Many Wimbledons ago, when the BBC still held corporate lunches, and I was hoping for a career as a C-list celebrity, I spent a well-oiled few hours in a hospitality tent in SW19. It was the usual crowd you would ask round for lunch in the garden on an average summer’s day: a European Commissioner; a playwright; an international fashion icon; a Conservative MP; a footballer. John Birt was the host. Linen suits were the uniform.
After pudding and cheese, someone suggested that we might wander through and watch the tennis. It was like a Bateman cartoon. People looked horrified, then amused, then made themselves scarce. They had not come for the sport.
In the end, three of us took our seats on Centre Court and watched a few games, but our hearts weren’t in it. We had come late to the action and we didn’t really know what the action was: we could see who was winning and who was losing, we could see good shots and close shots and good calls and bad calls, but there was something missing. We were not invested. We were watching the match, not living it. With a football match or a rugby match it would not have mattered. But tennis is different.
As Wimbledon hits its stride, we celebrate a sport that – when properly watched – is about so much more than volleys and smashes. Tennis is all-encompassing. Tennis is life, on a court. Sometimes five sets, going on into the evening, magnificent and life-affirming. Sometimes brutal and short, a few games and a hasty exit.
And we know what the players are facing when they first come out and acknowledge the royal box and fiddle with their racquets. We can see their faces in close-up on the TV. We know about them – or know enough about them – to have an idea of how they might react if things go badly or well. And we know, as they do, that they are alone.
Doubles is great fun, but can never have the psychological power of singles. The loneliness of the challenger as he or she double-faults at match point cannot be replicated in any other sport. The presence of the crowd adds tension and drama but the separation of this individual from us and from his or her opponent is what counts.
This is why the nation’s relationship with Andy Murray is not some frivolous matter, of interest to air-heads with no grasp of the real sport. Far from it: our relationship with Andy is not extraneous to tennis: it is the absolute essence of what tennis is all about. Liking him, not liking him, wondering about him; all of this is part of the sport. Without it, tennis would not be tennis.
The obvious analogy is with news. News also has its serious, desiccated side. A report on banking reform must contain some elements of technical detail. A report from a war must tell you about the geopolitics of the fight. But Fred Goodwin is part of the banking story, too. And children torn from their homes is part of the war story. We are human. We tell ourselves stories about life – that is how we think. It is how we comprehend. It is how we cope.
Of course tennis without the actual sport – an obsession with Andy Murray’s mood completely devoid of any concern with his forehand – would be silly. It would not be grounded. And the same is the case in news. People complain – rightly – when journalists get so carried away with a human drama that we forget the wider picture. War has a human impact but it has a strategic importance, too: both need to be reported. So we need not apologise for seeking out drama along with our ground strokes in SW19 this month. I intend to go, queuing for the evening seats and paying my own way, but enjoying it all the more for having a clear head and no distractions from the real business at hand: the all-embracing psychodrama of tennis.