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When Gordon Forbes first played at Wimbledon in 1954, the South African farm boy was so overcome to have got there that he cried on court. “I dropped my first service game due to burning eyes, and finally lost the match,” he writes in A Handful of Summers, widely considered the best tennis book ever. Forbes has come a long way since. Now 79, but still with darkish hair and the athlete’s straight back, he leads me around a Wimbledon where he knows every cranny.

Outside the grounds, the queue stretches for 10 hours. Inside, Forbes opens every door. Everywhere he runs into old friends: Vijay Amritraj, the Indian player who portrayed an MI6 agent in the Bond film Octopussy, resplendent in orange jacket; or Tom Gullikson, the player-turned-coach with Paul Newmanesque blue eyes. Forbes is the man to see Wimbledon with.

Let me rewind to explain how we got here. One evening in February, a friend and I sat in a café in Amsterdam, lamenting life. My friend’s girlfriend was at home dying. What was the point of everything, we wondered. I quoted (in slightly garbled form) Forbes’s diary note from 1968 that gives A Handful of Summers its title:

Go back down the years
And recall if you can
All the warm temperate times;
You may find with surprise
That they’re all squeezed in
To a headful of thoughts
And a handful of summers.

Those handful of summers in youth, I argued that evening, make everything else worthwhile. Soon afterwards I mentioned the idea in a column. And a few days after that, I got an email from South Africa: “I must say that this is a good thing that has come to me after a wait of over forty years. How could you have found the book, and what possessed you? Never mind. You brightened up my life! Best wishes, Gordon Forbes.” He was a real person, still alive!

Today at Wimbledon, Forbes is waiting for me at the gate. Five seconds later we pass through an unobtrusive door into the Last Eight Club. It’s a surprisingly simple place, packed tight with wicker chairs, but it’s Forbes’s home here. The club was founded in 1986, for former players who had reached the final eight of Wimbledon in any competition. Forbes got to the semis in the men’s doubles in 1962 with Abe Segal, the louder-than-life comic hero of A Handful of Summers.

And as if half a century has suddenly dissolved, there sprawled on the sofa in the Last Eight is Segal. Now over 80, he is watching Serena Williams on TV and still monologuing. “Forbesy! I’ve never seen you look better,” he exclaims, before seguing into a lament about Heathrow airport: “It took me 20 minutes to get through customs because my fingerprints didn’t work.”

The extrovert Johannesburg Jew and the shy farm boy first met at a tournament in East London, South Africa. To Forbes then, East London was practically New York. But 19-year-old Segal pronounced it a “one-horse town”, adding, “And what’s more its one horse has friggin’ well died!” They became roommates in the Grand Hotel, Oslo in 1955: after the South African Davis Cup team checked in, Segal picked up Forbes’s bags and called, “Get your ass along here, Forbesy! Seymour’s psycho and Vermaak snores.” Forbes and Segal went on to share rooms and chase women all around Europe. They also played some decent doubles together: in 1963 they reached the final of the French Open.

Forbes grew up on a farm near South Africa’s Karoo desert, close to what he calls a “one-ant town”. He had to make his own fun. In A Handful of Summers, he recounts how he and his brother Jack would roam the farm playing soldiers, inspired by the distant second world war, which reached the farm only by BBC radio. The black servant boys acted the Germans, and there was much dynamiting of things (including a red rooster). But the farm also had an “antheap tennis court”, built by Forbes’s father out of termite mounds. The siblings played endless matches there (sometimes as a punishment imposed by their father). Practice made perfect: Jack and Forbes’s sister Jean also got to Wimbledon.

A Handful of Summers centres on Forbes’s life on the tennis tour from 1952 until 1968. A net-rusher, he became one of the world’s 20 best players, but that wasn’t the point. Nor was money: his last Wimbledon, 1968, was the first of the “Open” professional era. Rather, tennis took him from the farm into the world. The game, he writes, “taught me to know cobbled streets, airport bars, langoustines and black olives and laced my life with a fine bubbling excitement.”

Much of that excitement – and much of the book – has to do with girls. A Handful of Summers is full of elegies to remembered young women, now dead or octogenarian. There was Forbes’s “first full view of a naked lady … still one of my clearest mental pictures” (she was left behind in their shared cabin by a South African air force pilot on Forbes’ maiden voyage to England, in 1954); the Lufthansa stewardess with freckles almost everywhere, conquered in Hamburg, 1956 (did she ever read the account?); and nocturnal bathing in Lebanon, 1962:

On the moonlit beach we would eat melons, then swim out into the limpid sea – float weightlessly and dream. One such evening I lay upon a deserted bathers’ raft with Ilsa and Edda Buding [German sisters on the tennis tour] and we decided that the Mediterranean was a good sea for romance. Especially with the moon the way it was that night.

