Monday, June 25, 2007

Silly Billys

It's full of giddy, Pimms-sipping sloanes. The pervading mood is of plucky,"remember the war" good cheer, despite interminable rain delays. It has a royal box in which actual royals occasionally sit. Cliff Richard singing 'Bachelor Boy' acapella is considered a memorable highlight, and not a gruesome method of torture. It's full of people for whom a jumper is not a jumper unless it is draped around the shoulders. The enthusiasm with which its patrons support British players is the biggest case of misplaced faith since a few lost souls decided that David Koresh made some worthwhile points.

Yes indeed, Wimbledon is the silliest sporting event of all.

The aforementioned items are just a select few symptoms of the silliness that grips SW19 at this time of year. 'SW19', for instance: a tournament that refers to itself as a postcode? Haven't we learned anything from the demise of East 17? Making Roger Federer wear those ludicrous outfits - how apt that, when in Wimbledon, the greatest player of them all must also look like the silliest.

Federer's Edwardian-chic look is instructive. Those that preserve what are usually called the 'traditions' of the tournament have long been engaged in a pitched battle against the forces of sense, although they have portrayed their struggle as being an effort to the preserve timeless values in the face of the heartless juggernaut of modernity.

In reality, however, it is a campaign to reinstate the use of the word "frightfully" in place of the functional, utilitarian "very". It expresses a desire for the middle months of the year not to referred to as the politically correct "summer" but rather, altogether more agreeably, as "the Season". It is the wish to revert to a time when one did not "leave Uni and get a job", but rather "came down from Oxford and took a position".

In attempting to rewind the clock back to the time when Britain was, apparently, Great, they have revealed that, actually, Brittania was just plain silly.

Have no doubt that, in foisting on the unsuspecting but eager-to-please World Number One such a monstrously silly garment as a "sleeveless monogrammed sweater", the forces of Wimbledonism believe they have struck a blow against the lycra-clad, carbon fibre racket-wielding stormtroopers of the 21st century.

Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, when field marshals could conduct war via the gentlemanly convention of sending several thousand eager lower-class sorts over the top, whistling on their way as they dodged Bosch bullets; when one's idiotic, philanderer son could be dispatched off out of harm's way to some distant imperial outpost, in which he could pursue all the native flesh he wished; when tea came with cucumber sandwiches, not Penguin biscuits.

Yes, silly times indeed. And for two weeks every end of June and beginning of July, the world can be silly again.

Silliest of all, of course, is the fact that Britain has a tennis tournament of this magnitude at all. What a contortion of reason it is that a country that hasn't produced a tennis player capable of winning its own most significant professional competition since dearest Ginny Wade in 1977 (and in the men's - sorry, Gentlemen's Championship - Fred Perry in 1936) is anointed the centre of the tennis world for a fortnight every year.

Not that the good people of Wimbledon accept their heroes' inadequacies. In the silliest sporting event of all, the silliness quotient reaches its most dangerously high levels when a Brit plays. The amount of silliness being deployed during those few hours is such a drain on the national silliness reserves that one year Ken Dodd was booed off stage at Blackpool pier while Jeremy Bates was playing on Centre Court.

Those were the good old days of course, when Bates carried British hopes. A chap called Jeremy, wearing a sleeveless monogrammed sweater, deploying his flimsy serve and volley game against the Lendls and Edbergs like Greeks laying siege to Troy with pea-shooters.

Then Tim Henman came along. They could just about handle him, mend him into shape for the silliness. He was a good player, nearly too good, but not quite. He competed well on the ATP Tour, attained respectability in the world rankings, reached six Grand Slam semi-finals, deployed a much less flimsy serve and volley game and, at his best, might actually have won the blasted thing.

But his name was Tim. He had a wife called Lucy. He did the angry-clenchy-fist thing when he won a point. And there was no place that more symbolised the arch-silliness of Wimbledon than Henman Hill, and nothing that sounded quite as silly as a lone Centre Court voice crying "come on Tim!"

But then came Andy Murray. A Scot for one thing. And a product of a clay court tennis hot-house in Barcelona, rather than the barley water and flannel trouser approach of the Lawn Tennis Association. And a surly, precocious brat. Not an ounce of silliness there at all. Thankfully he injured a wrist while hitting a ball too dashed hard and won't be there to spoil the fun this year.

So there it is, two weeks of silliness. And there's no harm in that really, I suppose, if kept under control. But we must be vigilant: what if there was a confluence, say, of a "People's Sunday", a Cliff singalong and a Henman revival?

Dear God. That would be frightfully silly.

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