Sport at school was a complete nightmare for me. It was a chance for those around me to indulge in tedious and repetitive ridicule. I was tiny, with an undiagnosed medical condition which meant that I had a hidden heart defect and didn’t go through puberty in my teens. Summer sport was the worst. Especially athletics. I refused to attempt high jump but I did manage to demonstrate ably each week that I could not long jump far enough to reach the sand pit. When I tried to throw a javelin I was so short that it stuck in the ground behind me. This was considered very funny. In any kind of running race, whether long or short, I was last. Always. It was all a complete misery to me- and that was before I even got to go through the communal showers. I loved it when it rained. We would be taken into the gym to play pirates on the gym equipment, I would be caught within seconds and I could sit out, rendered invisible, for the rest of the lesson.
Thankfully that wasn’t the whole story. There was a way for me to make up for all this. I was lucky enough to be born at the right time to enjoy the golden age of tennis in the 1970’s as I grew up. I have no idea where my love of the game came from in the beginning. It wasn’t taught at my school and nobody in our house watched it, working class Yorkshire country folk didn’t back then. It was one more thing that “wasn’t for the likes of us”. I can remember my Uncle Eric standing next to me shaking his head in bafflement one afternoon while I watched Wimbledon on our little black and white television, brightness turned up so that I could see the ball. “I can’t make nowt o’ that. Every time yan on ‘em misses t’ball they all start clapping.” I never tried to explain. I was so used to sport bringing me ridicule that I made tennis into my own private pleasure. Not even tennis really, since I never heard much about the other grand slams back then, but the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships. I watched the championships from around 1968 when I was eleven but the match that turned me into a real fan was the epic five set final in 1972 when Stan Smith beat Nastase 4-6 6-3 6-3 4-6 7-5. That doesn’t take into account endless knuckle chewing tie breaks……… While that may have been the result, as far as I was concerned Nastase had won. He was my first tennis love. He was funny, passionate, unreliable, anarchic and whether he won or lost you could rely on him to make shots that nobody else- nobody- would ever make. He played doubles with my next favourite, Jimmy Connors. Jimmy was a grafter. He never gave up, and in a gladiatorial head to head game that is a huge test of mental strength this is the biggest compliment I could pay any player. It’s what makes a great champion. My other passion, probably my deepest, was for John McEnroe. I was a quiet, introverted young lass and to see him get out there, loud and proud, to take on all comers did my heart good. I wasn’t slow hand clapping or complaining when he had another go at the umpire. I was willing him on because I knew that he was right and he had the kind of thrilling game to back it up! While I was absolutely in awe of Bjorn Borg’s talent and focus, and his semi final against Vitas Gerulaitis was one of the greatest matches that I ever saw, I never really took to him. He was like a tennis machine, always able to find the back corners of the court from absolutely anywhere, a bit too clinical for me. In any case looking back he managed to beat one of my three favourite players in almost all of his finals so that was never going to go down well. I was on my feet when McEnroe saw him off in 1981. On my feet I tell you!
Of course I never played myself, or not with other people anyway. Why risk more ridicule? What I did do, right through each summer, was bash a tennis ball against the wooden wall of our garage in the firm belief that I was Virginia Wade and one day I would win Wimbledon. I even scored for myself somehow. I would bash the ball particularly hard in frustration after each time that I had watched her lose. It was only after a long wait that she came good for me and won in 1977- jubilee year- after looking like she might let me down again when she dropped the first set. I was beyond excited. That was the very same year that I had my own tennis triumph when I finally played a match myself. By then I was at college and (unaware that there would be no garage wall for me to bang a ball against) I had taken my racquet. A tall slim friend of mine suggested that we play and I allowed myself to be persuaded. I didn’t win- don’t be silly I was well beaten- but you know what, I actually took a set off her. Unbelievable. Somehow or other the combination of the garage wall and watching some of the greatest tennis matches ever on a flickering grey screen for two weeks every year throughout my teenage years had managed to save me from ridicule. Maybe it was a very special kind of televisual osmosis.