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It seems only yesterday that I climbed into the commentary box high above the old Number One Court to work on my first match at Wimbledon. It is hard to believe that 36 years have passed – and how much the game has changed.
A week ago I commentated on my last match for the BBC at Wimbledon, the ladies’ singles final between Amélie Mauresmo and Justine Henin-Hardenne.
While watching the action it occurred to me that the wheel had come full circle. Here were two women, both magnificent athletes and both hitting those fierce topspin ground strokes in the modern way. Yet, unlike most of their contemporaries who wield today’s powerful rackets to smite mighty winners from the baseline – such as Maria Sharapova, Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters – both were eager to serve and volley.
This was how Wimbledon’s greatest men’s champions had always played, but only a few women had the physical qualities that made it possible. Australia’s Margaret Court and the two Americans – Billie Jean King and the Czech-born Martina Navratilova who became a US citizen in 1981 – had them in abundance.
Court and King had played in the period of wooden rackets while Navratilova spanned the eras of wood and today’s technologically sophisticated rackets. All were the exceptions to prove the rule. In women’s tennis, even on grass, control of the baseline has always been of paramount importance.
The great pre-war champions Suzanne Lenglen of France and America’s Helen Wills Moody had both ruled from the back of the court, though Lenglen could and did volley to finish off a point. In 1939 the athletic Californian Alice Marble had been the first to show that on grass a woman could successfully employ an all-out volleying campaign.
In the early post-war years the likes of Louise Brough, Margaret Osborne Dupont and Doris Hart all liked to be at the net but they were mercilessly cut down by Maureen Connolly, arguably the greatest of all women champions, whose control, accuracy and pace were exceptional. From the moment she won her first US title aged 16 in 1951, the American prodigy lost only four times. Those defeats were all in minor events. At the grand-slam tournaments “Little Mo” was never beaten. During her short career – a riding accident ended it in 1954 when she was 19 and she died of cancer at the age of 34 – Connolly collected three Wimbledons, two more US and two French titles, plus the Australian crown in 1953.
That year she emulated the 1938 grand-slam winner, Don Budge, by taking all four major titles in the same year, losing just one set in the process. Among women only Court and Steffi Graf have equalled that feat, while Rod Laver is the only other man to have done it. The Australian left-hander did it twice, in 1962 as an amateur and in the second year of open tennis in 1969.
One day during the US National Doubles in Boston in 1953 I remember asking Connolly what she felt was the most important thing in life. “To fulfil your potential,” she replied. I have always wondered just how much more she might have achieved if she had not saddled her horse that fateful day in 1954 when they were in collision with a speeding truck in San Diego.
There were other players who might have achieved more if only the International Tennis Federation had grasped the nettle of open tennis earlier. We never saw the best of the Americans Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez and Tony Trabert or the Australians Frank Sedgman, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall and Laver himself. As each of these amateur champions turned professional to entertain small audiences in exhausting one-night stands across America, they were ostracised by the tennis establishment.
Only when the All England Club of Wimbledon staged a professional tournament on its lawns in 1967, sponsored by BBC2 as part of the launch of colour television, did the ITF take notice. The club’s threat to hold an open Wimbledon in 1968, despite the ITF’s threat of excommunication, at last precipitated action. At an extraordinary general meeting of the ITF in Paris, it was agreed that open tennis should begin forthwith.
The world’s first open tournament, the British Hard Court Championships in Bournemouth, began on April 22 1968. I shall never forget the feeling of elation as we gathered at the West Hants Club. At last the game had been set free. At last we could all be paid up-front instead of having a brown envelope passed to us in the tournament promoter’s car.
I lost to Laver in the second round of that historic tournament and remember cheering fellow Briton Mark Cox as he beat first Gonzalez and then Roy Emerson before he too became a victim of Laver. Rosewall beat Laver in the final at Bournemouth and then repeated the feat in the final of the first open major in Paris.
The ITF also failed the game by not banning metal rackets in the 1970s. It was quick to outlaw double-strung rackets in 1978 because “they fundamentally altered the character of the game”. If that was a correct decision, and it was, why did it not outlaw non-wood rackets which have certainly changed the nature of the game?
Today’s growing rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal may yet rescue tennis from its plunge into one-dimensional topspin tedium. No other men can conjure as much magic as these two. Federer has the genius of Laver, Nadal is a left-handed Bjorn Borg.
If, as it should, the ITF acts to control the size of racket heads to reduce the size of the sweet spot and make it more difficult to apply topspin, then the game may one again produce a variety of styles. It would be sad to see no more John McEnroes or Ilie Nastases. What joy they delivered.
Let us hope the ITF does take heed so that the talents of baseliners, volleyers, touch artists and all-court players can once again flower together.