It’ll never catch on. That was quite clear as Cliff Drysdale took on Roger Taylor on Centre Court. Tennis was not supposed to be that way. The year before – 1966 – we had watched the Wimbledon final as Manolo Santana beat Dennis Ralston in straight sets, and that was tennis as it should be: two figures in white playing on a court that was 50 shades of grey.
What was this green abomination? Why did it need to spell out its grassiness so aggressively, so pointlessly? Why were those faces so pink? This was disaster, the end of civilisation, the end of tennis and sport as we knew it.
By the time the Australian John Newcombe and his ragged moustache had swaggered off with the men’s championship and Billie Jean King had won the women’s title with devastating certainty, I was beginning to suspect that I might have been wrong. Perhaps there was, after all, something to be said for watching sport in colour.
We seem to have been agreeing with that sentiment for the past 50 years, and it all began at Wimbledon in 1967 with David Vine and Keith Fordyce presenting the show. Television cameras had been at Wimbledon since 1937 (Don Budge and Britain’s Dorothy Round were the champions) and radio coverage began ten years earlier. Radio Times, of course, has been there ever since.
These days, television pictures will go out to around 200 territories, to an audience of a billion or so, with 40 different commentaries and 3,000 people needed to make it work. This year, as every year, 128 men and 128 women will set out to win the two great singles titles and they will do so on the green green grass of television.
And they will create a series of unmissable duels – duels in which no one is blooded and no one ever dies – that reach into homes and hearts and minds across the world, with an intensity few other activities and sports ever manage.
Ingenious people are always trying to come up with the ultimate television contest – Strictly, Bake Off, The Jump, The X Factor – and yet we’ve had the perfect TV event for 80 years, in colour for the past 50. Tennis might have been made for television; television might have been made so we could all watch tennis. Here’s ten reasons why:
1. Tennis is an intense drama contained in a very small space, perfect for the intimacies of television. It is the most theatrical of sports and all the action can be appreciated at a single glance. Because tennis is so confined, you can always follow the ball: you’re always part of the action.
2. In singles, television’s preferred form of the game, there are only two contestants. This concentrates the mind and intensifies the emotions. It’s one or the other: television moves suffocatingly close to those faces, bringing them to the viewers more intensely than anyone on Centre Court can experience.
3. Tennis is a duel and that makes partisanship easy. The game creates a powerful emotional link between the viewer and the favoured player: Tim Henman in days long gone, Andy Murray of course, and many other favourites across the years that go beyond national boundaries. Especially Rog.
4. The pauses matter. The change of ends every two games allows us to draw breath, get a drink, look on the players’ faces and speculate: who’s winning? Who’s cracking? Is there any way back from here?
5.Tennis has the most compelling scoring structure in sport. Its mild complexities are based on the principle that some points are more equal than others. This sudden drastic ratcheting up of the tension – your favourite player, serving for the set, drops the first three points of the game – creates a compelling rhythm.
6. There’s an old saying: sport doesn’t build character, it reveals character. Few sports do this as relentlessly as tennis. The game often seems to be an examination of personality and temperament rather than of serving and forehands and backhands and lobs. Television loves, above all else, the revelation of character in minute changes of expression: and tennis is full of that.
7. Make some noise! That’s the perpetual cry of tannoy announcers at live sporting events who confuse din with atmosphere. What tennis offers more than any other sport, and what the Centre Court at Wimbledon offers more than any other tennis arena, is silence. The breathless match-point hush, when you can hear the ball bounce, is the perfect thrilling contrast to the cries of exaltation and despair from the crowd that soon follow.
8. Unlike reality television shows, Wimbledon has the resonance of history. It really does mean something – and not just those 15 minutes of fame for the winners. It’s something to fight for, to sell your soul for, to work for during every waking and sleeping second of your life, and the urgency of this desire is beamed into our own homes and lives. The Wimbledon championships have been going for 140 years: a sense of continuity that reflects our changing lives and values. Murray’s first victory in 2013 mattered because it had been 77 years since a British man, Fred Perry, had last won the singles title, back in 1936.
9. All sports create a theatre of cruelty: but this is more obvious in tennis than it is in most sports. The players sit side by side in the breaks between games, knowing that, for one to win, the other must lose. The elation of the one requires the despair of the other. Television captures this unique duellists’ intimacy.
10. The geometry of tennis is inescapable: taking us from one side of the screen to the other, the two opponents with the net between them, always in our sight, seeking either to finish the match or to prolong it, point by agonising point. Wimbledon’s insistence on the players wearing white clothing against the green background of the grass adds to the formal beauty of the patterns that we watch. Wimbledon, more than any other sporting event, makes participants of us all.