As regular readers will know, Caroline has developed a fanatical interest in tennis and is currently captain of the ladies second team at the local sports club. I have written before about how her new-found passion has turned me into a tennis widower — she is out two or three nights a week during the high season — but I thought that was the extent of its impact on our marriage. Turns out I was wrong. The nights she spends at home with me watching television are even more emasculating than the nights she spends out.
Why do I say this? Because the only thing she wants to watch is tennis. There was a time when I used to have to defend our monthly subscription to Sky Sports, with Caroline dismissing it as a needless extravagance. Not any more. She likes watching matches from start to finish, too, which means no time for Premier League games. Even during those rare moments when a tennis match isn’t being played somewhere in the world, she still won’t surrender the remote. She has a vast backlog of games she has recorded and will happily sit there watching them, even if they were played months ago.
The most humiliating thing is that she has huge crushes on some of the male players. She is tactful enough not to tell me, but it’s bleedin’ obvious. Earlier this week, I was forced to sit through four sets of Grigor Dimitrov vs Nick Kyrgios in the Australian Open, with Caroline panting beside me. To make things worse, my ten-year-old son Freddie was watching too, and he kept looking over at me and saying: ‘You know why Mum is enjoying this match so much, don’t you?’ His eyes were shining with mischievous glee, as if he had discovered a marvellously embarrassing secret. I tried to deflect it by pointing out that Kyrgios appeared to be wearing a bright pink babygro — which made for an odd contrast with his turkey-cocking masculinity — but to no avail. At one point Caroline said: ‘You can almost smell the testosterone, can’t you?’
I have struggled to develop an interest in these matches, but watching two men whacking the ball at each other as hard as they can for hours on end just isn’t very entertaining. As a teenager, I was gripped by the epic serve-and-volley battles between Borg and McEnroe. It was thrilling watching them leap into the air like salmon, twisting their bodies into absurd shapes to make some impossible shot. It was as if one was witnessing athletes perform at the outer limits of what is humanly possible.
These days, by contrast, it’s just one baseline rally after another. It seems more like a test of brute strength than skill, a kind of heavyweight boxing contest fought with rackets rather than gloves. Except the Mike Tysons and George Foremans of the ATP tour are dressed in pink onesies. Virtually the only excitement is when one of the testosterone factories challenges a line call and you have to wait for Hawkeye to deliver its verdict.
OK, I admit, sometimes it’s impossible not to get swept up in the drama. I watched Kyle Edmund beat Andreas Seppi last Sunday, and when he topped that performance to beat Dimitrov a couple of days later I found myself whooping with joy. That was partly because only five other British players have reached Grand Slam semi-finals since 1968, but mainly because Caroline doesn’t fancy Edmund (doesn’t like his hair, apparently). Watching him crush her beloved Bulgarian, and hearing her cries of ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ each time the scrappy Yorkshireman played an outright winner, was deeply satisfying.
I have started playing with Caroline and our two youngest boys on Sunday mornings and, needless to say, that has not done much for my self-esteem. She is a model of restraint and encouragement when playing the ball to nine-year-old Charlie, tapping it gently so it lands just in front of him, but cannot suppress her natural competitiveness when her hapless husband is in her sights. I flail around, chopping at the air as the ball goes whistling past and then look up to see my two sons collapsing with laughter. The only thing I can do with any sort of competence is serve, but every time I ace one of the boys — ‘Who’s laughing now, sonny?’ — Caroline shakes her head with disapproval. ‘The idea is to help them, not humiliate them,’ she says.
If only she applied the same principle to me.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.