Brian Viner: Kournikova or Sharapova? That's a double-fault in the love match of life

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

We were rather disappointed earlier this week, here at The Last Word, to clock the results of some daft poll to find the sexiest tennis players of all time.

On the women's side of the draw Anna Kournikova came top, followed by Maria Sharapova, Gabriela Sabatini, Steffi Graf, Serena Williams, Martina Hingis, Sue Barker, Ana Ivanovic, Jennifer Capriati and Venus Williams. My, but those voters have short memories. For my generation, the mere words Evonne Goolagong were enough to bring a boy's testosterone to the boil. Yet she didn't even squeak into the top 10. It is an omission, along with that of Chris Evert, to render the whole exercise meaningless.

On the other hand, it is meaningless anyway, an irredeemably sexist diversion from the wholly serious business of tennis. On yet another hand, though, there's surely a time and place for irredeemable sexism, and it might just be London SW19 in the first week of Wimbledon, before the going gets tough and the tough get going, as the great Nick Bollettieri might say. I confess that over a bottle or two of Merlot in the media restaurant the other evening, my fellow hacks and I gave the poll some thought, and my colleague Nick Harris won't mind my saying (although his wife might) that he presented a creditable case for Kournikova as the No 1, having been beguiled by her during an interview a few years ago.

There is nothing so sad, you might think, and you might be right, as a group of middle-aged men (the correct collective noun, I believe, is "a paunch") discussing the sex appeal of assorted female tennis players. But it would be disingenuous of us to pretend that lovely legs and dazzling smiles enchant us any less than killer forehands and deft drop shots. The post-match press conference is where you really see grizzled old scribes smiling like simpering schoolboys, not least during the interview given by the delightful Gisela Dulko following her splendid victory over Sharapova on Wednesday. They marched into the interview room like war correspondents going into battle, and floated out like lovelorn swains. It's not anything as ugly as lust, I hasten to add, just the dreaminess that suffuses men approaching the end of the third set of the five-setter of life when they are confronted with youthful grace and loveliness. And let me nail my own colours to the mast: I was similarly captivated by young Michelle Larcher de Brito, the Portuguese girl no older than my own daughter who has become notorious for the volume of her shrieks, but will soon become better known, I predict, for the quality of her tennis and her looks. In that order, I hope.

Anyway, it is tricky territory for a man nearer 50 than 40 to reflect on teenage beauty, so let me turn the clock back to a time when such reflections were positively expected of me. My first visit to Wimbledon, in 1977, was as a wide-eyed 15-year-old schoolboy down from the provinces in the care of my older, more cosmopolitan cousin Daniel. I failed, alas, to set those wide eyes on Miss Goolagong (who by then had rather disloyally become Mrs Cawley), but did have the incalculable pleasure of standing on Centre Court (there was standing room in those days) watching Bjorn Borg embark on his defence of the title. By then, almost as excitingly, I had also spotted my first bona fide celebrity, the ITN newsreader Reginald Bosanquet. So it tickled me this week that the one celebrity I spotted wandering the grounds of the All-England Club was another ITN newsreader, Sir Trevor McDonald.

That's the same Sir Trevor, incidentally, who used to trip over his words when reading his autocue, occasionally saying "and now for the other day's news" instead of "and now for the day's other news", making me wonder whether there couldn't be a generic list of headlines made up of news events that are scarcely events, so wearily familiar have they become. Bong! French lorry drivers blockade Calais! Bong! All British players except one out of Wimbledon by the end of the first week!

All of which brings me back to the sexy tennis players survey, because on the men's side of the draw Andy Murray just crept into the top 10 at No 9. For heaven's sake! Who wants to compare Murray's sex appeal with that of Andre Agassi or Pat Cash? Can't we just concentrate on the tennis?

*Brian Viner's interview with Sachin Tendulkar in yesterday's Independent was courtesy of the publishing company Opus. Register now at for the chance to win exclusive prizes personally signed by Sachin.

This game is just the ticket for me

A chap can spend too long at Wimbledon. On Thursday, organising a train ticket from London Euston to Birmingham, I was asked whether I wanted a single. No, I said, a double.