Tennis and its Beckenham heyday

It certainly feels autumnal at the moment, not surprising perhaps as we’re now in November.  I’m actually looking forward to the next three months – though winter is not usually my favourite time of year.   

However, this winter brings many social engagements which have been long absent from my life – well, from all our lives. One in particular will be my first opportunity to see a lot of old friends after almost two years. Though emails and telephone calls and Zoom are fine, they are no substitute for a proper, face to face, “how great it is to see you” situation – especially when it is in a topflight London hotel, with a champagne reception, followed by a super dinner. Yippee!!

We are on the brink of getting back to normal, and can start planning to travel abroad without the need for tests and quarantines.

If not this side of Christmas, certainly in 2022.

I am hoping to sail on a Fred. Olsen cruise in May. Not just “sail on”, but “lecture on”. As I haven’t been able to do that for a very long time, I must get into practice. It is a voyage into the Baltic, with a special offer for Silver Travel Advisor members – if “members” is the right word. I prefer “friends”.

In the meantime, my thoughts have recently taken a sporting turn. 

TennisAs soon as Emma Raducanu won the U.S. Open, the world’s media descended on my patch of London, eager to discover what magic ingredient enabled the Borough of Bromley to produce such a tennis prodigy.

They reported from her old school, and from the tennis clubs that nurtured her budding talent.  They spoke to friends, to teachers, to coaches, to eager little girls longing to follow in her footsteps.   

Naturally, they didn’t interview me. Had they done so, however, I could have told them all about our borough’s very long connection with top flight tennis and the athletes who play at that level.  How the splendid Miss Raducanu is part of a long Bromley tradition.

I could have told them how my family and I used to stroll down to a nearby tennis club to watch the likes of Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe competing in its annual tournament.   

I could have told them how, one summer afternoon, we were watching a young John McEnroe playing when his concentration was broken by a Tannoy announcement – probably about car parking or the fact that the bar had opened. At the time, he was at the height of his “bad boy” phase. A short-tempered brat who yelled at umpires and smashed rackets.

We held our collective breath, waiting for his reaction. But he grinned, shrugged his shoulders and prepared to serve – to the loudest applause of the afternoon.

Beckenham Lawn Tennis Club is different from thousands of others around the UK in one respect. For over a century, its annual tournament attracted the finest players in the world because it fell just before Wimbledon fortnight and was an opportunity for those players to get in some “grass time”.

Between the wars, the club saw the likes of Fred Perry and Bunny Austin. After 1945, Gussie Moran, Mo Connolly, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver.

The list of tennis greats is almost endless. John Newcombe, Virginia Wade, Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg, all came along, paid their entrance fees and competed against local folk – if “competed” properly describes how they cut through them like a hot knife through butter.   

Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova.

If ever you meet tennis players of their calibre, ask them if they remember Beckenham, and I guarantee a faraway look will come into their eyes and a smile will provide the answer.

Billie Jean King won the last title of her career at the Beckenham Lawn Tennis Club. By 1996, when it ended, the top prize money was £5,000 – chicken feed in comparison with the top tournaments. But, of course, it wasn’t the money that attracted the tennis titans. Nor the opportunity to play on grass on the run up to Wimbledon. I think they came because it was the sort of tennis they remembered from their early years.

The tournament began in 1886 and ended in 1996 because Rothmans withdrew their sponsorship. A pity, because the brilliant Miss Raducanu would surely have turned up and won – for, after all, apart from her remarkable ability, she would have had the advantage of playing on home turf.  

Keep that young lady in your thoughts, even though I am going to change the subject most dramatically. You’ll understand why, when I get to the end.

A few days ago, I bought a kitchen timer. Bought it online, of course, via the cornucopia that is Ebay. It arrived yesterday and turned out to have been made in China (now there’s a surprise!).

I thought you might be amused by these extracts from the operating instructions:

“This production can enactment noon break time…study time…hair dressing time, stew wime (sic), sun edition time……and so on. This production is be read disply (sic) maximum countdown capacity of 99 minutes 59 seconds.”

“batteries usr and barter. Open the battery door, and take out the old battery, and peg out the new battery plus or minus very put into and press back the nome position the battery door.”

What has that to do with Miss R? Well, if she ever decides to quit tennis and take some other career path, she could easily find employment with the people who provide operating instructions in such fractured “Chinglish”.

As well as English and Rumanian, she speaks fluent Chinese – Mandarin, I think.

 

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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