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This is the fourth part of our series on sports nostalgia. Mick Cleary wrote about 25 sights you no longer see in rugby union, Rob Bagchi covered cricket and Luke Slater reminisced about Formula 1. Let us know what it is about tennis you miss most by leaving a comment below.
1. Wimbledon re-runs on the BBC
Especially of the majestic Borg-McEnroe tie-break from 1980. This year will be an exception, thanks both to Covid-19 and the upcoming 40-year anniversary. But in any normal season, retractable roofs on Centre Court and Court No 1 rule out the possibility of rain-breaks. See also: musical montages of groundstaff bringing out covers/Cliff Richard serenading the crowd.
2. Bitter rivalries
With his saintly bearing, Roger Federer has ushered in an era where no-one has a bad word to say (in public anyway) about his or her leading rivals. Jimmy Connors, who hated everyone he played, finds this hard to understand. When a real grudge match does break out – think Maria Sharapova v Eugenie Bouchard in Madrid in 2017 – it feels like a thunderstorm after an oppressive spell of dry weather.
3. Trendy threads
Modern players have no room to choose their clothing – unless they are a Sharapova or a Federer. You often see opponents dressed in identical Nike kit. This makes for useful economies of scale, but also a deadening uniformity. Bjorn Borg’s iconic Fila pinstripes are no more than a distant dream.
Although the more versatile players sometimes toss in a serve-volley as a surprise tactic, hardly anyone dashes forward on every point these days. Rare exceptions include Ivo Karlovic on the men’s side, and Taylor Townsend among the women.
Until the Europeans got their act together in the late 1970s, tennis was dominated by two sorts of men: Australians who thought they were Crocodile Dundee, and Americans who thought they were Dirty Harry. For either to leave the house without a ferocious growth on their upper lip would have been considered the height of effeminacy.
6. A sense of proportion
“Very few [players] will ever know what it is like to be locked into an eight to five desk job,” wrote the former French Open mixed-doubles champion Gordon Forbes in 1978. “Very few of them, therefore, will ever realise how extraordinarily fortunate they are to be able to follow the lifestyle allotted to them by the Destiny Gods.”
7. Wooden rackets
Once the epitome of style, the Dunlop Maxply now survives largely in charity shops and car-boot sales.
8. Athena posters
What happened to the lady with the itchy left buttock? Did she ever find a pair of knickers?
9. Holes in the court
Until the 1980s, most big events were played on grass courts. As each tournament wore on, a barren patch would develop somewhere around the meeting point of the service lines. To avoid bad bounces, the best tactic was thus to come forward and take the ball out of the air.
10. Pom-pom socks
Confession: I had never heard of these until last night. But after a text from a friend, I found a photo of a 16-year-old Chris Evert wearing them on the backs of her ankles at Wimbledon in 1971. So, in they go.
11. Fraternisation between players and reporters
Ann Jones tells a story about Daily Mail tennis correspondent Laurie Pignon trying her to cheer her up after her semi-final defeat at the 1969 French Open. His technique was to drive her around the Arc de Triomphe at 2am, on the wrong side of the road, and get stopped by police. It must have worked, because Jones won Wimbledon a couple of weeks later.
Emotional outbursts haven’t completely disappeared from the modern game, thank goodness. What would poor tennis hacks do without them? Disappointingly, though, they have become far rarer since the Code of Conduct arrived in 1987, introducing the victimless crime of “racket abuse”.
13. Natural gut strings
Again, these are not extinct, merely endangered. Polyester strings apply tremendous levels of spin and can be blamed for the modern plague of one-dimensional hitters who suffer a fit of the vapours as soon as they leave the baseline.
14. Surface specialists
Despite being portrayed as the “King of Clay”, Rafael Nadal is pretty handy on other surfaces too. There is no contemporary equivalent of Guillermo Coria, Nadal’s predecessor in the clay-court throne, who won all nine of his ATP titles on the surface.
15. Long arguments over line calls
These used to be two-a-penny, and often led to tantrums (see No 12). But Hawk-Eye’s missile-tracking technology put a stop to all the fun. Damn nanny state.
16. Unknown slam champions
The last homegrown winner of the Australian Open – Mark Edmondson – was cleaning windows and polishing floors at a New South Wales hospital when he received a last-minute invite to the 1978 Tasmanian Open. They were short of entrants, apparently. A couple of weeks later, Edmondson beat John Newcombe in the showpiece final at Kooyong, Melbourne. “I had the advantage that I knew how they played,” he recalled recently. “They had no idea how I played.”
17. Creeping red fescue
This might sound like a deadly disease, but in fact it is the kind of grass that was banished from Wimbledon in 2001 by head groundsman Eddie Seaward, in order to make the courts more hard-wearing. The new recipe – 100 per cent perennial rye grass – played much slower. This was the meteor that killed off the big servers, as well as Tim Henman’s chances of winning a major.
18. Spindly legs
Tennis used to be the sport for athletes who didn’t look like athletes. Imagine McEnroe and Connors lining up against a wall as schoolboys. They would hardly have been the first choice for your impromptu football team. Today, though, everyone spends countless hours in the gym – time which seems to inflate their muscles while draining their creativity.
19. American men
It is now 17 years since Andy Roddick won the US Open. Not much has happened for his compatriots since.
20. French women
How does such a tennis stronghold fail to produce a single female ranked among today’s top 40? Incroyable.
Borg’s 1970s exploits inspired a generation of copycats: Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Magnus Norman, Robin Soderling, Thomas Enqvist, Jonas Bjorkman, Anders Jarryd, Thomas Johannson. I could go on. Then, like Viking raiders after Alfred the Great, these northern masters vanished from our screens.
22. The Continental grip
At the moment of contact on his forehand, McEnroe could almost have been shaking hands with the racket, so neutral was his chopper-style grip (this is known by tennis nerds as the Continental). Since the advent of polyester strings, however (see No 13), players have twisted the racket almost a quarter-turn, arriving at the inelegant but effective position called the Western grip. The shape of a modern forehand is thus more like an uppercut punch, thrown with your palm facing up.
23. Piles of sawdust behind the umpire’s chair
This emergency remedy was necessitated by the slipperiness of old-fashioned leather grips. Ivan Lendl used to shovel sawdust into his pockets, which had the ancillary benefit of making him look extremely well endowed.
24. Teenage champions in men’s tennis
We still see precocious talents like Coco Gauff on the women’s side, but the days of Boris Becker and Michael Chang winning majors at 17 seem unlikely to return. Although Becker claims that this is simply a question of attitude, the truth is that top-class tennis has become vastly more physical. It takes many years of training to reach the level of conditioning required to win seven best-of-five-set matches in a fortnight. Today, no active player younger than 31 has a slam title to his name.
25. Alan Mills and his walkie-talkie
Before Mills stepped down as Wimbledon referee in 2005, his pained yet stoical upward glances had become part of our national culture. Could anything be more quintessentially British?