By Alix Ramsay
In Britain, we are our own worst enemies. For generations, we have been trying to convince the general public that tennis is not an elitist sport for the posh, the privileged and the stonkingly minted. The much-maligned Lawn Tennis Association (the LTA) has come up with scheme after plan after advertising campaign to prove just that.
But when it comes to tennis in football-mad Britain, the sport exists for four weeks of the year: the four weeks on the grass courts of Queen’s Club, Eastbourne and Wimbledon, the tournaments televised by the BBC. ITV does an excellent job of covering the French Open but that, grand slam though it may be, is seen as no more than a Wimbledon warm-up event for most people in the UK.
So, for your average casual tennis viewer, tennis begins with Queen’s Club, enjoys a week at the seaside in Eastbourne and then comes home to that most elite of clubs, the All England Club. As a result, no amount of publicity campaigns can convince Joe Bloggs that tennis is not for toffs.
Wimbledon is a slightly different case. It is the most prestigious event in the world (apologies to the other three slams, but, really, nothing can compete with Wimbledon) and they could sell the tickets for Centre Court 10 times over (at least) for each of the 13 days of The Championships. And, unlike the other grand slams, Wimbledon is held at a private club. But for the duration of The Championships, the All England Club does its level best to welcome the world into its home and make everyone feel at ease.
It is easier to win Wimbledon – and, so, become an honorary member – than it is to become a full member of the All England Club. To get in, you need contacts, lots of really, really good contacts, and patience. It takes years on the waiting list to get in if you are not a British tennis player (and, even then, you have to be a well-connected, very good British tennis player) but, once through the gates, the dues are relatively cheap and the benefits are fabulous. But if you, an ordinary punter at Wimbledon, should you bump into a committee member (they love their committees, do Wimbledon), they will treat you with courtesy and respect. They may be the elite of the elite in the tennis world but they feel totally secure in their place; they don’t need to flaunt it.
And now we move to the Aegon Championships at Queen’s Club.
If ever there was an event that flaunted privilege, money and sheer snobbery, this is it. Apparently, the Queen’s Club members loathe the tournament and its invasion of their home almost as much as the right-minded journalists do as, for the week of the event, the place is awash with the worst kind of upper-middle class, pretentious (and usually completely bladdered) wannabe toffs. They are not old money like Wimbledon; they are new money and they are desperate to show it off.
The women are made up to the nines (and once the first flush of youth has passed them by, they are so heavily made up that they dare not smile for fear of cracking) while the chaps are dressed in one of three uniforms: the younger ones have expensive jeans, Gucci loafers and a navy blue blazer; those approaching middle age wear ridiculously coloured corduroys, a blue blazer and over-priced brogues while those of a certain age wear ill-fitting suits. And all have a jug of Pimms and a braying voice that carries for miles. And all of them despise the proles: those of us who either work at the event or who come to the tournament as tennis fans wanting to see a decent match.
Many years ago, I interviewed Ivan Lendl in the week before Queen’s. We had a long chat, talked about many things, some of which he initially had no intention of talking about, and got along well. Then we both went to the Queen’s Club.
Lendl, who was one of the best players in the world at that time, went out to practise on an outside court. And then it started to rain.
As a poor hack, stuck in the bowels of the club (they pack all of us journos into two tiny squash courts where the air conditioning is designed to keep two, lardy, middle aged men cool during 30 minutes of hit-and-harrumph), I nipped out to see how bad the conditions were and was promptly flattened by a sea of club members and their guests. They saw a minion in jeans, tee-shirt and press pass and brushed me aside with nasty looks and a few fierce comments. At which point a sodden, bedraggled Lendl rushed past.
But Lendl spotted me; he stopped and asked when the interview would run in the paper and he chatted for a few moments. Suddenly, it was like the parting of the Red Sea; the well-heeled and the well-oiled tried to stand beside me. “She knows Ivan,” they purred. Ivan, sensible bloke, vanished in an instant. And I have never liked Queen’s Club from that moment on.
When Andy Murray won the title at Queen’s for the second time in 2011, one of the club members sidled up to him and said: “I love to watch you play – and you are very good – but I really don’t like you because you are Scottish.” As the Muzz said at the time: “What am I supposed to say to that?” Muzz took it well and laughed but it highlights everything that is wrong with British tennis – as long as there is a tournament at Queen’s Club, one that attracts the posh, the pissed and the pretentious, tennis will never escape its elitist image in my home land. And that is why Murray, who is true to himself and carries no pretention or baggage, is a one-off.
Murray may, one day (soon, we hope), win Wimbledon; he may become world No.1. But he will have done it his way. He is inspiring kids in Scotland to follow his example, and kids in other parts of the UK, too, but the Queen’s Club tournament will inspire nothing but snobbery and elitism. Because of them, it’s going to be a long wait before we get another Andy.