Wimbledon 99: Magic memories on golden lawns

Laurie Pignon recalls 60 years of mavericks, marathons and magnificence in the mysterious `sleeping kingdom' that comes to life once a year
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The Independent Online
THE LAST Wimbledon Championships of the 20th Century are almost upon us, and having reached the age when I am older than most of the exhibits in the Wimbledon Museum I did think of getting myself cloned and starting up all over again so I would be around when the magnificent multi-million pound redevelopment scheme is finished in 2010.

Already there is an impressive new No 1 court, a cascading waterfall where a car park used to be, and a giant television screen where spectators can laze on a grassy hillock with a Pimms close at hand and watch the major matches. But if clones don't have built-in memories like computers do, I would rather stay as I am with my irreplaceable yesterdays. They were a reporter's Valhalla.

Wimbledon's long and lonely fight to bring about open tennis in 1968 and the bans and the boycotts of the 1970s all made front-page news; but for me the joy of The Championships is all about its people and the strange and wonderful things they do. Nothing was more fun than The Great Knicker Controversy of 1949. The photographers, and at least half the spectators, loved it; but it did have its serious side.

It was all about an inch of lace on Gorgeous Gussie's (Moran) panties, and a dress short enough to make sure it could be seen... But it was more than just a fashion foible by the dress designer Ted Tinling, it was his broadside attack against The Championship Committee, who had banned his using even the slightest hint of colour on his creations, and Tinling who spent his life glamourising women's tennis was furious. Gussie had a beautiful body, so did Karol Fageros in her gold lame underwear, but even Ted's friends thought he went too far when he produced a pair of pants with one cheek green, the other mauve (The All England Club colours). Faces in the Committee box were puce.

Wooden rackets and white balls, which used to fluff up a bit, produced magnificent matches of a magnitude which because of the introduction of the tie-break (1971) can never be seen again. They left the competitors and spectators exhausted, and played hell with edition times. The Drobny- Patty third round clash in 1953 lasted for 93 games and took 5 hours 4 minutes and finished in the twilight. There were no chairs on court then, and play really had to be continuous.

The Gonzales-Pasarell classic in 1969 was even longer - 112 games, and 5 hours 12 minutes. But that had been stopped overnight when Gonzales complained of having to play in the almost complete darkness of 9.15pm when he was 22-24, 1-6 down against his much younger opponent. The anger was still burning in those flashing eyes when he went on to court the next day, and it showed - he won the next three sets 16-14, 6-3, 11-9.

Years later, when I asked him if he wished that there had been a tie- break in his day, he said: "No. No. No. Endurance and fitness is just as important in championship tennis as any of the skills. They have robbed the game of one of its virtues."

It is men and matches like this that make memories more important than any number of unknown tomorrows. Mine go back to those sweet grass-green summer days when as a junior reporter with a Press Messenger Pass I drove a very second-hand pounds 12 Austin Seven on a 10-mile journey to The Championships that were to last a lifetime.

The queues of genuine tennis fans were just as long as they have ever been, but in those pre-war days there were convenient knot-holes in the wooden fencing through which passers-by could get a one-eyed view of the white flannelled wonderland inside - a scene which Maureen Connolly once called: "A sleeping kingdom which comes to life for two weeks every year."

The most emotional of all Wimbledons was 1946; it was not so much a tournament as a celebration. The Centre Court, like London and many other big cities still bore the scars of Nazi bombers, and because of building restrictions a part of its roof and more than a thousand seats were missing. Who cared?

The crowds, many still in uniform, and others like myself in utility demob suits, came in their thousands, and London Transport alone reported that they carried 176,066 passengers from Southfields and Wimbledon Stations, 20,000 more than in 1939.

Everything was rationed, and women who had been used to "making do" for so long raided attics to search out pre-war garden party hats, and devised all manner of means to rejuvenate summer dresses which had been carefully stored for better times.

It was the age of "official" austerity, but everyone did his best to maintain the old standards that had made Wimbledon the social highlight of an English summer. The sun shone every day - and, in all our delights, we remembered those who didn't make it.

By this time I was a Fleet Street man but my Sports Editor, who had spent the war in a country funk hole, called me "Sonny", even when he told me that he was going to put his name on my exclusive piece about Jack Kramer's injured racket hand. He did at least take me to dinner at The Dog and Fox.

In these days it was the press and their expense accounts who had the money and we often wined and dined with the players, many of whom have become lifetime friends, and as an Honorary Member of The All England Club I am lucky enough to meet some of them at least once a year. Now the top players are cosseted and shielded millionaires. Everything has changed; so has the press.

When I began, quite some years ago, the Wimbledon writing room was no bigger than a front parlour of a Wandsworth semi-detached, and the man from The Times was even using mauve ink to produce his purple prose. Typewriters were few and interviews non-existent. This, however, was when junior reporters came into their own. Because we did not have passes for the main courts we were the only ones who had the slightest idea what was going on outside. Some young agency men even had binoculars and found the highest vantage point possible to keep up with events as they happened. It was we who talked to the players and we who got the odd quote. Little wonder that the byline men pretended to like us for at least two weeks a year.

Around the courts the atmosphere is the same as it always was, but behind the scenes Wimbledon has moved into space technology. The referee's office has wall-to-wall television so that Alan Mills has a view of every court. He has also continual access to weather reports, and computers help him sort out the order of play. The public benefit, too.

Today's reporters will never have memories like mine: the might of Margaret Smith; the beauty of Maria Bueno; the professionalism of Billie-Jean King; the puppy-dog joyfulness of Evonne Goolagong; the overpowering domination of Martina Navratilova, and three vastly contrasting British champions in Angela Mortimer (1961), Ann Jones (1969) and Virginia Wade, who crowned the Centenary year in front of The Queen in 1977. But the greatest of all women players was little Mo Connolly.

She came in 1952 - a bobbysoxer with orange lipstick and Woolworth ear- rings - and left as a sophisticated 19-year-old in 1954, having won the title three times, conceding only two sets. Quite phenomenal. She promised me that she would come back as an even better player, but a horse riding accident ended her tournament career. She was 35 when she died.

Until iceman Borg came along and started his run of five Wimbledon wins (his two against Connors and McEnroe were classics) it was the Australians and Americans who dominated the men, and the finest of them all was Rod Laver, who won as an amateur in 1961 and 1962, then was barred as a professional before coming back to take the title in 1968 and 1969.

The greatest player never to win Wimbledon was little Ken Rosewall, who reached the final four times. The first in 1954, and the last 20 years later, against Connors. Those 1974 Championships became "The Lovers' Wimbledon", for Connors and Chrissy Evert, who won the Ladies' singles, had planned to get married. They never did.

I filed my last copy from my favourite place on 6 July, 1989. It was Evert's exit as a Wimbledon player and I was called out of retirement to report it.

With all the memories, I found it as moving as Puccini's farewell to Mimi and I could almost hear the music.