Friday, 1 July 2011

My Wimbledon wildcard looks unlikely

On Wednesday, when in a suggestible mood due to the cleansing afterglow of a run/swim/sauna session, I agreed to play tennis. Enthused by the annual scenes of glory and dismay at SW19, and encouraged by the suggestor’s promise that he’s rubbish at tennis, I leapt at the chance. Let’s examine the many ways in which this was ill-advised...

When I finally found my tennis racket, wedged underneath the wardrobe in the spare room and caked in dust, I struggled to remember when I last played a match. Well, we moved into this flat in March last year, which is when I must have stashed the racket under the wardrobe. No tennis since then. I went to Center Parcs in October 2009, but I think we only played badminton on that trip. I recall taking my racket to University in my first and second year, only to remark that the damn thing never left its case so I didn’t bother in third and fourth. In sixth form I played rugby in the winter and swam in the summer. Naturally, the further back I go in my mental diary the hazier things become, but one thing remains constant: a notable lack of tennis. It is entirely possible that I have not swung a racket in anger since it was mandatory at school. I think that was the summer of 2003, but it may even have been earlier.

Eight years. That is how long ago I can reliably determine that I might have played tennis. Oh dear.

Of course, as you might have surmised given that there are four weeks and two days to the San Francisco Marathon, running is still very much my priority. So I pounded out the planned seven miles this evening immediately after work, taking a lovely, almost entirely uninterrupted route along the canal and then the Water of Leith. On finishing I dashed into the flat, changed into some clean kit, grabbed the trusty dusty racket and bolted straight back out of the door. I arrived at the court a little burnt out, thirsty and sweaty, toting a racket that needed restringing back when Martin Johnson lifted the Rugby World Cup, eight years out of practice but quite keen for a knockabout.

Now I don’t know if you’re cleverer than me, but I’m guessing that you probably are. I imagine that if you were in my shoes you probably would have anticipated that about an hour after most people get off work on a sunny summer’s day, which also happens to be the second Thursday of Wimbledon, would be a stupid time to just turn up at public, free-to-play tennis courts hoping for a quick match. Well you would have been right. A gang of tennis-playing kids dominated two of the four courts, regularly rotating their annoyingly accomplished games between them. The other two courts had singles matches on them with varying degree of skill on show, and crucially both courts already had people waiting to use them.

Inverleith really is lovely.
James (whose idea this was in the first place) and I decided to ‘get our eye in’ by playing on the grass next to the court, using the area between try line and dead ball line of one of Inverleith’s rugby pitches. We should have used a much bigger, more open and less heavily-trafficked space, but our British queuing instincts told us that we needed to stay as close as possible to the tennis courts if we were to continue to assert our claim to one of them. ‘Getting our eye in’ involved a lot of swearing and the kind of play which would be great if the courts happened to have ping-pong nets installed, an over-ambitious attempt at a through-the-legs classic and a pleasing rebound off the posts. But not much promise...

After 20 minutes or so both of the grown-ups’ courts vacated and their new tenants took up residence, so we absorbed the primary queuing position and stretched off. On the left court were two young lads, probably aged 18 or 19, playing a fairly talented game punctuated by hilariously misplaced American sporting bravado. There were fist bumps and high-fives and the phrase ‘aawsum service’ bandied about. The less brash of the two jokingly replied ‘Hawkeye’ to a call of out, to which the more brash replied ‘Hawkeye says you’re gay in the face’. Brilliant.

On the right were another two chaps, probably more like 20 or 21, who had led childhoods far removed from the testosterone-fuelled sporting prowess of their neighbours on the left. We christened these two Tim and Andy. Tim had checked shorts, a football shirt and a pair of Vans trainers to complement his fluffy blonde hair and thick glasses, whilst Andy was sporting a beginner’s beard, suspicious haircut, calf-length cut off jeans and a studded belt. He went for plimsolls and mismatched socks as footwear, neatly topped off by an undecipherable tattoo on the back of his leg. Both played with wooden rackets and slightly emo expressions, to make it clear that they were only participating ironically, or somehow under duress. We were to witness hipster tennis.

You get the idea.
It transpires that hipster tennis is characterised by two things: complete lack of skill coupled with fascist adherence to the rules. So when Tim’s service game produced three consecutive double faults (serving at 7mph from four feet past the baseline), only to finally get one over the net but ever so slightly long, Andy refused to return it and instead bleated ‘Out!’. Tim was crestfallen and proceeded to complete the inevitable fourth double fault, conceding the least noteworthy game of tennis in the history of humankind. Andy’s service was no better. In fact it might even have been worse. These were monumental breaks of serve, where it was rare for either of them to win a point from anything other than a double fault or unforced error. Tim actually sighed at one point and said ‘I’m quite bored’. The crowd went mild.

James and I stretched, warmed up, heckled quietly and did other things to indicate that we thought they should hasten to the pub asap. It didn’t work.

If anything, Andy and Tim slowed down the pace of their already slothly game. Between points they would wander aimlessly around the court, wistfully collecting the many lost tennis balls, or exchanging a mournful word with one another about life and loss and other non-tennis related things. I think Andy even stopped for a few moments to see if he could hear his beard growing. Tim wrote a little poem in the interim. I may be exaggerating here, but you get the picture.

It was during one of these endless intervals that James and I simultaneously snapped. We stood up, stretched, and asserted as much manly sporting dominance as we could muster. We actually got as far as the baseline before the hipsters noticed. They promised they only had ‘one or two games’ to go, and with gentlemanly dignity and silent rage we let them play on. Needless to say, the two games took about six weeks to play, but at last, we were on.

Predictably, our one-set game was unremarkable. We were both hungry and tired, having waited an hour for a court. My post-run endorphins had worn off and I was flagging. James and I both had fairly atrocious service games, but James managed to convert most of my serves into thousand-mile-an-hour returns, which I could only really watch in admiration. A few interesting rallies punctuated the game, but in reality our play was probably only slightly more interesting than the hipsters’, and without the benefit of diverting tattoos. Our set finished 7-6 (7-4) to James – we reckon only two games actually went with serve. My Wimbeldon 2012 wildcard looks unlikely, but I could probably manage another set or two in the near future.

Nice to see you, tennis racket, I promise to use you again before 2019.

Happy Wimbledon.


P.S. My review of the Mull of Kintyre Half Marathon & 10k is out now in the August edition of Runner's World. Check it.

2011 to date - miles: 665.41, parkruns: 6, races: 3, miles biked: 53.38, metres swum: 1225


  1. I received a letter from the LTA this morning. In the wake of last night's game I am officially ranked 19th in Britain.