“I wrote that book almost by accident,” Forbes tells me on the balcony of the players’ restaurant, in his clipped South African tones, as we shelter from the inevitable rain. “I wrote it for my sister, as a journal for the family.” Then, one day in the 1970s, queueing for customs at Heathrow, he ran into his friend, the tennis-loving actor Peter Ustinov. Forbes said, “Peter, I’ve written this,” and gave him the manuscript. Ustinov’s publisher, William Heinemann, liked it. “I was thrilled,” Forbes recalls. “I didn’t even try to get the bloody thing published.”

It appeared in 1978, and fast became a cult classic. “Its only genuine flaw is that it has a last page,” said The Times. “The most jingly-jangly hilarious sporting memoir that can ever have been published,” said The Guardian. The American writer George Plimpton said it captured “the splendid awareness that good times are at hand”. Or as Forbes says: “What I hear is that it’s a slightly unusual book.”

The cover of a sporting classic, the first edition of 'A Handful of Summers'

Around us on the balcony, the long-legged successors to the tennis girls of A Handful of Summers are texting on pink smartphones. Forbes and I sit trying to pinpoint why the book worked. You bottled a feeling, I say, the best moments of youth: the wellbeing of an aching young body after a hard match, wine on a piazza at sunset, friends and girls. Forbes wrote the book while he was a partner in an industrial lighting company in Johannesburg, and it is a desk-bound businessman’s ode to youth. Forbes listens to my theory, and reflects: “It’s very interesting, you know. A lot of the time you achieve something that you don’t know you achieve.”

He does think his generation had a splendid youth. “I lived in a great time in the development of the world. We missed all the wars. When I was 20, there were just under 3 billion people in the world. Now there are just over 7 billion. There’s got to be a huge difference. When I first came to London, it was such a wonderful, friendly city. The same went for all the European cities. Now people in these cities are rushing for a grip on life.” And he saw the world just before mass tourism. Nobody will ever find Corfu unspoilt again, a peasant’s paradise, as Forbes did in 1968.

You can’t spend a day at Wimbledon just talking. We need to see some tennis. We stand on the players’ balcony, overlooking several courts – the best view in Wimbledon. Beside us is Forbes’s son Gavin. To quote A Handful of Summers: “In 1958 Gavin Duncan was born, blue-eyed, unexpected, and much adored.” Today he is dark, burly, still much adored, and works for the sports management company IMG, where his clients have included Jim Courier and Pete Sampras. Whereas Forbes senior knows half the people in Wimbledon’s restricted areas, Gavin knows them all.

On the court directly below us, the young Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, Maria Sharapova’s boyfriend, is warming up. “Baby Federer” has fluid motions, every limb in the right place. He has the agents in ecstasies, says Gavin. “Plays beautifully,” murmurs Forbes. Father and son start talking tennis: about the sweet spot on the new rackets, the weight of the balls. In this mood, Forbes is still in love with the game. As he wrote in his second book, Too Soon to Panic (not a classic, despite the title): “The old man who hit the shot to win Wimbledon in ’34 now watches quietly while the young man hits the shot in ’94, and it is the same shot, and all the effort and emotion is the same.”

Nowadays Forbes adores Federer. “There is one word that for me describes the greatness of a player. It’s a strange word: effortless. The easier it looks, the better the player, and that’s Federer. The way he moves over the court is so light. There is no jarring movement. Especially when he was younger, Federer would play points that were literally unbelievable. The only other player I have seen consistently do that was Lew Hoad [an Australian champion of the 1950s] – and then Rod Laver, and to a certain extent John McEnroe.”

Yet when we take our seats at Centre Court (the court the farm boy snuck in to see in 1954), Forbes’s enthusiasm wanes. The giant Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro is destroying the Canadian Jesse Levine. “Listen,” whispers Forbes, as Del Potro smacks another passing shot. “The sound of ball on racket is now a kind of metallic sound, whereas before it was a living sound.” During the changeover, with time to speak, he elaborates: “Tennis now is made to look massive. Huge shots, huge serves. It’s lost the darting gracefulness it used to have.” Still, he admires the current players; he thinks Serena would have beaten him.

Roger Federer, 2012

After a few games we’ve seen enough of Del Potro and Levine. Wandering through the grounds, Forbes says gloomily: “Agassi perfected the game they all have nowadays: hitting hard from the baseline. Borg started it.” Forbes briefly glimpsed the old variety when the unknown Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky upset Federer by rushing the net. Mostly, though, he misses players like Laver or McEnroe, “who sort of created their game as it happened”.

I ask if he still enjoys tennis. “It doesn’t have nearly the fascination for me that it used to have,” he admits. “I used to love tennis. I loved the feel of the ball on the racket.” Now he just loves Wimbledon.

We are back in the Last Eight, eating scones with tea, when Cliff Drysdale walks in. He comes into A Handful of Summers when Forbes and Segal meet him at Geneva airport in 1962, a dashing youth come to reinforce South Africa’s Davis Cup team. Now he is 72, charming and garrulous, living in Miami, the widower of Forbes’s beloved sister Jean. It was Drysdale who rang Forbes decades ago to tell him Jean was dead – the tragedy of Forbes’s life. “Suddenly, out of the blue, you went and died – an act which, of course, was simply unforgivable!” he chides her in Too Soon to Panic. Jean taught Forbes to love words. Sometimes she’d walk into his room and drop a book on his bed – something by TS Eliot, say. His two books were really letters to his dead sister.

