Ivan and the Aussies
Ooh, I say. Who would have believed it? The damp squib that is the All-England Tennis Championships, or Wimbledon for short, spluttered then exploded into life in glorious technicolour yesterday when men in Superman costumes and orange wigs, aided and abetted by giant inflatable kangaroos, took over the centre court.
Having safely dispensed with the annual formalities like the predictably feeble but courageous English challenge, rain delays and interminably boring lectures on the recruitment and training of ballboys, what Martina Navratilova lovingly referred to as “the smatch” between Goran Ivanisevic, three-times defeated finalist, and Australian Pat Rafter, reminded us of the fact that sport provides us with more drama than – well, the theatre.
If, as Orwell insisted, football is war minus the shooting, then this was knife-throwing without the blindfolds; only in this case the scantily clad models on revolving targets had been replaced with middle-aged line-judges in regulation-length skirts, braving a record number of aces being fired towards them with the speed and precision of a .22 rifle.
For around three hours Rafter and Ivanisevic threw everything but nuclear weapons at one another as first one, then the other, was in the ascendancy. By the end of the fourth act (sorry, set) there was enough adrenalin flowing to self-propel a pair of old Nikes, and the inflatable kangaroos were wearing the orange wigs; the Australian cricket team, enjoying a day off for having stuffed England in half the time it takes to play a regular test match, watched from the expensive seats as impassively as the inflatable kangaroos.
But this match was not about cricket, or even tennis come to that: as Bill Shankly could so easily have put it, it was much more important than that; it was about one man facing his own demons, and Pat Rafter, archetypal nice guy and all-round brilliant tennis player, accepted graciously his role as co-star. Would Goran the Good overcome Ivan the Terrible? Had God, in providing so many omens in the run-up to the final, really decided that this was to be the “charismatic Croat’s” year?
Back in the BBC studio, the pundits were undecided. With another Australian, former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash, serving up a courtful of subservient slush about coming back to the Motherland to win The Greatest Championship on Earth, the English Johns (Barrett, Alexander and Lloyd) were wrestling with the dilemma of encouraging complete Australian domination of the known sporting world, or supporting the man who had put out their man, as it were.
Meanwhile, out on the centre court, the terrible enfant himself was wrestling with his dark inner forces, not to mention the umpire, while demonstrating his dexterity with the English language; “fault” was not the only “f” word he had learned to recognise.
Was a foot-fault judge to become the most famous Wimbledon finalist of all-time? Would the great one’s left arm hold out long enough to carry him through? If triumphant, would he tear it from its shoulder and hurl it into the adoring crowd as a final symbolic gesture of self-sacrifice?
We did not have to wait long for the answers. Nothing could keep Goran from meeting his destiny, especially not himself, and finally even Rafter was convinced. As the Croatian celebrated by weeping into the hallowed Wimbledon turf, the rest of us looked heavenward and smiled a wry smile. Sometimes the good guy does win.
Oh, my word.