Tennis tips from the tea and cake squad

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The Independent Online
EACH year they come in their hordes: baring their chests in the style of Andre Agassi, swearing and arguing a la McEnroe, glowering like Michael Chang. And that's just the girls.

Wimbledon has one inevitable consequence. The television-watching tennis wannabes make an annual pilgrimage to their neighbourhood tennis clubs to practise being superstars, and maybe play tennis. But there a surprise awaits them. Wimbledon may offer the best of world tennis, but how different, how very different Wimbledon is from our own, dear, all-English tennis clubs.

Yet how much the Wimbledon personalities, players, parents and spectators could learn from the social mores that define that most British of institutions, the tennis club.

Take Mary Pierce and her father, the so- called dad from hell. The therapy that is supplied automatically with your subscription at a tennis club would have solved all their problems. For a start, Miss Pierce's last- minute tearful withdrawal from the championships could never have happened in any normal club's ladies singles.

The other ladies would have taken young Mary aside, sat her down with a cup of tea (the lack of a formal tea-break for all players at Wimbledon is an unpardonable lack of tennis etiquette), choreographed the seating so that she was surrounded, listened carefully to her problems, compared them Miss Marple-like with similar examples drawn from decades of local history, comforted her, consoled her and then explained to her, oh so gently, about all the girls she would be letting down and how much time the tournament organisers had spent on the draw.

If none of that worked, a hint would be dropped of the most traumatic punishment of all: her name would be excised from the catering rota. Ostracism and oblivion. It never fails.

Instead, Miss Pierce discussed her problems with a male - the Wimbledon referee Alan Mills. Here I can claim my single link with the grand prix circuit, as Mr Mills coached me when I was at school. He was an unassuming, gentlemanly sort of chap, totally wrong material for a tennis club committee man and a pushover for Miss Pierce.

What Wimbledon needs is the tea and cake squad, a trouble-shooting team of tennis club ladies roving the professional circuit.

Pierce pere might also have benefited from a few seasons in the world of English amateur tennis. Here he would have learnt that his notorious shout of encouragement and tactical advice to his daughter, 'kill the bitch]', while she was playing an opponent, was far from the most effective method of intimidating the other girls. Here he can learn from the mums and dads from hell who watch their little ones compete week in week out. The etiquette for intimidating an offspring's opponent is quite plain and has been perfected over many decades.

Never, never shout abuse from the sidelines. Instead, wait for the two girls to come off, then go to your daughter's opponent, put your arm round her shoulder, tell her she is a wonderful player with a great future and just wonder if you might take the liberty of giving her a few tips on the more arcane parts of the game, such as the backhand and forehand.

Then go for it. In the 30 seconds you have her to yourself, screw her up completely. Try to change her grip, her court positioning, her racket, her entire mental approach. If she wears glasses, recommend contact lenses, if she has a brace for her teeth, tell her she no longer needs one. It worked a dream with Tracy Austin, one of the most promising young players in the world until someone told her her teeth were fixed. She barely won a match afterwards.

Then there is the question of stalkers, apparently such a problem for the top women players that they attended a pre-Wimbledon seminar on it. This is a modern and very un- British disease.

Christine Truman, Ann Jones, Virginia Wade, graduates of English tennis clubs, were never stalked. They had all mastered LTA rule 34b: never be mysterious, sensuous or wear designer sports clothes. Always be unbearably jolly and, if a stranger becomes too attentive, tell him he looks a big strong man, just the person to go over the courts with a heavy roller, and insist he comes to the annual tennis club dance.

Wimbledon needs to get back to its roots. The Queen's Club tournament that precedes it retains much of the traditional tennis club atmosphere and tradition. You can hear people talking just outside the court, a vital training offered by all British tennis clubs. Once, when Jimmy Connors was about to serve in a final there, the whole court heard the distinct sound of a row being patched up outside: 'I'm frightfully sorry, darling,' a lady could be heard saying. 'That's OK, honey,' said Connors, joining in as he continued with his service action.

These are the conditions in which tennis should be played. And the only stalkers you will find are those sine qua nons of a tennis club, the committee members who go around staring at the chests and groins of players of both sexes to ensure that they are wearing the regulation white clothing.

Mark Lawson is on holiday.

(Photograph omitted)

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