Over tea, we chat about happier things. Afterwards Forbes’s wife Frances and I try Centre Court again. We watch Novak Djokovic beating the American Bobby Reynolds. As a child I spent afternoons sitting motionless watching Borg-McEnroe, but today I feel nothing. Nor, it seems, does most of Centre Court. Djokovic that day is probably the best player left in Wimbledon. Yet all he evokes is polite applause. There is perfection here, but no surprise, or tragedy, nor the “colourful lunatics” who people the courts in A Handful of Summers.

In early evening Forbes and I are back on the players’ balcony. But we have abandoned tennis for a subject that seems to enthuse him more: writing. We’ve been talking for five hours, but when I ask him where he got his enviable prose style, he grows animated like a teenager. “Lewis Carroll’s Alice books,” he reveals. “When you read Alice, whether it’s the dialogue or the prose, you find how absolutely simple it is. Read the later Winnie the Pooh books – AA Milne, my God! For me, reading a book is like tasting a pudding: when I go into a bookshop and pick one out, I always read the beginning of a paragraph somewhere halfway through, and then you know whether you like it or not. I’ve always regarded words as having a kind of flavour.”

For all Forbes’s modesty, as he talks there is something awesome about him: he could play tennis, and he could also write. He even did well in business: the lighting company was sold for good money in the 1980s. And yet, on the balcony he unfolds his regrets. He can still see his father lecturing the Forbes siblings about the need to “get to the top”. In 1954 Forbes sat in the stands at Wimbledon, watching Jaroslav Drobny win the title. “It was so tangible, to me at that age: there was somebody getting to the top. You could almost feel yourself getting there. And I never did, never got to the top of anything.” Why not?

“I used to give a fair amount of thought to why I wasn’t able to win Wimbledon. I’ve always been a slightly off-the-cuff liver, and that’s wrong. I led a foolish life. I was a young farm boy, seeing the sights in London, trying to combine all the pleasures – and at the same time trying to play serious tennis. And I was a good player. Jack Kramer [great player and later founder of the professional tour] once said, ‘There goes a future champion.’ But somehow the dedication and discipline didn’t happen. When you’re trying to play tennis, you shouldn’t be looking at a grey-eyed girl in the stands. But you were.” It still bugs him, he admits. “Having gone to all that trouble, why not go the extra yard? It’s a distant nag. I don’t actually go and bang my head against the wall in the bathroom.”

The only Grand Slam he ever won was the mixed doubles at the French Open with Darlene Hard in 1955. And he feels he didn’t reach the top in writing either. “I wanted to be a writer all my life. I would have loved to have been somebody like John le Carré who wrote really literary, good stories. I now realise that what I needed to do was actually to be far more disciplined. If you just jot down things while travelling you end up with a book like A Handful of Summers, which is quite good but wasn’t really where you want to be. I would have absolutely loved to be a real English scholar. I think I would have liked that best. You take a word like ‘angry’. There are a million shades of anger, from being ‘vexed’ to being” – he reflects – “‘more than furious’. It’s like a palette of colours. And when you start writing, you are choosing all the time which colour to use.”

He quotes from EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel: “No one is more triumphant than the man who chooses a worthy subject and masters all its facts …” Forbes loves that word “triumphant”. He says: “You know, I would have loved to have mastered English to a greater extent.”

And tennis? “Of course, one would have loved …” He trails off. Winners are always dispensing advice on how to win. But perhaps the best insights come from someone like Forbes, who didn’t win, but got close, and lost to winners, and observed them with sensitivity.

He mentions Gary Player, the South African golfer, who Forbes says would look in the mirror and tell himself: “You are going to win the British Open.” Forbes muses: “If I’d set my heart on winning Wimbledon, and not just on doing well – this was a huge mistake, to say, ‘Well, I’m going to do my best.’ There’s a huge difference, of actually setting yourself that goal of winning it. You’d think that when you get close to winning, you’d be eager to win. But something happens to say: ‘My God, I’ve got a good chance here,’ and that moment …” He trails off again. “Whereas other players will breeze through that moment. Why didn’t I have that belief? It boils down to self-belief.”

Which isn’t the same as “killer instinct”, he adds. “I don’t think Rod Laver had killer instinct. He just had the most strong assurance of winning. He went through his whole career winning in an almost joyful way.” Forbes recalls practising with Laver. Whereas Forbes’s usual practices were “free-swinging hit-ups”, Laver spent three hours honing every shot. If only Forbes had done that all his career, he might have achieved Forster’s mastery.

When we say goodbye, he hands me a copy of his unpublished novel. He wants me to be brutal in my comments. “This novel business is very difficult,” he admits. “One of the secrets of writing: you mustn’t amuse yourself. You must amuse other people.” But with luck, he’ll publish his first novel soon after he turns 80.

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