In the glory days of L!ve TV, the red top-inspired television channel, a show called Topless Darts attracted a certain amount of attention. Its concept, half-naked women paying darts, was based on the simple idea that a combination of sport and sexual titillation would be a ratings winner.
Topless Darts disappeared from the screens in 1999 but, 10 years on, there is a new and profitable version of the same basic formula. It is called the Wimbledon Tennis Championships.
No other sport, with the possible exception of beach volleyball, has been more comprehensively hijacked by the marketing of sex than professional tennis. The potential for exploitation has always been there. Back in the 1970s, the most popular Athena poster was of the famous bum-scratching, knickerless Tennis Girl. More recently, newspapers have loved to run candid on-court photographs of young, attractive female players as they stretch adorably – and revealingly – to make a shot.
Tennis underwear is a regular subject of debate, providing an excuse to feature the low-angle picture, technically known by paparazzi and pornographers as the "up-skirt". Now, the pretence that this wet-lipped boggling has anything to do with sport has been abandoned. The press list their Top 10 Wimbledon Babes and run headlines like "Volley of the Dolls" and "Babe, Set and Match!". The BBC is playing the same game, if the words of an unnamed spokesman are to be believed. "Our preference would always be a Brit or a babe as this always delivers high viewing figures," he told a Sunday newspaper.
There is nothing wrong with BBC programmes stimulating a dim throb of desire in their viewers – it is an important part of the corporation's mission to entertain – but perhaps we could all stop pretending that this kind of light voyeurism has anything to do with sport. Otherwise, if sporting broadcasters are really so anxious to bolster their ratings with the sexually frustrated, why not include peak-time teenage gymnastics in the schedule?
Wimbledon itself, so often praised as the home of old-fashioned lawn tennis, appears to be eager to accommodate this new kind of tennis fan. There is now a powerful bias in favour of young players who look good when it comes to the All-England Club's scheduling of matches. The latest pig-tailed cutie from Slovakia or Romania will appear on the Centre Court while a higher-ranked player, who happens to plainer or older, is banished to the outer courts. "Box-office appeal has to be taken into consideration," the club's Johnny Perkins has explained. "It is not a coincidence that those (on Centre Court) are attractive."
It is difficult to see how those in charge of a professional sport can expect it – or them – to be taken seriously when among the criteria for their match-planning decisions are the legs, breasts and general dimpled gorgeousness of the player in question.
There is something about Wimbledon which offers the British middle-class a holiday from being themselves. For these two weeks, respectable folk who would disapprove of anyone sitting slumped in front of a TV watching sport for hours throughout the day, do just that. They gaze mistily at the screen as a couple of babes grunt and gasp and tell themselves that their interest is entirely innocent. Self-delusion, after all, is one activity at which we British excel.