroic terminology... courage, ferocity, tenacity, punching it over the net, slugging it out on the base-line, applying the knock-out blow and blasting your opponent to kingdom come.

And that's only the ladies. To be fair, women's tennis at this level can be even more of a brutal old trade than men's. It is helpful to the leading men if they are handsome and dashing but it is becoming compulsory for the women. The media's approach to Wimbledon, encouraged by the presence of 16-year-old Anna Kournikova, has been more concerned with dollies than volleys and the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, was right to slate newspapers for their fixation on the bottom line. Even the BBC cannot avoid criticism for the number of low-down knicker shots they happened upon. At times, Wimbledon resembled more their answer to Baywatch than a serious sporting event.

And for an example of brutal treatment, the way Monica Seles was dispatched from the tournament left a nasty taste. Still coping with the traumatic effects of a knife attack and hit by family illness, Seles is far from the sylph-like figure she was and the concentration on the figures of her contemporaries emphasised this. But when photographs were published showing in blown-up detail the cellulite on the inside of her thighs, our sporting summer reached a despicable level much lower than Tyson's teeth dragged us.

Like any knock-out tournament, Wimbledon derives great drama from the carnage along the way. And the more vicious the rivalry the more genuine the fascination. Don King himself could not have hyped up a confrontation that promised more than that between Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and her former doubles partner Jana Novotna. If looks could cause wounds, stretchers would have been needed.

Their handshake at the end was as if one was handing a dog turd to the other. Boxers fall, almost lovingly, into each other's arms at the end of the most bitter battle. If there's a similar bond between the gladiators of tennis it is scarcely visible.

For appearance and general demeanour, you could hardly compare a tennis crowd with a hall full of boxing fans but there were times during Tim Henman's ascent to the quarter-finals when the noise from Wimbledon's tiers could have been confused with a baying for blood. Some were taken by surprise by this display of naked nationalism. If Henman and Greg Rusedski continue improving we might have to get used to this new breed of sporting audience.

But boxing fans have a distinct edge - they do turn up. And they tend to do so for more than one fight a year.

It Didn't pay to be an armchair tennis fan on Friday afternoon. Not only were the men's semi- finals delayed by rain but when the first, Pete Sampras v Todd Woodbridge, did get under way the BBC stuck with the Third Test. We did not catch up with Sampras's victory until after the last ball had been bowled at Old Trafford. By that time the second semi-final was already eight games old.

The Beeb's choice of priorities was fine by me but it once more raised the question of how serious they really are about sport. Wimbledon and the Test series are among the listed events protected by law from being snatched by satellite channels. The nation would be even more grateful for this preservation of their rights if the nation was allowed an uninterrupted view.

Once more, the new government proved to be on the ball when they announced that Britain's sporting successes of the summer would all be invited to a celebratory party with the Prime Minister at No 10. They might have spoken a touch too soon but it is a popular gesture.

But, if Tony Blair really wants to identify himself with sport, why stop at the winners? Why not invite the British losers to a separate function - and give them a bloody good hiding.

Comments