Unconscious desire in the highlight zone

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The Independent Online
INTERESTING developments in Wimbledon's second week. Agassi's shorts appeared to be getting longer as the tournament went on. If he'd made it through to the final, they would have been down around his ankles, so to speak. And Pete Sampras's tongue re-appeared, under pressure.

A couple of years ago, Pete's tongue flopped around on his chin as a matter of course, like a thirsty St Bernard's. Then he tamed it - folded it in half, or something - and kept it in, which was generally agreed to advance his game, at least aesthetically speaking. But against Ivanisevic in the semi-final, Pete's tongue was back, just briefly. I thought he might choke. But he swallowed hard and made it.

Later, Pete used the tongue to commend his opponent. "He was unconscious there for a second," Pete said, "unconscious" being, as far as one can make out, a term of approbation in tennis, akin to "in a zone" and "thoroughly focused". "There are times when he's just not there," Sampras went on, "and that's what makes him dangerous."

As psychoanalysis goes, this was pretty unconscious. But Pete had been out-psyched earlier by Brad Gilbert, Agassi's coach and the author of Winning Ugly. Brad is one focused talker. We're looking at a zoned wordsmith here. In fact, the Wimbledon meter clocked Brad's delivery at 139mph, making him the fastest server of tennis-babble in the tournament's history. "Tennis," he said, helpfully, "is about dealing with the situations, using what you've got on the day." Agassi's preparation before facing Becker was going to involve deciding "what he wants to happen under pressure". Either you were in a zone or you were on a plane - the next one home.

It wasn't just the rapidity of Brad's style that made some of this hard to apply to the game we then saw. When Agassi crouched to receive serve in that final tie-break, was he working out what he wanted to happen under pressure, or was he just trying to concentrate on getting the ball back? This is what is ironic about all the psycho-chat that comes with Wimbledon, both from the interview booth and the commentary box with its perpetual variants on the question "What will be going through her mind now, Anne?" At this level, the players have no time to think. They have time only to react.

Clearly, given the BBC's coverage, actually going to Wimbledon is no substitute for sitting at home and watching it on the telly, but, for anyone contemplating sending off for tickets for next year, it's become clear that the seats to have are those directly behind the umpire's chair. These may in fact afford a limited view of the court, but they do set you up as the potential recipient of a whole range of tennis and sporting goods, thoughtfully surrendered by the departing players. Of course, your delight in this will depend on how you feel about having to struggle home on the train with a top seed's laundry. But after his semi-final victory, Becker took the time to express-deliver, to someone in the fourth row, a set of sweatbands and a shirt. This was but two days after Pete Sampras had given away a racket. Rumours that the doubles partnership of Knowles and Nestor would be offering free shoes, a selection of wines and spirits and a heavily discounted line of men's fragrances and toiletries turned out to be unfounded, disappointing many who had stayed late into the evening.

Could it be that some of tennis's attitude-speak has rubbed off on the BBC's Test Match team? In this quieter realm, "just do it" normally applies to putting on the kettle. But Geoffrey Boycott, considering Edgbaston's cropped playing surface, was referring this week to "a result pitch", a piece of hypey verbal mangling with which Brad Gilbert would have been delighted. Boycott in a zone: it's a terrifying thought.

Somehow this doesn't look like the kind of road Richie Benaud will go down. Benaud can achieve a serenity which is positively Bond-like at times. As England's captain stared sorrowfully behind him at the wicket destroyed by Courtney Walsh, Benaud remarked calmly: "He's made a horrible mess of the ash behind Michael Atherton."

To be able to preserve this calm in any live commentary is remarkable; to do so while England are batting shows special steel. On Friday, Graham Thorpe swung with his eyes closed like an apprentice lumberjack. Benaud, for once, began apparently uncontrollably: "That is one of the . . ." Worst shots ever seen? Dumbest ideas a man could have? Reasons for switching over to Emmerdale? In a flash, our man had somehow chilled himself: ". . . things that will stay in Graham Thorpe's mind for a very long time."

The umpire had cause to call twice in quick succession for the verdict of the umpire up in the box with the video replay facility. Convention dictates that the umpire signals his desire for a further witness by holding up his finger and drawing a large television screen in the air. The gesture has a rather unfortunate relation to charades (as if expecting the crowd to chant in unison: "It's a book . . . and a TV programme . . . six syllables . . .) and would perhaps be better - and more honestly - replaced by an exaggerated shrug, indicating: "Search me. I was unconscious."